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|Jews and Judaism|
Lebanese Jews are traditionally a Sephardi (particularly Mizrahi) community living mostly in and around Beirut but also in Sidon and Baalbek. Almost all of the community has emigrated to Israel and to countries with already well established Lebanese diaspora like France, Switzerland, USA, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Australia and Central and Eastern Europe (particularly Russia and Bulgaria, mostly university students who married locals). Some of those Lebanese Jews who emigrated to Israel would later return as occupying troops in 1982.
There are only between 50-100 Jews now living in the country. Emigration was not great even after Lebanon's first civil war in 1958, as Lebanese Jews were tightly integrated into society and felt no need to abandon their homeland. But emigration increased after Lebanon's 1975 civil war, and increased further after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982.
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In pre-Biblical times, the region between Gaza and Anatolia (essentially modern day Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, 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 al-Qamar, with most moving to Hasbaya by the end of the century.
In 1911, Jews from Italy, Greece, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt and Iran moved to Beirut, expanding the community there with additional more than 5,000 members. Articles 9 and 10 of the Lebanese Constitution of 1926 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 facist 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 Magen-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 in 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 the 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.
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.
Until 1958, when Lebanon's first civil war broke out, the number of Jews in Lebanon remained at a level of about 9,000, making Lebanon the only Arab country in which the Jewish population increased after 1948. Only after 1958 did a large-scale exodus of Jews from Lebanon begin, as a result of the political unrest in the country. Several hundred immigrated to Israel, and many others moved to the U.S. and Europe.
In early 1967 the number of Jews remaining in Lebanon was estimated at about 5,000–6,000, but after the Six-Day War, emigration increased and the community was reduced by about a half. By then, nearly all Lebanese Jews were living in Beirut, with a few families remaining in Sidon (the community in Tripoli had ceased to exist before 1947). There were two Jewish banks in Lebanon, the Safra Bank and the Société Bancaire du Liban (formerly Zilkhah Bank). Only after the 1967 War were limitations imposed on non-Lebanese Jews, who were compelled to seek work permits from the authorities and not every applicant's request was granted. This was one of the reasons for the increase in Jewish emigration. Another reason was the partial paralysis of the Lebanese economy, particularly in the tourist industry, since Christian pilgrims no longer needed to pass through Lebanon in order to visit the Old City of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Some of the Jewish emigrants, particularly the young people, went to Israel.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Jewish community in Beirut still maintained a synagogue and other communal institutions, and there were synagogues in Sidon and in the summer resorts of Bhamdoun and Aley. In this period there were still Jewish schools in Beirut and Sidon. Jewish pupils also attended Christian schools, especially high schools, both because no Jewish school contained all high school classes, and because of the preference of Lebanese Jews for studying French. Even in Jewish schools emphasis was placed on the study of French. Arabic was studied to a lesser extent, and Hebrew even less, although the study of Hebrew was not restricted by the authorities. The Jewish and Christian school networks successfully combated illiteracy among the younger generation, but very few studied at institutions of higher learning. Most of the younger generation went into business. By 1970 the community had decreased to about 1,000–1,800.
During the early stages of Lebanon's second civil war (1975–1990), and especially after the paralysis of the state's institutions in 1975–76 and Israel's invasion in June 1982, the majority of the country's Jews emigrated. Those who stayed, particularly in war-torn Beirut, suffered many hardships on account of the violence that waged in and around the Jewish quarter. The Israeli-Palestinian struggle in Lebanon, which reached its pinnacle in the 1982 War, and the struggle between armed Shi'i factions and the Israeli army in South Lebanon in its aftermath, also impinged on the local Jewish community. By 1980 there were only about 200 Jews left in Lebanon, and by the late 1980s and early 1990s their number had dwindled to under 100. In mid-2002 it was reported that 67 Lebanese Jews had immigrated to Israel in the 1990–2001 period. In 2004, the number of Jews remaining in Lebanon was probably not more than a few dozen. One estimate, from 2002, put their number at no more than 24, or at twice that figure, and another, from 2003, at 20. According to a report from 2004, the Jewish community in Lebanon included only a few members, mostly elderly women. All of these Jews lived in Beirut and its vicinity.
In 2010, work began to restore an old synagogue in Beirut, the Maghen Abraham Synagogue. The synagogue had fallen into disrepair. 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.
The Jewish Community Presidents include: