Lebanon’s Last Jews

In 1983, Isaac Arazi and his wife were caught in sectarian fighting during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. A Shi’ite militiaman helped the couple escape.

Arazi, a leader of Lebanon’s tiny Jewish community, sees the incident as a lesson in the Arab country’s tradition of tolerance. Now he is trying to make use of that tradition, along with the global diaspora of Lebanese Jews, in a drive to rebuild Beirut’s only synagogue, damaged during the war.

“Those who don’t have a past don’t have a future,” Arazi said to explain his push to rebuild the synagogue.

Beirut’s Maghen Abraham Synagogue opened in 1926 in Wadi Abou Jmil, the city’s Jewish quarter, located on the edge of West Beirut near the Grand Serai palace, where the government meets, and within walking distance of parliament.

Lebanon then was something of a haven for Jews, some of whom were the descendants of those who had fled the Spanish inquisition; it later served a similar role for refugees from Nazi Germany.

With “no history of anti-Jewish tensions,” it was the only Arab country whose Jewish population rose after Israel’s creation in 1948, according to Kirsten Schulze, a lecturer at the London School of Economics and author of The Jews of Lebanon.

By the mid-1960s, there were as many as 22,000 Lebanese Jews, said Arazi, 65. In addition to heading the Jewish Community Council he owns a foodmachinery business with 1,000 customers.

“Christians, Muslims and Jews were all living together when I was growing up,” said Liza Srour, 57. “Whenever there was a war with Israel, or tension, the government used to provide protection for us.”

That changed with the nation’s 1975- 1990 civil war, as Jews fled the violence triggered by rivalries among the nation’s Christian, Muslim and Druse factions and emigrated to Europe, North and South America.

Now, Arazi said, only 100 Jews live permanently in the country, while another 1,900 go back and forth or have intermarried into other religions. Srour is the only Jew still residing in Wadi Abou Jmil.

The synagogue had been deserted since the 1970s, having been caught between conflicting factions in the Lebanese civil war. In 1982, according to an Associated Press report at the time, IDF shells tore through roof of Maghen Abraham as Israel invaded southern Lebanon in an effort to crush PLO terrorists. The synagogue has been closed ever since, its brittle entrance gate chained and padlocked. Plaster and rubble are scattered on the floor.

Arazi figures it will cost about $1 million to restore the synagogue. Making the effort possible is the end of an 18-month crisis between Lebanon’s political factions, the blessing of the Lebanese government, financial support from a downtown reconstruction project and acquiescence from the Shi’ite Hizbullah movement.
He so far has raised about $40,000 for the project, but has promises of more. Ten percent of the estimated cost will come from Solidere SAL, a company founded in 1994 by then-prime minister Rafik Hariri – later assassinated in a bombing supporters blame on Syria – to rebuild the capital’s downtown.

The company has given $150,000 to each of 14 religious organizations that are restoring places of worship in Lebanon – about $2.1m. in all. “We help all the communities,” said Solidere chairman Nasser Chammaa.

The Safra family, whose Safra Group includes Brazil’s Banco Safra SA and Safra National Bank of New York and which was based in Lebanon in the 1940s as part of the Jewish community, has agreed to help fund the project once work begins, Arazi said.

Joseph R. Safra, nephew of Republic National Bank of New York founder Edmond Safra, said: “We do not comment on private matters.”

Joseph Safra heads Arview Holdings, Inc., a New York financial- consulting and advisory firm.

Two banks in Switzerland whose founders have Lebanese-Jewish roots also agreed to provide financing, Arazi said. One of the banks has pledged $ 100,000 toward the synagogue’s restoration. Arazi declined to name the banks.

Even the warring factions in Lebanon’s government have blessed the project. “This is a religious place of worship and its restoration is welcome,” Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, 65, said in an interview.

Hussain Rahal, a spokesman for Hizbullah, said his group also supports the restoration of Maghen Abraham.

“We respect the Jewish religion just like we do Christianity,” he said. “The Jews have always lived among us. We have an issue with Israel’s occupation of land.”

Arazi said work on the restoration is to begin next month.

Meanwhile, the Jewish Community Council is already working on plans for its next project: restoring Beirut’s Jewish cemetery, where about 4,500 people are buried.

Walking among the weeds overgrowing the cemetery’s tombstones, Arazi said: “I remember my father when I come here.”

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