Last month, the Lebanese embassy in Paris invited Lebanese Jews for a ‘family reunion’. Was this a ‘welcome home ‘ or a transactional event, a cynical, fundraising advertisement for the fantasy of a pluralistic Lebanon? David Daoud does not mince his words in Haaretz (with thanks: Lily, Tom):
Identity is complicated.
The incongruity of my fluent Lebanese Arabic and the Star of David always hanging around my neck usually prompts curious inquiries into my origins – those origins. I prefer to cut those questions short, invariably responding, “I’m from Connecticut.”
Particularly with Lebanese interlocutors. I know they’ve probably heard of Lebanese Jews. Maybe from their parents, or they’ve seen Beirut’s Maghen Abraham synagogue, or watched a documentary about the community. Rarely have they met one, but seldom is their curiosity about my origins meant to initiate a genuine inquiry into Lebanese Jewry – our identity, customs, sentiments, or beliefs. Rarely, it seems, are Lebanese interested in us as real people rather than props. These interactions often carry an implicit invitation to claim my presumed “Lebanese patrimony,” tied to my parents who left in 1989, thus stamping my hechsher on an imagined pluralistic Lebanon, a country which rejects my Jewish identity. But I unfailingly refuse these invitations.
I’m simply not Lebanese. I don’t, and don’t want to, fit into their “Lebanese” box, a token, yet another “Arab Jew” – that irksome term seemingly designed to erase our ethnic identity – playing a role created by someone else.
That’s why, when I saw that the Lebanese government had taken the unusual step of inviting Jews who’d left Lebanon to a “family reunion” in its Paris embassy, where the Lebanese ambassador told them the Lebanese state was in danger and “all sects” needed to come to its aid, calling on them to come “home,” I didn’t feel the delight of a long-delayed recognition of kinship. Quite the opposite.
I grew up thoroughly American in Connecticut, where I formed my most meaningful early memories and childhood connections. Without the memories (or sufficient substitutes) which anchor the older generation’s nostalgic, albeit complicated, longing for a “lost homeland,” I failed to develop any feelings for Lebanon. What little childhood exposure I had to Lebanon came from my mother – the language, music, or occasional dish – but it failed to resonate. I knew of Khalil Gebran, of Fairouz, Sabah, and Wadih al-Safi, and kibbeh nayyeh. But my father preferred Frank Sinatra, the Foundations, and Bob Dylan, among others; these were the soundtrack of my childhood, before I even formed my own musical tastes. And I thought kibbeh nayyeh was gross. I still think it’s gross.
My mother’s stories about Lebanon seemed like fables, their characters and settings lacking counterparts in my childhood surroundings. And her Arabic lessons only distanced me from Lebanon. I chafed against learning a language incomprehensible to my American friends, and which, at the time, served only to expose me to the region’s widespread antisemitic and anti-American sentiments. America was my only country, and Israel was my ancestral homeland – two nations that gave my people dignity, whose sights and smells I’d experienced firsthand, and which embodied identities I lived daily, not an intangible one left behind by my parents in a distant land where Jews were second-class citizens.
When I first visited Lebanon as an adult, my sentiments and identity had been fully formed. The experience reinforced my emotional detachment, the sense that I couldn’t belong without abandoning the meaningful parts of my identity. I still remember fretting over whether to pack my tallit and tefillin and my relief as I passed through Beirut airport’s security without them being discovered. Perhaps I was being paranoid, but why would I even want to belong to a country where I’d ever have to feel that way, where I felt the need to hide my identity?
I also found myself unable to relate to the Lebanese – their culture, history, aspirations, triumphs, travails, and prejudices were simply not my own. I spoke their language and could understand them on an intellectual level. But I would never innately relate to the world through a “Lebanese lens.”
Not to mention the casual antisemitism, and the characteristic smugness with which Lebanese would pontificate – inaccurately – on Jews and Judaism. It wasn’t everyone, but there was enough of it to be off-putting. The Shiite woman and her daughter who recounted their fear of being poisoned by Moroccan Jewish hoteliers in France; the self-assured Sunni doctor who lectured me on how the “pornography” of the Song of Songs accounted for Jewish women’s “loose morals”; the Christian woman who surprisingly borrowed a Qur’anic term – al-maghdoub alayhum, those who anger God – to describe Jews.
I also recall my inability to respond. It is with that mindset of indifference and wariness that I initially reacted to the Lebanese Embassy in France’s invitation to local Lebanese Jews to a meet-up in Paris, an invitation that several dozen Jews answered by attending, joined by France’s Chief Rabbi, Haim Korsia. “Are these your cousins?” a friend of mine jokingly texted. “God, I hope not,” I dismissively responded. To another friend, I responded “Mixed feelings, tbh.”
I’d felt those same mixed-to-negative feelings about Maghen Abraham’s restoration a decade prior – “That’s nice, but so what? Actually, maybe it’s a bad idea for Jews to visibly congregate in a country dominated by Hezbollah…”
But then I read the fine print, and indignation replaced indifference. A 70- year-old Jewish woman who had left Lebanon three decades ago asked Ambassador Rami Adwan “Why now?” He responded that Lebanon was “currently in danger, and all of its citizens, of all sects, must help save it.”
This wasn’t a welcome home party. Per An-Nahar, “this meeting dealt with the Jews as…as one of the capabilities [qudra min qudurat] of the Lebanese diaspora communities which, as a result, have the abilities to help Lebanon emerge from its downfall.” This was a transactional event, a fundraising advertisement for the fantasy of a pluralistic Lebanon, with some Jews thrown in for good measure. Lebanon was cynically manipulating these guests – their nostalgia, memories, and longing for their birth country – to use them as an untapped resource, no different from the offshore hydro-carbon deposits it is disputing with Israel.