Uncovering Lebanon’s Jewish past

Amid controversy, efforts are under way to restore what few traces remain of Lebanon’s once-vibrant Jewish community.

Saida, Lebanon – “The Jewish church? It’s right down that way,” the young man says with a smile and an enthusiastic nod towards a small alleyway in Saida’s Old City.

A young girl leads the way, sprinting around a corner, across a courtyard and down some stairs into half-darkness, finally stopping outside an old wooden door. She knocks enthusiastically, waiting for permission to enter.

Behind the door is one of Lebanon’s few remaining synagogues, the last architectural vestiges of an ancient religious community that has all but disappeared from the country following decades of war and emigration. It is also the only synagogue in Lebanon that remains open to the general public, although today, Saida’s Ohel Yacob (Tent of Jacob), believed to date back to 1850, has been turned into a home.

“I know it’s a synagogue,” says an 18-year-old Syrian woman, standing by the door. “I’ve lived here all my life. I was born here.”

Inside, sofas are arranged around a television set, and pictures of a popular local politician and the Lebanese flag decorate the walls. The only signs that this was ever anything but a humble dwelling are the unusual blue-tinged walls and a metal grating, featuring Stars of David, at the top of a central room. 

For the building’s current inhabitants, the window grate is nothing more than a curiosity that attracts a steady dribble of foreigners. “Tourists always come to see this place,” her roommate, a woman from Egypt, adds with a shrug. Asked whether it bothers her that she lives in a synagogue, the Syrian woman replies: “No, not at all. It’s normal.”

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Although the presence of Jews in modern-day Lebanon is believed to date back millennia, it was not until the first half of the 20th century that the small – the 1932 national census put the country’s Jewish population at around 3,500 – but active community began to thrive, with various educational and religious institutions built to cater to its needs.

Although some decided to move to Israel when it was created in 1948, a wave of immigration from Syria meant that Lebanon became the only country in the region whose Jewish population increased in the 1950s. “It peaked to about 10,000,” said Tomer Levi, author of the book, The Jews of Beirut.

But after the 1967 Israeli-Arab war and the ensuing Palestinian exodus, the population began to dwindle, and according to a 1995 article by Lebanese daily An-Nahar, by 1971, there were at most 4,000 Jews left in Lebanon. With the advent of Lebanon’s civil war in 1975, Lebanese from all religious groups fled the country in droves, and by 1982 – the year Israel invaded the country – “a few hundred Jews remained in Beirut”, Levi said.

According to members of the community still here today, however, life for Lebanon’s Jews during those decades was largely peaceful, with Judaism among the 18 sects that were explicitly recognised and protected by the post-independence revised constitution.

It is not taboo to be Jewish here. It is difficult, and that's largely because of the the political climate in the region, especially the current policies of the Israeli state, such as the war in Gaza and settlements in the West Bank.

by - Paul Taber, sociology professor at Lebanese American University

S, a Jewish-Lebanese man who asked not to be identified by his full name, grew up in Lebanon and is a part-time custodian of the country’s Jewish heritage sites. Both of his parents are Jewish, and he said that from their stories, “life before the [civil] war was good”. He described the pre-war Jewish community as “well-integrated and respected”.

These days, however, the community has a much more precarious position within society. “It is not taboo to be Jewish here,” explained Paul Taber, an associate professor of sociology at the Lebanese American University. “But it is difficult, and that’s largely because of the the political climate in the region, especially the current policies of the Israeli state, such as the war in Gaza and settlements in the West Bank.”

The problem, Taber said, is that Jews and Israelis have become confused. “Israel does not make it easy by calling itself the Jewish state,” he said. “But the failure of our society to build a state for everyone is also partly responsible.”

As a result, what little of the Jewish community remains in Lebanon lives quietly, under the radar. The exact number of those left is subject to controversy and impossible to verify due to the sensitivity of the issue, but the acknowledged estimate is around 200 people.

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What can be definitively counted, however, are architectural traces the community left behind. Beirut synagogue, Magen Abraham, has achieved relative fame over the past few years amid recurring stories of its renovation. But while Magen Abraham even has its own Facebook page, Lebanon’s other remaining synagogues, most of which are much older, have fallen into obscurity.

Magen Abraham, Beirut’s oldest synagogue, underwent renovations in the last few years [Reuters]

Up in the cool mountains of Aley, a longtime retreat for Lebanese of all religions during the hotter months, a municipal firefighter happily pulls back a tattered curtain to reveal the hidden entrance to a roofless shell of a building.

Built around 1885 for the summering Jewish community, the synagogue was still in use right up until the civil war began and people of all faiths began to flee the country, according to Nagi Zeidan, a Lebanese historian who is writing a book about the country’s Jews. Like millions of buildings, it was looted and suffered heavy damage during the fighting that ensued. Abandoned, the floor is littered with broken glass, old boots, and animal cages. The distinctive arched windows are almost all that’s left to mark what the crumbling structure once was.

Architecturally, the same could be said for Deir al-Qamar’s centuries-old synagogue. Perched above a khan (old-fashioned traveller’s inn) in the centre of town, it is now a well-restored stone building with a vaunted ceiling and wooden doors. There is no sign it was ever a place of worship.

“It was built in the early 17th century by Emir Fakhreddine II as part of his palace,” explained local historian and archaeologist Haruth Boustany. “It was to serve the wealthy Jews he met while he was in Italy.”

According to Boustany, most Jews left the Chouf village for better opportunities in Beirut during the 1840s, selling their properties before they moved. Even more left during the Druze-Maronite hostilities a few decades later. With no congregation to use the synagogue, Boustany’s great-grandfather bought it and used it as a merchandise depot until his death, after which it fell into disrepair, he said.

After the war, the property was transferred to the Lebanese government, which restored it along with the rest of Deir al-Qamar’s historic quarter. It is now used for the occasional exhibition by the neighbouring French Institute cultural centre.

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It is only in Bhamdoun, another former summer mountain resort of choice for the Jewish community, where the local synagogue is still intact enough to give a sense of what once was. Outside, grand steps leading up to the building’s patio are overlooked by two large tablets bearing the 10 commandments in Hebrew.

The Palestinian and Druze forces protected it during the war. In the end, the synagogue was the only religious place to survive; everything else was flattened.

by - Resident of Bhamdoun

Inside, a chipped, raised stone slab indicates the former presence of a bima, the equivalent of a mosque minbar or church pulpit, where sermons, speeches and the Torah would likely have been read. A few metres away, in the middle of the main wall, is a fireplace-like recess flanked by columns that was likely the “holy Ark”, where the Torah scrolls would have been kept. The deep royal blue paint marking out this sacred area is peeling.

A gallery on the second floor, covered in rubbish from various vagrant inhabitants, marks out where the women would once have sat. Known as the New Temple because it was one of the last synagogues to be built in Lebanon, Zeidan dated the Bhamdoun synagogue – once the largest in Lebanon – back to 1922.

“The Palestinian and Druze forces protected it during the war,” said a local resident, who did not give Al Jazeera his name. “In the end, the synagogue was the only religious place to survive; everything else was flattened.”

The municipality cleaned it up, the resident said, and then in 2000, appealed to its Beirut-based owners to do something with it. He said he did not know what is happening with the building now, only that it continues to be a secret point of pilgrimage for Lebanese Jews from the diaspora. “They come from across the world – Mexico, Brazil, you name it – to visit the synagogue,” he said.

According to S, who was heavily involved in the restoration of Beirut’s Magen Abraham, the Bhamdoun and Aley synagogues are next to be renovated. But unlike their current project, which was partly funded by private real-estate company Solidere, financial assistance will have to be sought elsewhere, which due to the sensitivity of the subject may be trickier.

For the Bhamdoun resident, however, repairing the building was more important than letting it rot away, regardless of its former use. “Anyone who wants to fix anything broken during the war is welcome here.”

Follow Venetia Rainey on Twitter: @venetiarainey

Source: Al Jazeera