Saturday, July 19, 2014

Jews of Lebanon

Nadene Goldfoot                                                                  

Lebanon had become a state and had a President since 1926. Today it is a small state of 4,196,453 population which is 60% Sunni and Shi'a Muslim population but also is a state consisting of Muslims, Christians and Jews living together.  It's been referred to as the Paris of the Middle East.

 In 1948 when Israel was created, the Jewish population in Lebanon was 20,000.    At this time, 5 minutes after Israel was announced as a state, Lebanon forces invaded Israel  along with other Arab nations.  By 1944 there were only 6,261 Jews remaining in Lebanon but after 1948, Jews had entered Lebanon from Syria  which upped their numbers so that by 1964 there was an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 Jews living there.  After 1967 the numbers shrunk.  In 1975 there were about 1,000 Jews who remained but left during the Civil War and by 1991 there were less than 100 Jews that had remained.  From the time of the war the government had placed some discriminatory regulations on the Jews, seemingly punishment for the creation of Israel.  After the fighting stopped the regulations were ended.

Maronite Christian Arabs, the minority, had ruled Lebanon. since 1943.  Bachir Gemayel was elected President but was assassinated quickly.  Amine Gemayel was then president from 1982 to 1988.    During that era, Jews enjoyed relative toleration considering they were Dhimmis or 2nd class citizens in all the Arab countries.  Their position was never secure because it depended on the mood of the Arab Muslims.  The majority of Jews finally left in 1967 when Israel won the Six Day War that was when all the Arab nations attacked Israel but had lost.

The Jewish Quarter in Beirut was the scene of much fighting in the 1976-76 Muslim-Christian civil war.  It damaged many Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues.  Most of the remaining 1,800 Lebanese Jews emigrated in 1976.  They were afraid of the growing Syrian presence in Lebanon that would stop their freedom of emigration.

In the mid-1980's, Hezbollah kidnapped 9 Jews from Beirut who had been leaders of what remained of their small Jewish community.  Four of the Jews were later found murdered.  In 1991 there were reports that a few of the Lebanese Jewish hostages were brought to Syria and remained in the Damascus central prison.

"Nearly all of the remaining Jews are in Beirut, where there is a committee that represents the community. Because of the current political situation, Jews are unable to openly practice Judaism. In 2004, only 1 out of 5,000 Lebanese Jewish citizens registered to vote participated in the municipal elections. 

Virtually all of those registered have died or fled the country. The lone Jewish voter said that most of the community consists of old women

Today I heard from a Turkish source that he had met a handful of Jews in Lebanon who were proud to have been from there and had remained.  Not knowing anymore facts, I surmise they might be quite elderly by today and had remained to take care of elderly family members or business and today might be caring for the cemetery and synagogue grounds. However, "The Jewish cemetery in Beirut is decrepit and cared for by an elderly Shiite woman. The gravestones, written in Hebrew and French, are a testament to the Lebanese Jewish community that is now only a shadow of its former self

In September 2008, Isaac Arazi, the leader of Lebanon’s Jewish Community Council announced that he planned to rebuild the Maghen Abraham synagogue in Beirut and that additional plans were underway to restore Beirut’s Jewish cemetery, which is home to some 4,500 graves.  Originally built in 1926, the synagogue was seriously damaged during the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war when looters stole its Torah ark and prayer benches and gutted its electrical system. Renovation work began in August 2009, with approval from the Lebanese government, planning authorities, and Hizballah. Reconstruction was funded by donations from private donors and a donation from Solidere, a construction company privately owned by the family of assassinated prime minister Rafik Hariri."  

If there are 5 or less Jews remaining, they may recall that Jews living in Lebanon goes back to very ancient times.  A long time ago there were Jewish communities in and around Tripoli, Tyre and Sidon.  They were traders working in commerce activities.  Phoenicians were the ancient people of Syria and lived along the Syrian-Israel coast.  Their main towns were Arvad, Beirut, Sidon, Tyre, Gebal (Byblos), Simirro and Sin.  There were times when they were expanding and moving north toward the later Antioch and south to the Carmel and even to Jaffa.  Their language similar to Hebrew.  The alphabet used by them was also used by the ancient Hebrew and was then used by the Greeks and that way to other European peoples.  Their ruler, Hiram of Tyre was closely allied with King Solomon (961-920 BCE) of Israel and supplied Solomon with the cedars from Lebanon for building the Temple.

 Much later, Phoenicia was taken as part of the Persian Empire.  The Phoenician religion was the Canaanite faith described in the Bible and in Ugaritic poetry.  They had many gods, the main one being Baal who was the lord of fertility and the rains.  Astarte was the goddess of fertility.  Anat was the goddess of war and Melkarth was the patron god of Tyre.  They worshipped under trees and on hills, but they did have temples with images in them.  Their religious practices included sacrificing children to Moloch and the dedication of religious prostitutes.   "Northern Canaanites are commonly thought to develop into Phoenicians by the 8th century BCE - a claim which has recently been verified by genetic comparison analysis of ancient Canaanite and Phoenician burial sites in modern Lebanon.." 

Jews would have been happier under these condition living in their own enclave which is what happened.  to live among people who sacrificed their own children makes me shudder, but then we do have the story of Isaac being Abraham's young son who was to be sacrificed by Abraham (2nd millennium BCE) at G-d's order but was stopped before it was too late.  According to our story, Abraham was being tested as to his faith in G-d by being asked to do this dastardly deed.  In the end, he sacrificed a lamb instead, which today is really too much for us since we don't do such things.  Then, evidently it was a step up from using children with part of the Middle East.  2,600 years later, Islam, the newest religion related by Muhammad (570-632 CE) tells this same story of sacrifice but substitutes Ishmael, Abraham's first son by Hagar, hand maiden of his wife, Sarah, and ancestor of the Arab people,  for the child that was to be sacrificed.  We know it wasn't long ago when people like the Aztecs in Mexico did such things as sacrifice people.

"Lebanese Jews continue to keep a low profile - and the construction site in Beirut is heavily guarded."  Today, the Jewish community is estimated to number about 200. In his office in Downtown Beirut, Nabil de Freige recalls how he went on a quest to find the remaining Jews in Lebanon, after he was elected to Parliament in 2000. "I tried to find a Jewish representative," the MP representing the seven minority groups out of Lebanon’s 18 recognized religious sects explains. "But we couldn't find anyone willing to come forward," he says. He believes Jews may be afraid to identify as Jews and pretend to be Christians."  "Lebanese authorities have arrested scores of Lebanese charged with spying for Israel in recent months."  My thoughts are that if IS is successful and takes over Lebanon in his zeal for his own caliphate, these Jews are not going to be protected.  They stand a better chance by living in Israel.  

This is an old story to the Jewish world.  In 1492, the Spanish Inquisition took place, forcing Jews to either convert to Catholicism or leave the country.  People with much to lose by leaving decided to pretend to convert but kept up their faith of Judaism and were later called Marranos.  Today they are referred to as Anusim, who are now returning to Judaism fully.

Resource:  Myths and Facts: a concise record of the Arab-Israeli conflict by Mitchell G. Bard, Joel Himelfarb
Turkish Facebook friend
The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia ......Lebanese Jews


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  2. Thank you Boris! I appreciate hearing from you. Good luck with your work. I have a friend who is an engineer from Syria who was educated in Lebanon and loves it. We have a restaurant here owned by a Lebanese couple who has marvelous food. If you get a chance, I wrote a book about this engineer who worked or a construction company in Damascus and it's called "Messages from a Syrian Jew Trapped in Egypt. " It's all true as he told me his life story. If's found on under my name. I don't think any construction is going on at all in Syria.