The Jews of Lebanon

The beautiful Magen Abraham synagogue in Beirut was built in 1925 and is a testament to a time when Jews were a significant part of Lebanon’s multi-religious mosaic. The community numbered as many as 14,000, and traced its roots in the area as far back as 1,000 BC.

The temple is now in tatters and the old Jewish quarter of Wadi Abu Jamil is practically a ghost town amid the rising skyscrapers of the central city. While Lebanon’s Jewish population actually rose after the creation of Israel in 1948, Jews began leaving when the Civil War divided the country along sectarian lines in 1975. Exodus began in earnest after 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon. Estimates of Lebanon’s Jewish population vary from between 50 to 1,000. No one is certain because those who are left often keep their religious identity secret and the country itself hasn’t had a census since 1936.

But a 21 year-old Lebanese-American Muslim is on a quixotic quest to turn back the tide. Late last year, Aaron-Micael Beydoun launched a website, The Jews of Lebanon, to be a forum for documenting that community’s history here, and for keeping track of Lebanese Jews abroad. This year, Beydoun announced that he will start an NGO who’s mission will be to revive Lebanese Jewish life in Lebanon itself, beginning with the restoration of the Magen Abraham synagogue. The goal is to remind Lebanese — and the world — that peaceful coexistence between religious groups is the country’s norm not the exception.

Whether Lebanon is ready for a Jewish revival is open to question. Supporters of Hizballah — the anti-Israeli Islamic militia — say their beef is with the Jewish state not Jews themselves. But “Jew” is still an insult in the discourse of Lebanese street politics, often used to tar those suspected of collaborating with America and Israel. Presumably, the Lebanese Jews who live here keep a low profile for a reason.

Nor is it likely that many Lebanese Jews in exile will soon return to such an unstable country. Ever since the war with Israel this past summer, Lebanon’s middle class has been leaving en masse. The trend has continued now that the political system and the economy have been paralyzed by an ongoing campaign led by Hizballah to topple the government. Until the dust settles in the Middle East (whenever that may be), the Jews of Lebanon might be better off staying in Montreal.

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