Jews of Lebanon
When six-year-old Elie Abadie and his family fled Lebanon in 1971, he was leaving behind a Jewish presence of millennia.
The Switzerland of the Middle East
Jews have always lived in the area that is known today as Lebanon. In fact, the territory of Asher and Naphtali extended as far as Sidon in the north. Later, following the Bar Kochva revolt against Rome in 132 CE, several Jewish communities were established in Lebanon and, later still, more communities sprouted in Tripoli, Sidon and Tyre. From the 16thcentury onwards, the area was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. “Up until the First World War, the Silk Road, which crossed this region, contributed considerably to the economic development of the area,” says Rabbi Elie Abadie, M.D., who today is the rabbi of Manhattan East Synagogue, heads the Sephardic Academy of Manhattan, and maintains a practice of gastroenterology in New York City.
The Silk Road, an ancient network of trade routes which stretched from the Korean peninsula and Japan to the Mediterranean Sea, gradually diminished in importance when the Suez Canal was opened to navigation in 1869. But this didn’t discourage Jews from the Syrian interior and from other Ottoman cities like Izmir, Salonica, Istanbul, and Baghdad from migrating to the port city of Beirut, one of the busiest ports on the Eastern Mediterranean. In 1911, Jews from Italy, Greece, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt and Iran began joining the ranks of the burgeoning communities. It was during one of these waves of immigration that the Madeb family (whose roots can be traced to Damascus as far back as 1850) moved to Beirut. When Dr. Isaac Madeb, today an urologist in New York City, was born in Beirut in 1946, he was the second generation in the family to be born there. His father was already an established shochetand mohel there.
Lebanon, which differed from the rest of the Arab world because of its mix of (mainly) Christians and Muslims, drew entrepreneurs like a magnet. “Lebanese Christians were very European in their thinking,” says Rabbi Abadie, whose own etiquette is very European. As the political situation in the neighboring Arab counties grew more precarious, Jews from Iran, Iraq and Syria began making their way to Lebanon. By the end of World War I, the Jewish community had grown from 2,500 members at the end of the century to 3,500 members. In 1920, the League of Nations granted the mandate for Lebanon and Syria to France and, six years later, Lebanon adopted a constitution. Despite the constitution, though, France remained the true ruler.
Lebanon’s constitution was a boon for the Jews: It guaranteed the freedom of religion and provided each religious community, including the Jewish one, the right to manage its own civil matters, including education. “Lebanon was known as the Switzerland of the Middle East and Beirut as Paris, and the Jewish community prospered,” says Rabbi Abadie.
“Many Jews throughout the 1920s and 30s also used Lebanon as a pied-à-terre, a stop-over that led to greener pastures. As a result, the Jewish population remained in flux, numbering between 15,000 to 20,000,” he says. Our conversation is peppered with phrases in French and Italian because Rabbi Abadie, like so many with a cosmopolitan background, knows that sometimes the most concise and exact wording exists only in a foreign language.
Lebanon as a Jewish Refuge
In 1943, France agreed to transfer control of the country to the Lebanese government. In 1948, in the wake of the Israel’s War of Independence, the number of Jews in Lebanon increased due to Syrian and Iraqi Jewish refugees who were escaping persecution in their countries. They fled to Lebanon where they could live in harmony with the Druze, Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians.
The harmony, however, was skin-deep; the position of the Jews was not entirely secure. In the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, several Jews were arrested and interned as Zionist spies. In addition, the Lebanese Chamber of Deputies debated heatedly on the status of Lebanese Jewish army officers. When the discussions culminated in a unanimous resolution to expel the officers, two Jewish army officers were discharged.
The Abadie family was one of the families that fled their home during this period and moved to Lebanon. The family of seven children was well-established in Aleppo, Syria, when the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine was announced in 1947 and riots broke out throughout the Middle East.
“We lived next door to the synagogue. My mother watched the synagogue being looted and pillaged, the chief rabbi being dragged out and the Syrian police helping out with the violence,” says Rabbi Abadie, recalling his mother’s words. “We fled immediately through the back door without any belongings.”
For the next two years, utilizing the baksheesh (bribery) system to the fullest, Abraham Abadie traveled back and forth between Lebanon and Syria, trying to liquidize his assets. One night, he was tipped off that he would be arrested the following day. “That night he fled. He huddled among the livestock in the luggage wagon of a train heading for Lebanon. When the train conductor came to search the area with a torch, he barely escaped detection. Soon after, he leapt off the train and crossed the ravine between the Syrian-Lebanese border by foot,” says Rabbi Abadie.
For the Abadie family, Lebanon was home for the next 23 years. They shared friendly relations with their neighbors who were a mix of Druze, Shiites, Suniis and Christians. As an aside, Rabbi Abadie mentions that documentary filmmaker Rola Khayyat, who directed “From Beirut to Brooklyn,” connected Rabbi Abadie with one of his former neighbors for a friendly chat.
By 1958, the Lebanese Jewish population had reached its peak of 15,000 members. Most of these Jews lived in Beirut in the Jewish Quarter in Wadi Abu Jamil.
“In this area of about one and a half blocks, there were 16 synagogues that were always full,” says Dr. Madeb. “The shuls were run by a central committee that oversaw all religious affairs. The school systems (Otzar Hatorah, the Lebanese Talmud Torah and the Alliance Francaise) taught in French, Arabic and Hebrew. The Talmud Torah taught more traditional Jewish subjects. A charity organization arranged school lunches for students who needed them. When we reached the age of ten or eleven, we moved to the Alliance Francaise, where Hebrew subjects focused more on grammar and linguistic skills,” says Dr. Madeb. “In the summers, we traveled half an hour to the mountains and prayed in the Aleh and the Bhamdoun synagogues,” he adds. The harmony between the different sects in Beirut played out even in the synagogue: “Sheikh Pierre Gemayel, founder of the Phalange Party would come to the Magen Avraham synagogue on Pesach to wish us a happy holiday,” says Dr. Madeb.
“We didn’t have any specifically Jewish Lebanese customs, because we were from Aleppo,” says Rabbi Abadie, “but I do remember that a special raffle was held for the children to see who would win the right to read the Ten Commandments in parashat Yitro as translated and interpreted by the 10th century Rav Saadia Gaon. That booklet from which the children prepared for the reading was one of the things that Rabbi Abadie took with him when his family left Lebanon.
The Tide Turns
In 1958, Lebanon was threatened with civil war: Lebanese Muslims pushed the government to join the newly created United Arab Republic, while Maronite Christians in the democratic Phalange Party wanted to keep Lebanon aligned with Western powers. President Camille Chamoun requested U.S. military intervention, and once the crisis was over, the United States withdrew. The crisis was the signal for Jews to begin emigrating. While many left for North American, South America and Israel, the Abadie family, which was active in the Jewish community and provided the members with kosher wine and yellow cheese and matzah on Pesach, remained.
The next crisis hit in 1967, in the wake of the Six-Day War. “The Jewish quarter was in Wadi Abu Jamil. Although government forces protected us with a tank at the end of the street, we felt very isolated. We painted the light blue and kept down the shades. We didn’t show any sign of being Jewish when we went out into the street.”
Most of the Jews left Lebanon; for those remaining, tension reigned.
“One Friday morning, my father awoke to see a poster of himself and two other rabbis posted outside mosques. The three were labeled Zionist agents,” says Rabbi Abadie. The incident provided the impetus for Rabbi Abraham Abadie to contact his sons who had been in Mexico since 1965 and arrange for the family to enter Mexico as refugees.
For the Madeb family too, the time had come to begin moving out. Immediately after the war, two of the Madeb children left for Israel. Young Isaac Madeb, who had already begun studying medicine at the University of Lebanon in Beirut, made his way to the Ministry of Foreign Affair in Paris where he asked to continue his university studies in a French university. “Even before the war, the animosity had been there below the surface. After the war, the Christian students avoided sitting next to the Jews in classes because they feared the Moslems and the Moslems avoided sitting next to us because they didn’t want to be associated with Israel,” he says. In Paris, the young student became active in the Toit Familiale (a Hillel House of sorts) where he worked to provide the students with a new social hall and kosher meals.
Back in Beirut after completing his internship, Dr. Madeb married and moved into a position at the American University of Beirut Medical Center. “I gained entry thanks to the help of a friend in the Lebanese Phalanges Party (the Christian Democratic party) who insisted that there was no difference between Christians and Jews,” says Dr. Madeb. “But this kind of talk didn’t land any of my friends jobs in public positions or banks,” he adds. After six months, Dr. Madeb and his bride made their way to the United States.
Final Years of the Jewish Community
The groundwork for the Lebanese civil war was laid in the Six Day War. Palestinian fighters known as fedayeen had moved their bases to Jordan and stepped up their attacks on Israel. Now they left Jordan and headed for Lebanon. Black September in 1970 saw the Jordanian Armed Forces (JAF) fighting against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). For the Abadie family, the spring breeze of 1971 brought their freedom. “Erev Pesach we received a telegram that we had visas to leave. Just like our forefathers, our freedom had come,” says Rabbi Abadie.
The family left Lebanon in August. Mexico City became home for the next eight years, until 1979, when Rabbi Abadie immigrated to the Unites States leaving the rest of the family in Mexico.
For the Madeb family too, the time had come to flee. “My parents and three siblings fled, leaving everything behind,” says Dr. Madeb. After a stopover in France, the family joined Dr. Madeb in the Unites States.
In 1975, clashes between Phalanges’ gunmen and Palestinian guerillas led to a full-blown civil war. Fighting swirled around the Jewish Quarter in Beirut, damaging many Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues. Most of the remaining 1,800 Lebanese Jews emigrated in 1976, when the Syrians entered Lebanon in an attempt to restore peace.
“Jews were caught in the crossfire of the civil war. When buildings were taken over by Moslems, the Christians were killed, the Moslems saved, and Jews faced an uncertain fate. When buildings were taken over by Christians, Christians were saved, Moslems killed, and once again, Jews faced an uncertain fate,” says Rabbi Abadie. In the mid-1980s, Hezbollah kidnapped several prominent Jews from Beirut, most of them leaders of what remained of the country’s tiny Jewish community. Four of the Jews were later found murdered. The war lasted from 1975 to 1990. In 1990, the Syrian air force attacked the presidential palace and Michel Aoun fled, formally ending the civil war. Following elections, wealthy businessman Rafik Hariri became prime minister.
Today, between 10 to 50 Jews remain in Beirut. “They are scattered, inter-married individuals,” says Rabbi Abadie. Although Dr. Madeb has been repeatedly invited by the American University of Beirut Medical Center to lecture at its annual convention, he has declined despite its promises to guarantee his safety. The Switzerland of the Middle East is no more.
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Can the past be recaptured?
Founded in 1925, Magen Avraham was one of 16 synagogues in Beirut, named for the son of Abraham Sassoon, Moise Abraham Sassoon of Calcutta. “I’ve heard it said that when Abraham Sassoon came to Beirut, he announced that he would cover the cost of anything that was still needed for the synagogue,” says Dr. Madeb. The synagogue is located in the former Jewish district of Wadi Abu Jamil in Beirut and was abandoned after shelling destroyed the building during the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war. During the 1982 Lebanon War with Israel, the Palestine Liberation Organization forces headed by terrorist Yasser Arafat holed up in the Jewish neighborhood. They used the synagogue as a shield, forcing Israeli pilots to attempt a surgical air strike that failed, further damaging the building.
In September 2008, the self-declared head of Lebanon’s Jewish Community Council, Isaac Arazi, who left Lebanon in 1983, announced that he planned to rebuild the Magen Avraham shul in Beirut. Governmental approval was the first hurdle; the million-dollar private funding that would be necessary was the second. A year later, reconstruction began, but, today, eleven years later, the doors of the synagogue are still closed.