By Shadi Bassil
Beirut, Bhamdoun, Aley, Deir el-Qamar, Sidon and Tripoli, in addition to other Lebanese cities and towns, have been home to Jewish houses of worship throughout history. These synagogues were allocated to the Jewish community, a community that has contributed significantly to the Land of the Cedars, even though it is the smallest religious sect compared to the 18 other officially recognized religious sects in Lebanon. Since no official census has taken place in Lebanon since the early 1930s, it is feasible to assume that the Jewish community in Lebanon numbered at about 20,000 in its prime, up until 1967.
Today, very few Lebanese Jews wish to profess their own existence in their country. One example of that is testimony from a Lebanese Jewish pharmacy owner, in an interview given under the condition of anonymity, where he lamented the potential loss of business he might suffer if his customers knew they had been dealing with a Jew. Accordingly, because they are so shrouded in mystery, it has proven very difficult to speculate on the true number of Lebanese Jews. There may be as many as 2,000 or as few as 200 left.
The presence of Jews in Lebanon dates back to biblical times, when some Jewish communities settled in areas around Tripoli, a city in Northern Lebanon, and Sidon, a city in Southern Lebanon.
Kirsten Schulze, an assistant professor at the London School of Economics, has always been interested in Arab-Jewish communities, and in particular, Levantine-Jewish communities. In her article, “The Jews in Lebanon: History, Identity, Memory,” published in a 2002 issue of Chronos Magazine, she says that the largest mass immigration of European Jews into Lebanon occurred in 1710, when Sephardic Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition took refuge in Mount Chouf, which they left in part in 1860, following clashes between the Christians and the Druze.
In 1848, some Jewish families came to Mount Chouf seeking sanctuary from growing anti-Semitic violence in Damascus. During this period, the Lebanese-Jewish community settled in Sidon, Hasbaya, and Beirut. Also, Jews immigrated to Beirut from different parts of the world, where the city’s Jewish quarter was home to Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews, Arabic and Berber speaking Jews from Morocco, and French-speaking Ashkenazi Jews.
Their presence ultimately proved to be pivotal to the economic growth of Lebanon’s most important city. Beirut’s Jewish quarter, Wadi Abu Jamil, became the center of Jewish worship in the city when the Magen Abraham Synagogue was constructed. Even after the neighborhood was deserted at the start of the civil war, it remained known as the Valley of the Jews.
Currently, Wadi Abu Jamil has virtually become Beirut’s safest neighborhood because of its proximity to the Grand Serail, the seat of Lebanon’s Prime Minister, in addition to the offices of several Lebanese politicians.
It is specifically from there, in Wadi Abu Jamil, that the Jewish community is attempting to rebuild itself, and rise from the ashes in a neighborhood that was reduced to rubble during Lebanon’s destructive war. This attempt was put under the spotlight when finally, after a lot of political back and forth, the decision was made to renovate the synagogue.
The main issue was obtaining guarantees from Hezbollah, Lebanon’s most dominant political party and paramilitary organization, for the safety of the workers involved in renovating the structure and the community members it was going to serve. Hezbollah subsequently came out with a statement welcoming the idea behind the project, and declaring that it had no problem with Lebanese Jews as long as they rejected political Zionism and denounced Israel.
Despite those guarantees, Jewish workers refused to enter the premises without wearing face masks, owing to their fear of public reprisals. After everything lined up politically, the project received a green light and some funding was obtained from Solidere, a private contractor very close to the Lebanese government, while the rest of the funds came from donations collected by the Lebanese Jewish Community Council and its president Isaac Arazi.
The renovation was mostly completed around 2010, but the synagogue remains empty. It is very difficult to gain entry onto grounds on the account of tight security. To date, no services have been held there since the project was completed, and the community it was intended to serve is still more or less in hiding.
Nevertheless, the renovation holds more symbolic value than it does practical, because it establishes some sort of the recognition coveted for generations by a community that felt abandoned and unwanted. In a place as volatile as Lebanon, no one knows what the future holds for Lebanon’s remaining Jews, but tiny specs of hope such as this one are a welcome change.