The ‘thoughtcrime’ of remembering Lebanon’s Jewish past

The Jews of the world, and in the turn those of the Levant, have faced tremendous hardships throughout most of their history. The erasure of Jewish presence in Lebanon happened gradually though the population increased in 1948; it is well recorded that the Jewish community in Lebanon flourished after the state of Israel was founded. Antisemitism was alive and well in the pre-Civil War (1975) period, but the situation faired better in the country than elsewhere in the Arab world. We can cite the exodus of Jews from Aleppo and Baghdad as dark and unfortunate periods in our common Middle Eastern history; these events happened over a short period of time unlike the community’s fate in Lebanon. Indeed, not all Lebanese Jews were sympathetic with zionism, or were even zionists at all and not all non-Jewish Lebanese were anti-zionists either. Various synagogues, cemeteries, a handful of schools, but also businesses catering to the Jewish community once existed and thrived; today, they are destroyed, abandoned and/or denied access. Only the Magen Abraham Synagogue in Beirut has been renovated (after being bombed by Israel during the Civil war in 1982) yet closed to the public — “for security reasons.” 

In Lebanese official documents “Jewish” or “Yahudi” is uncommon. Instead, “Israelite” in French is used or “Isra-i-li” in Arabic. This term to denote Jews has been in use for a long time, but a change in terminology is necessary to remove any possible confusion, for the safety of those concerned. Furthermore, using ‘Jew’ and ‘Israeli’ interchangeably in everyday life is commonplace in Lebanon; so is, associating all Jews with Zionism. Defining ‘zionism’ is not as complicated as people make it sound; a zionist is one who believes that Jews have a right to have their own state in Palestine. There’s a thin line separating the association of Jews with Zionism and/or Israel. Although, anti-zionist Jews are a minority, we cannot erase their existence; nor can we deny the rights of both Lebanese Jewish and non-Jewish zionists. A Jewish person’s Lebanese-peoplehood must not be jeapordized for the sole reason of being zionist. This technically means that one can be Lebanese and zionist, yet strongly critical of Israeli policies. For example, both Israel and Syria invaded (and arguably destroyed) Lebanon, yet only Israel is held to a different standard of enmity. 

One cannot speak of the once thriving Jewish community in Lebanon without raising some eyebrows. Not only are Lebanese banned from speaking to and about Israelis, they are also at risk of arrest if they talk to a Jewish person abroad, including dual citizens of Israel, or even anyone who has been to Israel. The teaching and learning of Hebrew at different universities, though not illegal, puts one at risk of surveillance too — which is why biblical Hebrew is taught instead.

Today, most Lebanese youth, when asked about their future in Lebanon, would probably reply that it’s non-existent. A longing for a rebirth of Jewish culture in Lebanon today would therefore be quite absurd. Lebanon is under the hegemony of Iran’s regime through the existence of terrorist groups such as Hizbollah who are highly antisemitic and of course anti-zionist. Indeed, George Orwell’s novel 1984 is a prized possession for anyone who would like to understand Hizbollah’s Lebanon better through its striking dystopian themes. Thoughtcrime or the state of being a thoughtcriminal, is the act of thinking, dreaming, feeling of rebellion or criticism of The Party. The reality on the ground and the general situation in the country is becoming worse by the day. Lebanon has turned into a police state. It feels like anyone advocating for Jewish causes — or even thinking about them — is a thoughtcriminal. Although Lebanon is arguably in a total state of collapse, the government deems it fit to persecute and harass citizens who speak of human rights abuses. The right of the Jewish community to live in Lebanon in complete safety is therefore absent and in turn, their human rights are infringed. The Lebanese Constitution guarantees particular freedoms — especially religious ones — to its citizens (particularly through the odd form of sectarianism found in the country), thus the actions of the Hizbollah-run government with regard to Lebanese Jews is unlawful. 

Regardless of the crisis the country is going through, there needs to be repatriation programs for Lebanese living abroad and this includes Jews whose origins lie in Lebanon. It doesn’t matter if anyone takes up the offer, the kind gesture should be present. For example, a Birthright Lebanon program could be quite nice. Unfortunately though, Lebanon is currently not a land of immigration and is neither ready nor safe to (hypothetically) accommodate Lebanese-Jews coming back to Lebanon. Lebanon’s sectarian system lacks Jewish representation in all aspects of government, while giving 17 out of 18 religious groups a piece of the pie (Judaism is religious group number 18). The fact that Lebanese mothers are barred from passing their Lebanese citizenship to their children particularly affects matriarchal structures of faith such as Judaism — where the child is considered Jewish through the mother’s Jewish faith (Halacha). In 1958, Jews were banned and removed from the Lebanese military. During the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, thousands  of Jews left the country. After the Israeli invasion of south Lebanon in 1982, notable Jewish men suffered execution by Islamic extremists in terrorist kidnappings. The PLO once even occupied the Jewish quarter of Beirut, Wadi Abu Jmil; which some would argue prompted Israel to bomb the area close by during the invasion. It is only reasonable that most of the community sought shelter abroad, in France, the US, Canada and Israel. 

A people who have suffered tremendously deserve an apology and their history and contributions commemorated. As I think of prominent Grand-Rabbi of Beirut, Zaki Cohen (1829-1904), the founder of the Alliance Israelite School in Beirut, I am compelled to say that Jewish-Lebanese history must also be celebrated. The amnesia which most Lebanese suffer from, with respect to historical circumstances or events such as the Civil War or, in this case, Lebanon’s Jewish past is harmful for a prosperous, peace-loving and egalitarian future. One must learn from the past and not ignore it. It is no excuse that there are hardly 50 Jews in the country — there needs to be respect and recognition. Lebanon cannot pride itself for being a mosaic of different communities living peacefully side-by-side (supposedly) if it does not accept Jews as an integral part of it. 

Lebanon is indeed Arab, Maronite, Phoenician, Syriac, Armenian, Muslim and Christian — but also Jewish. 

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