Beirut’s last Jews
Only around forty Jews remain in the Lebanese capital. The once thriving community had sixteen synagogues; today, there is only one, with a broken roof
Paris: After speaking for over an hour, Moshe wanted to stop the conversation. “Let’s talk slowly. It hurts me,” he sighed. Moshe soon recovered. “It’s okay. You can continue asking, but it brings up harsh memories. I have to organize my thoughts.”
These thoughts have been bouncing around his head for several long weeks now. Raised in Lebanon, he remembers Beirut from its glory days. Even during the terrible times, however, Moshe, a Jew, stubbornly remained in the accursed land.
Fearful for his life, he requested that his real name and several personal details be changed. Moshe is almost seventy years old, and three years ago, he finally left Beirut after spending most of his life as a businessman and well-known figure within the embattled Jewish community.
Familiar with the Lebanese power struggles, Moshe counted all the major players among his friends, or at least his acquaintances, including Jumblatt, the late Hariri, the Shiites, the Christians, and, of course, the Syrians.
Today, from the safety of his new home away from Lebanon, he continues to worry about the handful of Jews still residing in the Lebanese capital. He calls them up to ask about their health and to check that they have sufficient food.
How many Jews are there in Beirut?
“Some say one hundred, but, in actuality, no more than forty Jews remain in Beirut,” he said. “Their average age is eighty.”
Should an attempt be made to evacuate the last Lebanese Jews from Beirut?
“Pay attention well. During my years there, I evacuated one thousand Jews – minus forty. These are the forty that stayed, and these, no one will remove.”
As a child, Moshe moved from Syria to Beirut. His parents were concerned about Damascus’s political instability and preferred to settle in the Lebanese city on the coast. Lebanese Jewry was always one of the smallest Mediterranean communities, but during the 1950’s and ‘60’s, the community, like Beirut itself, experienced a period of serenity.
“It was a very beautiful city. Jews, Druze, Shiites, Sunnis, Christians – everyone lived in peace and was neighborly and friendly. There were very few problems between us. We then had sixteen synagogues in Beirut; they were all full.”
What about the Shiites, who today take the lead when it comes to hating Jews?
“The Shiites? They were the Jews’ friends. There were many Jewish doctors who treated them. I remember Dr. Shames; he was legendary in Lebanon in those years. He only treated Shiites. Most of them were poor, and they couldn’t pay him with money. They would pay him with chickens, eggs, oil, figs, and raisins.”
But when the civil war broke out, the idyll came to an end. Much of the Jewish community left the city, and, according to Moshe, no more than 1,800 Jews remained in Beirut.
“Starting from 1975, the Jews who lived in the Wadi Abu Jamil neighborhood, the Jewish quarter, were actually protected by Yasser Arafat’s Fatah. Then, they would still differentiate between a Jew and an Israeli.”
From bad to worse
Nonetheless, the community continued to shrink. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Moshe naively believed that peace had finally come.
“Sharon had arrived, and a peace agreement was signed between Israel and Lebanon. I thought that I would live in Nahariya and would work in Lebanon. One can say that my calculation was rather mistaken.”
Instead, matters went from bad to worse for Beiruti Jewry; now they were forced to deal with Hizbullah and the Shiites. Moshe himself was the victim of a kidnapping; he estimates that his abductors were Shiites led by Nabih Beri, head of Amal and today Lebanese Parliament speaker.
“I was at home in Beirut. It was eight in the evening. The doorbell rang. I opened the door, already clad in pajamas. They impersonated Walid Jumblatt’s men. They didn’t even let me change my clothes, and they took me to a refugee camp. They held me there for 48 hours, and I was lucky. Jumblatt personally intervened, and they let me go.”
By that point, no more than one thousand Jews remained in Lebanon. In 1985, prior to the IDF withdrawal to the security zone, only around 700 Jews were left. Moshe decided to stay. He himself endured another three kidnapping attempts; a relative of his was abducted in April 1984, by Hizbullah, and was murdered.
Did the message not get through even then?
“When you live there, you learn how to avoid trouble. There were areas where we couldn’t go, but we managed to stay in places where we felt more or less secure. I had ties to Christian politicians, and that protected us.”
Yet community life was in shambles, and the Jews lived in Beirut as a threatened and persecuted minority.
“Since the end of the seventies, the community has not had a rabbi. In the early eighties, we weren’t even able to gather a minyan (a prayer quorum of ten men) in the synagogue. All our prayer houses were abandoned. Kurds took control of them and later Shiites. We couldn’t openly conduct Jewish life.”
Community members met with Hariri several times, mainly to discuss Lebanese Jewry’s famous Magen Avraham synagogue, built during the 1920’s and a communitywide source of pride.
Arabs rioters had vandalized the unique building in 1982, and the synagogue stood desolate next to the empty Talmud Torah (religious elementary school). Then, after two decades of war, Hariri, a former real estate investor, wanted to rehabilitate the Lebanese capital.
“The Talmud Torah was blocking the view of the sea for some of the structures that Hariri had built,” Moshe recalled. “Over the years, we made every effort to rejuvenate the place, without success.”
In 2002, Hariri made a deal with Beirut’s last Jews. He would grant them 1,500 square meters in an alternate location of their choice, repair the synagogue’s roof, and renovate the facade. In exchange, the Jewish community would agree to destroy the old Talmud Torah building.
However, the Talmud Torah was never rebuilt; the aging community was simply unable to fund the project. While bulldozers destroyed the original structure, which was replaced by a park with a view of the beach, even the synagogue was never restored.
Throughout the interview, I repeatedly asked Moshe why he had insisted on staying in Beirut, but he kept changing the subject. Finally, at the end of our discussion, he deigned to reply.
“Why did I linger? My goal was twofold, or perhaps threefold. I wanted to locate the Jewish bodies that Hizbullah had kidnapped and which we weren’t able to bring to burial. I wanted to protect the people in the community until almost everyone left Lebanon. And there was a personal reason: to prove that I have the right to be in Lebanon. I attempted to maintain the Jewish presence in Lebanon. To prove that if there is hatred against the Jews, it was a result of ignorance.”