BEIRUT (AFP) – It’s not easy being Jewish in Beirut where the synagogue is crumbling, the rabbis have left, the community is dwindling and where Jews are commonly branded “Israelis”.
The last vestiges of the Jewish community in Lebanon, the Magen Abraham synagogue in the Lebanese capital, reflects a community falling into oblivion.
Built in 1920 in the area of Wadi Abu Jmil, formerly known as Wadi al Yahud (the Jews’ Valley), the synagogue is today a place of desolation.
The building is in a state of severe disrepair, the grounds overgrown and the gate shackled with lock and chain.
“Everything was looted during the (civil) war, marble benches and even windows,” bemoaned Samuel, a member of the Jewish Community Council in Lebanon, who preferred to use a pseudonym.
Without a synagogue, or even a rabbi, the handful of Jews left here — about 300 according to official estimates — are forced to pray at home.
“What we (also) lack is a place to buy locally produced kosher. We have no Jewish schools to teach our children prayer and Hebrew,” said the 60-year-old Samuel, sitting in his shop near the seafront.
The seminary near the Beirut synagogue was destroyed during the war and the community has had no rabbi for years.
“We only speak Arabic. We just use Hebrew for prayer,” Samuel said.
In the capital, along the former demarcation line between the Muslim and Christian areas, another vestige survives in the form of the Jewish cemetery.
The inscriptions in Hebrew and the stars of David on the entrance are covered with dust. “Very few people come,” said Samuel.
Efforts are now being made, however, to revive the community with plans under way to renovate the synagogue and the establishment of an online blog called “Jews of Lebanon” (thejewsoflebanon.org).
“We hope that this synagogue, one of the largest in the Arab world, will be renovated later this year or in 2009,” said Samuel, adding that the renovations would be funded mainly by expatriate Lebanese Jews.
The blog seeks to raise awareness of the Jewish community and to make it an active participant in public life.
— ‘They don’t understand Israel means nothing to us’ —
Judaism is recognized as one of the 18 religious confessions in Lebanon, although the Jewish community has dwindled over the years, in the face of violence and prejudice.
“Before the (1975-1990) civil war, there were about 22,000 of us. It was after the 1982 (Israeli) invasion of Lebanon that our presence became considerably diminished,” said Samuel.
For Efraim, also a merchant and a member of the Jewish Council, the community’s official authority, one of the annoyances of life in Lebanon is the way in which other Lebanese mix the terms “Jewish” and “Israeli”.
Lebanon is technically in a state of war with Israel, which is commonly dubbed “the Zionist enemy”.
“People still occasionally ask me if I am Israeli,” said Efraim, also speaking under a pseudonym.
To him, “that’s exactly as if we used the term Iranians to describe Lebanese Shiites.
“They do not understand that Israel means nothing to us. We consider it an enemy country as do all the Lebanese,” he said.
“After 1982, very few Jews went to Israel, and those who did go didn’t stay long. They felt deeply Lebanese,” said Efraim.
Having been in Lebanon for more than 2,000 years, Jews began to leave the country during the turmoil.
“There has not been a wave of persecutions, despite some incidents. Those (Jews who left) are like thousands of other Lebanese who fled the country in search of a better future,” said Samuel.
“The Jews mostly lived in major cities like Beirut, Baalbek, Tripoli and Sidon, in perfect coexistence with other communities,” he said, adding that synagogues in these cities too had fallen into ruin.
“Many (Jewish expatriates) still have land and do not want to sell, because it would be like selling a part of themselves,” Samuel said.
The expatriates remain committed to their heritage and some even come back every year for vacation, but not to settle.
“Is it possible (to settle) with the current tensions in Lebanon?” asked Efraim, who travels frequently.
“We have always been neutral in politics and we remain so,” he said. “Today, we live peacefully and we want to continue to live like that, in our country.”