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The Jews of Beirut From the Viewpoint of an Israeli Historian

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Sunday 25 June 201705:15 pm

From time to time, interest around the Jews of Lebanon is sparked and they are summoned to memory again. The Jewish community, or the “Israeli community,” as they are referred to in local law as well as in old identification cards and on ban lists, is indeed recognized as one of the religious groups of Lebanon. So how is it that the 1943 National Pact was drafted without including one of the country’s main groups?

Today, the community has no place in the existent Muslim-Christian national binary that presumes no need for a third group; whether of other religions or non-believers.

Every season, we get that article in one of Beirut’s newspapers, speaking about an era when Jews were part of a Lebanese diversity. Such article would typically carry the same disclaimer that Judaism is something and zionism is another. Abruptly, the story of the departed Jews is reduced and recycled. Haim Cohen tells us that Lebanon is the only Arab country where Jews were growing in numbers even 10 years after the establishment of Israel.

It is not a feasible task to try and estimate the number of Jews in Lebanon today- some say there are 200 of them. It is believed that they are secretive about their identity, and instead present themselves as Christians.

Meanwhile, renovations of the Maghen Abraham Synagogue in Wadi Abu Jamil were completed as part of the Solidire project to rebuild Downtown Beirut. The renovations were funded and pushed by Lebanese Jews, at home or abroad, and with the approval of all political blocs, most specifically Hezboallah.

Nevertheless, the building is kept under high security watch, keeping passersby at distance. In 2009, a molotov was thrown at the building to protest its renovation. The building was considered to be the most beautiful synagogue in the Middle East when it was built in the late 1920’s.

The Internet and the renovations of the Wadi Abu Jamil synagogue have allowed Lebanese Jews to reconnect across the world.


[caption id="attachment_70334" align="alignnone" width="1024"]The Maghen Abraham Synagogue in Wadi Abu Jamil in Beirut The Maghen Abraham Synagogue in Wadi Abu Jamil in Beirut[/caption]

Searching for a History

Despite the interest around Lebanese Jews in media, literature, and cinema, there is not much scholarship on the history of this community. Tomer Levi, a young Israeli scholar, took on the task of writing a book, which he entitled The Jews of Beirut: The Rise of a Levantine Community, 1860s-1930s, published in 2012. The book hasn’t yet made its way to the Lebanese circle, not even with a review or a translated excerpt. The book does not only address the history of the community, but also the rise of Beirut during the late Ottoman era.

t2ddLevi writes in his introduction that he was motivated to do this research when his mother showed him the Lebanese Identification card of his grandmother. Edmond Safra, the Lebanese-Brazilian Jewish businessman, funded Levi’s research through the International Sephardic Education Foundation. Safra is the son of Yaacoub Safra, the first man in their family of bankers, who had arrived in Beirut from Aleppo right after World War I.

The waves of migration tell us much about the dilemma of Beirut’s Jews- the community came to be formed “out of nowhere” in modern times- an accumulation of different migrations across the Ottoman empire between late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

Levi finds this history to be a “unique Middle Eastern experience of Jewish presence,” that came about during the rise and expansion of Beirut as a port city at the time.

From 100 Jews in 1800 to 3500 in 1920. Steamboats had brought life to trading in the Eastern Mediterranean region, at the expense of freight transport. The Suez Canal was opened in 1869, bringing more trading into the region. Port cities prospered, becoming architectural landscapes where freight transport and sea trading come apart and connect.

A community of immigrants

At the same time that more Jews were arriving in Palestine, there were more Jews coming to Beirut, even in a faster pace. However, unlike those coming from Russia and East Europe, Beirut’s Jews had mostly originated from Syria, starting from Mount Lebanon.

Following the events of 1860 between the Maronites and Druz, the Jews of Deir alQamar decided to head to Beirut and Saida as they too were harmed. When business was booming and modern education was introduced, the Jews of Aleppo and Damascus decided to resettle in Beirut. Some came from Tripoli where a Jewish presence was growing, or from Safita and Hisn al-Akrad, as well as those moving from Baghdad, Astana, Thessaloniki, and Izmir.

This is where the majority of Sephardic groups came from (or to be accurate, Mizrahis), yet there were also Ashkenazi Jews escaping the Russian Empire to Beirut. Some of these Lebanese Ashkenazis originally moved from the settlements in Palestine, for financial and educational reasons. At the time, the Syrian Evangelical College, today known as the American University of Beirut, was established.

Levi distinguishes between two types of Jewish presence in the Middle East: the type from Izmir and Thessaloniki, mostly émigrés from Andalusia who settled in the region in the seventeenth century, but haven't grown in the twentieth century. The other type would be the Jews of Alexandria and Beirut.

The Jews of Izmir and Thessaloniki came in the time of Ottoman expansion when Jews were escaping Andalusia. While the story of Jews in Alexandria and Beirut is more connected to the fall of the Ottoman empire and the rise of European colonialism.

Levi differentiates Beirut from other East Mediterranean countries in two points: it did not see an influx of European émigrés the way Alexandria or Izmir had, and the fact that it had a slower growth rate, demographically and economically. Yet, Beirut is the only port city to have prospered after the fall of the Ottoman empire and the formation of nation-states- becoming the capital city, unlike Thessaloniki or Alexandria.

Evolution of Social Formation

This “Eastern Mediterranean” and Levantine identity of Beirut and its Jews is a common factor between all port cities in the region. The term “Levantine” or “Eastern Mediterranean” were being used in the late times of the Ottoman empire to refer to Greek, Armenian, Italian, and Jewish businessmen.

Yet, the cosmopolitan nature of Beirut remains limited if compared to Alexandria or Izmir where many Greeks and Italians settled. Moreover, Beirut remained connected to its countryside, starting from “Ras Beirut”, all the way to Mount Lebanon where many Christians from Beirut moved to. Meaning, the European modern influence had less impact on the Jews of Beirut than it had on their counterparts in Thessaloniki or Alexandria.

In a report sent by the International Zionist organization after the great war, it appears that the social formation of Beirut’s Jews mostly consists of a few wealthy families and a big middle class, with many in need of help, especially following World War I, with Jews escaping Damascus.

However, the social fabric started to change during the French Mandate in mid nineteenth century when a group of vagabonds and small businessmen and laborers came about. And with the migrations from Aleppo, there were more rich families seeking the protection of the British consulate.

Most of this bourgeois class prospered by working in gold trade, currency change, sea trading, brokering, as well as banking. In early twentieth century, Jews were running 25% of the Egyptian banking industry. There were also those less wealthy selling fabrics, leather, and junk. Until the 1930’s, most furniture-makers (upholstery manufacturers) were Jews, and more Jewish tailors were noticed.

Conservatives, Francophones, and Zionists

It wasn’t until the 1908 coup of the Young Turks that the Jews of Beirut started to organize a community, copying interior rules off their counterparts in Alexandria, who had formed a council of their own 50 years earlier. The council was led by Beirut’s most active and central Jewish figures, mostly bankers and businessmen, who tried to control the orientation of their community.

This happened at the same time when a conflict over education was taking place. In late nineteenth century, Rabbis were worried about the increasing number of Jews enrolling in Evangelical missionary schools, especially the Scottish one that was built near the Jewish neighborhood of Wadi Abu Jamil.

The Old Talmudic School was nolonger attracting ambitious families who want a modern education in hope for a better social status, while the Alliance Israelite School, run from Paris, had real difficulty with Lebanese Jews. It took decades before some of the families decided to enroll their children in the school.

The "Alliance Israelite School” was a francophone establishment par excellence, as it challenged conservatives and zionists equally. It was more successful among Algerian Jews at the time, as it aimed to assimilate them with colonial settlers as well as with the Jews of France. The school, however, did not operate under the same policy in Lebanon. There was also the “National Israelite School” established by Rabbi Zaki Cohen who put more emphasis on Arabic and Ottoman language education.

c5114a439fa1be1d2680f3cc9e463bd5Although Beirut was the capital under the French mandate in 1920, Levi notes that the Jews of Lebanon were more influential with the American (B’nai Brith) Organization, rather than with the French Alliance School. Alliance was aiming for a Francophone Jewish elite in Beirut, while B’nai Brith focused on community organizing, which explains why most members of the Jewish council at the time were members of B’nai Brith.

B’nai Brith was also supportive of the Zionist movement, unlike the Alliance which opposed Zionists. Although community leaders quickly realized the cost of their Zionist orientation after the 1929 battles in Palestine, they still displayed Zionist sentiments, as per the records of the King-Crane commission. They were sending money to the Jewish National Fund and other Zionist organizations even in the years of 1925-27 when they were in need of funds to build the Wadi Abu Jamil Synagogue and the Talmudic School next to it.

At first, this Zionist orientation was common among Ashkenazis who formed the first Lebanese Zionist group in the early twentieth century, promoting Hebrew learning and sending money to support settlements in Palestine.

Even after the establishment of Israel and Lebanon's role in the 1948 war, a chapter of the (Maccabi Hatzair) organization continued to formally operate in Lebanon.

No Parliamentary Representation

Although the Jewish community quickly worked to avoid triggering Arab Nationalists after 1948, it still kept an interest in nationalist Zionism, unlike what some romanticized narratives like to claim.

The Jewish Agency, however, thought it was more important to coordinate with the Maronites, unless they needed fund-drives or wanted to organize events around Jewish nationalism.

The French Mandate did not care for the Jewish community in Beirut, besides recognizing it as one of Beirut’s sixteen religious groups. Community leaders were included in drafting the Lebanese constitution, before being denied parliamentary representation.

At the time, Jews made the biggest minority in the capital. They first thought that the “minorities seat” in the parliament would belong to them, yet it was assigned to the Evangelical Ayoub Thabit. The Evangelicals were 20 times less in numbers than the Jews, as indicated by Jewish leaders who contested the French decision back in 1927. The community did not understand how their counterparts in other Arab countries were able to partake in parliaments and ministries while they were being excluded in Lebanon.

This was before discriminatory remarks started to target the Jewish community inside the Lebanese parliament in the early 1950’s, demanding their termination from police and army forces. Nevertheless, the community continued to grow in numbers, even 10 years after the establishment of Israel. It was not until the 1960’s that many Jews decided to leave Lebanon, when a battle broke out in their neighborhood, initiating a long-lasting Civil War between Muslims and Christians.

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