History of the Jews in Lebanon
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The history of the Jews in Lebanon deals with the presence of Jews in Lebanon, which stretches back to Biblical times. Following large-scale emigration following the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, and much more importantly the Lebanese Civil War, the vast majority of Lebanese Jews now live in Western countries. Many live in Israel, and there are still a thousand or so living in Lebanon. As the latest census in Lebanon was conducted in 1932, there are virtually no statistics available. The discrepancy between the number of registered Lebanese Jews and number often cited by locals and the Lebanese Jewish Community Council might be caused by the Lebanese registration policy relative to religion: a newborn's religion is that of his father, and this also applies to Jewish nationals despite Jewish customs.
Jews in Lebanon today
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The Lebanese Jews are traditionally a Sephardi (particularly Mizrahi) community living mostly in and around Beirut but also in Sidon and Baalbek. Less than 100 Jews live in Lebanon today Emigration was not great even after Lebanon's civil war in 1975, as Lebanese Jews were tightly integrated into society and felt no need to abandon their homeland. But emigration began to increase after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when Jews began to fear "perpetual instability" in their country. Israel's 1982 invasion and its subsequent occupation of parts of Lebanon, and Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war severely exacerbated emigration. In Beirut, the Jewish quarter of Wadi Abu Jamil suffered devastation as it was situated along the dividing line between the warring Christian and Muslim districts.
Almost all of the Jewish community emigrated to Israel or to countries with already well established Lebanese or Lebanese Jewish diaspora, such as France, Switzerland, United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Australia and Central and Eastern Europe (particularly Russia and Bulgaria). Paris, New York, and Geneva, Switzerland are cities where many in the Jewish Lebanese Diaspora have settled.
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In pre-Biblical times, the region between Gaza and Anatolia (essentially modern day Lebanon, Israel, Palestinian Territories, Jordan and Syria) was a single cultural unit. Despite the lack of any central political authority, the region shared a common language family (Northwest Semitic languages, including Phoenician, Ancient Hebrew and Aramaic), religion and way of life. This included some of the world's first permanent settlements arranged around early agricultural communities and independent city states, many of which maintained a wide network of trade relations throughout the Mediterranean and beyond.
By the time of the Israelite Kingdoms, Lebanon and Israel (including present-day Jordan) could be recognized as distinct entities, although they remained close allies, experiencing the same fates with changing regional developments. During this period, parts of modern Lebanon were under the control of Jerusalem, and Jews lived as far north as Baal-Hermon on the slopes of Mount Hermon (sometimes identified with Hasbaya, which once again became an important center of Jewish life in the first half of the 20th century).
According to the Hebrew Bible, the territory of the Israelite tribes of Asher and Naphtali extended into present-day Lebanon as far as Sidon in the north. These tribes formed part of the united Kingdom of Israel and then the northern kingdom of the same name. However, Assyria captured Naphtali in c. 732 BCE and deported its population, a fate which befell the rest of the northern kingdom in c. 723 BCE. The New Testament also refers to Jesus's sojourn around Mount Hermon which appears to take for granted Jewish presence in this locality. Some people also add the locality of Qana (near Tyre in Lebanon) but the Bible clearly avoids confusion by referring to it as "Qana of Galilee".
Following the Bar Kokhba Revolt against Rome in 132 CE, several Jewish communities were established in Lebanon. Caliph Muawiya (642–680) established a Jewish community in Tripoli, Lebanon. Another was founded in 922 in Sidon. The Jewish Academy was established in Tyre in 1071. In the 19th century, hostility between the Druze and Maronites communities led many Jews to leave Deir al Qamar, with most moving to Hasbaya by the end of the century.
Early 20th century
In 1911, Jews from Italy, Greece, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt and Iran moved to Beirut, expanding the community there with more than 5,000 additional members. Articles 9 and 10 of the 1926 Constitution of Lebanon guaranteed the freedom of religion and provided each religious community, including the Jewish community, the right to manage its own civil matters, including education, and thus the Jewish community was constitutionally protected, a fact that did not apply to other Jewish communities in the region. The Jewish community prospered under the French mandate and Greater Lebanon, exerting considerable influence throughout Lebanon and beyond. They allied themselves with Pierre Gemayel's Phalangist Party (a fascist right wing, Maronite group modelled after similar movements in Italy and Germany, and Franco's Phalangist movement in Spain.) and played an instrumental role in the establishment of Lebanon as an independent state.
During the Greater Lebanon period, two Jewish newspapers were founded, the Arabic language Al-Alam al-Israili (the Israelite World) and the French Le Commerce du Levant, an economic periodical which still publishes (though it is now owned by non-Jews).
The Jewish community of Beirut evolved in three distinct phases. Until 1908, the Jewish population in Beirut grew by migration from the Syrian interior and from other Ottoman cities like Izmir, Salonica, Istanbul, and Baghdad. Commercial growth in the thriving port-city, consular protection, and relative safety and stability in Beirut all accounted for the Jewish migration. Thus, from a few hundred at the beginning of the 19th century, the Jewish community grew to 2,500 by the end of the century, and to 3,500 by the First World War. While the number of Jews grew considerably, the community remained largely unorganized. During this period, the community lacked some of the fundamental institutions such as communal statutes, elected council, welfare and taxation mechanisms. In this period, the most organized and well-known Jewish institution in the city was probably the private Tiferet Israel (The Glory of Israel) boarding-school founded by Zaki Cohen in 1874. The school attracted Jewish students from prosperous families like Shloush (Jaffa), Moyal (Jaffa), and Sassoon (Baghdad). Its founder, influenced by the Ottoman reforms and by local cultural trends, aspired to create a modern yet Jewish school. It offered both secular and strictly Jewish subjects as well as seven languages. It also offered commercial subjects. The school was closed at the beginning of the 20th century due to financial hardships.
The Young Turk Revolution (1908) sparked the organization process. Within six years, the Beirut community created a general assembly, an elected twelve-member council, drafted communal statutes, appointed a chief rabbi, and appointed committees to administer taxation and education. The process involved tension and even conflicts within the community, but eventually, the community council established its rule and authority in the community. The chief rabbi received his salary from the community and was de facto under the council's authority.
With the establishment of Greater Lebanon (1920), the Jewish community of Beirut became part of a new political entity. The French mandate rulers adopted local political traditions of power-sharing and recognized the autonomy of the various religious communities. Thus, the Jewish community was one of Lebanon's sixteen communities and enjoyed a large measure of autonomy, more or less along the lines of the Ottoman millet system. During the third phase of its development, the community founded two major institutions: the Maghen Abraham Synagogue (1926), and the renewed Talmud-Torah Selim Tarrab community school (1927). The community also maintained welfare services like the Biqur-Holim, Ozer-Dalim, and Mattan-Basseter societies. The funding for all these institutions came from contributions of able community members, who contributed on Jewish holidays and celebrations, through subscription of prominent members, fund-raising events and lotteries the community organized. In fact, the community was financially independent and did not rely on European Jewish philanthropy.
The development of the Jewish yishuv in Palestine influenced the Jewish leadership, who usually showed sympathy and active support for Zionism. Interestingly, the Jewish leadership in Beirut during this time aligned itself ideologically with the American-Based B'nai B'rith organization through its local proxy (Arzei Ha-Levanon Lodge) which was staffed by local community leaders. The B'nai B'rith lodge in Beirut attracted the social and economic elite. It embarked on community progress and revival through social activism, Jewish solidarity, and philanthropic values. Unlike the Alliance, who mainly aspired to empower the Jewish individual through modern education, the B'nai B'rith strove to empower both the individual and the community as a whole. In Beirut, unlike other Jewish communities, most of the community council members were also B'nai B'rith members, hence there existed an overlap between the council and the lodge. Of course, the Alliance school was popular in the community as it focused on French and prepared students for higher education. Since there was no Jewish high school in Beirut, many Jewish students attended foreign (Christian) schools, either secular or religious. The Jewish community was one of the smaller communities in the country, and hence it was not entitled for a guaranteed representation in the Parliament. Being excluded from Lebanese political life, the Jewish leadership aspired to improve the community's public standing by consolidating and improving the community as a whole. Overall, the French mandate period was characterized by growth, development, and stability.
In the 20th century, the Jewish community in Lebanon showed little involvement or interest in politics. They were generally traditional as opposed to religious and were not involved in the feuds of the larger religious groups in the country. Broadly speaking, they tended to support Lebanese nationalism and felt an affinity toward France. French authorities at the time discouraged expressions of Zionism (which they saw as a tool of their British rival), and the community was mostly apathetic to it. A few community leaders, such as Joseph Farhi, fervently supported the Zionist cause, and there was a level of support for the concept of a Jewish state in Palestine. The Jews in Lebanon had good contacts with those in Palestine, and there were regular visits between Beirut and Jerusalem. Accounts by the Alliance Israélite Universelle, which established schools that most Jewish children in the country attended, spoke of active Zionism while the Jewish Agency lamented the lack of national sentiment. The World Zionist Organization was also disappointed with the lack of more active support, and the community did not send a delegation to the World Zionist Congress.
A young Lebanese Jew named Joseph Azar, who took it upon himself to advance the Zionist cause with other individuals in October 1930, said in a report for the Jewish Agency that: "Before the disturbance of August 1929 the Jews...of Lebanon manifested much sympathy for the Zionist cause and worked actively for the sake of Palestine. They had established associations which collected money for (sic) Keren Kayemeth and (sic) Keren Heyesod." He said that after 1929, the Jews "started to fear from (sic) anything having any connection with Zionism and ceased to hold meetings and collect money." He also said that the Jewish Communal Council in Beirut "endeavored to prevent anything having a Jewish national aspect because they feared that this might wound the feelings of the Muslims." Other sources suggested that such charity work was not so much motivated by Zionism as it was by an interest to help Jews in need.
The Maccabi organization was recognized officially by Lebanese authorities and was an active center for Jewish cultural affairs in Beirut and Saida. The Maccabi taught Hebrew language and Jewish history, and was the focus point of the small Zionist movement in the country. There was also a pro-Zionist element within the Maronite community in Lebanon.
After the 1929 riots in Jerusalem, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was expelled from Palestine and he chose to settle in Lebanon, where continued inflammatory rhetoric against the British and the Zionists. During the riots, some Muslim nationalists and editors of a major Greek-Orthodox newspaper (both of whom saw the fate of the emerging Lebanese state as one within a broader Arab context) sought to incite the disturbances in Lebanon, where until that point most ethno-religious groups were aloof to the forecoming conflict in Palestine. It also seemed to have an effect on the cryptic response given by Interior Minister Habib Abi Chahla to Joseph Farhi when, on behalf of the Jewish community, he requested that they receive a seat in the newly expanded Lebanese Parliament.
Outside of Beirut, the attitudes toward Jews were usually more hostile. In November 1945, fourteen Jews were killed in anti-Jewish riots in Tripoli. Further anti-Jewish events occurred in 1948 following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The ongoing insecurity combined with the greater opportunities that Beirut offered prompted most of the remaining Jews of Tripoli to relocate to Beirut.
Anti-Zionist demonstrations began in 1947 and 1948 but initially showed no harm to the Jewish community. As the Arab-Israeli conflict continued, hostility toward the Jews intensified, especially from the Muslim population. The main synagogue in Beirut was bombed in the early 1950s. and the Lebanese Chamber of Deputies witnessed heated debates on the status of Lebanese Jewish army officers. The discussions culminated in a unanimous resolution to expel and exclude them from the Lebanese Army. The two Jewish army officers were discharged, but a few Jews continued to work for the government.
Most Lebanese Jews had Zionist views and looked favorably at the creation of Israel, but they nevertheless were reluctant to get involved in politics or speak about Israel, lest their Arab neighbors accuse them of treason.
In 2010, work began to restore an old synagogue in Beirut, the Maghen Abraham Synagogue. The synagogue had fallen into disrepair after being bombed by Israel several years earlier. The roof had collapsed and trees and bushes had grown under it. Anti-Semitic graffiti covered the walls of the synagogue, and it reeked of urine. Although Solidere agreed to provide funds for the renovation because political officials believed it would portray Lebanon as an open society tolerant of Judaism, none of the Jews involved in the project agreed to be identified, nor were the non-Jewish construction workers willing to show their faces or be photographed. The international media and even some members of the Jewish community (in and out of Lebanon) questioned who would pray there. The self-declared head of the Jewish Community Council, Isaac Arazi, who left Lebanon in 1983, eventually came forward but refused to show his face on camera in a television interview, fearing that his business would suffer if clients knew they had been dealing with a Jew.
Jewish Community Presidents
- Ezra Anzarouth Prior to 1910
- Joseph. D. Farhi 1910–1924
- Joseph Dichy Bey 1925–1927
- Joseph D. Farhi 1928–1930
- Selim Harari 1931–1934
- Joseph D. Farhi 1935–1938
- Deab Saadia & Joseph Dichy Bey- 1939–1950
- Joseph Attiyeh 1950–1976
- Isaac Sasson 1977–1985
- Raoul Mizrahi 1985
- Joseph Mizrahi 1986-2003
- Isaac Arazi 2005 – present
Jewish Community Vice Presidents
- Joseph Balayla 1926-1931. (was also the treasurer of the community)
- Yaakov (Jackes) Balayla 1931-1934. (Jackes and Joseph Balayla were brothers)
- Semo Bechar 2005–present
- Rabbi Moïse Yedid-Levy 1799-1829
- Rabbi Ralph Alfandari
- Rabbi Youssef el Mann
- Rabbi Aharoun Yedid-Levy
- Rabbi Zaki Cohen 1875
- Rabbi Menaché Ezra Sutton
- Rabbi Jacob Bukai
- Rabbi Haïm Dana
- Rabbi Moïse Yedid-Levy
- Rabbi Nassim Afandi Danon 1908–1909
- Rabbi Jacob Tarrab 1910–1921
- Rabbi Salomon Tagger 1921–1923
- Rabbi Shabtai Bahbout 1924–1950
- Rabbi Benzion Lichtman 1932–1959
- Rabbi Jacob Attiyeh 1949–1966
- Rabbi Shaul Chreim 1960–1978
- Zaki Cohen, Beirut Chief Rabbi
- Beth Elamen Cemetery
- Jewish Migration from Lebanon Post-1948
- Jewish exodus from Arab lands
- Maghen Abraham Synagogue (Beirut, Lebanon)
- Deir el Qamar Synagogue (Mount-Lebanon)
- Congregation Maghen Abraham (Montreal) (Montreal, Canada)
- Israel–Lebanon relations
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