Lebanese Jews praying at the Magen-Abraham Synagogue Inauguration in Beirut 1926 Taken by Jules Lind

Judaism in Lebanon: From a thriving community to Crypto-Judaism.

On November 17, 2020 photos of the Maghen Abraham Synagogue of Beirut were shared by the Lebanese Jewish Community Council on Facebook after it was renovated due to the damages caused by the Beirut blast in which the donor took care of the restoration in honor of her late Lebanese Jewish Husband. This was not the first time that the Synagogue’s photos from the inside appear as it was shared before back in 2009 as renovations took place and were completed in the year 2010, at that time there were rumors that it would be rebuilt, however this time it was covered by the media in a larger scale. Since news spread that it opened again which isn’t technically true yet as there isn’t any official statement by the Jewish Council and wouldn’t be possible as most Jews are still afraid of prosecution. This large coverage was due to the changes the middle east is currently facing in regards to Arab-Israeli relations as peace deals that Israel did with several Arab countries have led to many thinking that there will be a peace deal between Lebanon and Israel in the near future. What was apparent is that many Lebanese especially the new generation weren’t aware of the presence of Jews in Lebanon and never got to know their role in Lebanese history. Many were left in confusion as the community has long been in hiding due to the fears of persecution and had to go towards practicing Crypto-Judaism which means practicing Judaism in secret in order to protect themselves. Therefore, it is important to shed light on the history of this community and its contributions to Lebanon which was once a safe haven for them.

Maghen Abraham Synagogue in Beirut November 17, 2020, taken by Bassel Dalloul

The presence of Judaism in Lebanon dates back as many arguments to the time of Jewish migration after the destruction of the Second temple in 70 A.D. by the Romans after the city of Jerusalem was besieged in retaliation to the Jewish revolt, however, they were present in Lebanon before this date specifically in the South of Lebanon or which was known as Galilee area during that time. The destruction of the second temple changed the course of Jewish history as Jews were destined to accept new realities and build on them and take their religion elsewhere around the world as many had to leave their homeland. At the time Mount Lebanon was one of the migration destinations as some archeological sites marked their presence with old settlements and pilgrimage sites. As a matter of fact some argue Judaism to be the oldest present Abrahamic religion in Lebanon as Christianity at the time was still at its early stages. Like any other religion or ethnic group in Lebanon, the demographics varied with time and changed according to the situation in place. However, a significant presence throughout history wasn’t present as their numbers were low, and never got high ranking positions. Their presence was recorded throughout the region's history during several era’s which mostly are during the time of the Crusaders, Ummayad caliphate, Ottoman Sultanate, French colonization, Lebanese republic, and other eras. They were present throughout history however their numbers and place of residence have changed due to the region’s situation and the situation of the Jewish diaspora as they faced several migrations throughout history. Lebanese Jews were spread throughout the country in small communities, their presence was recorded in Beirut, Sidon, Tripoli, Deir el Qamar, Barouk, Tyre, Hasbaya, Amchit, and have taken Bhamdoun and Aley as a place to stay in summer like many other Lebanese people. The largest Jewish community was in Beirut’s Wadi Abou Jmil also in Saida’s Jewish quarter. They worked in many industries mostly in Dyeing fabric, Tailoring, Glassmaking, Manufacturing Boats, Currency exchange, Trade, amongst many other industries. Lebanon witnessed several waves of Jewish migration to it as the country was known to be safe for minorities. One of the most known waves was right after the Spanish Reconquista in 1492 Sephardic Jews came to live in Lebanon and spread across coastal cities and some moved to Deir el Qamar as it was the capital of the Mount Lebanon emirate and an important trade point in the Ottoman Empire during this period Fakher el-Din -II gave the Jews their freedom in expressing their religious rights and they also had a Synagogue in Deir el Qamar’s city center. The Jews in that time were in the close circle of Fakher el-Din and had good relations with him . As a matter of fact he had Jews who were part of his team such as his Consultant and writer Ibrahim Nehmaya and also his translator Isaac Ghawi. In addition, during this time in 1830 Greek Jews came into the region and stayed in Barouk where some say that the Jews planted the Cedar trees in Barouk which they wished to use later on to build Solomon’s temple again with and they were called the Cedars of the Jews.

Emir Fakher el-Din -II with his advisor Ibrahim Nehmaya

Moving forward in time their community was thriving especially in Beirut’s central district’s Neighborhood of Wadi Abu Jmil which was known as the Jewish center of Lebanon. In 1826 the Lebanese Jewish School was built, and it was the Israelite Alliance school which was established by Zaki Cohen, also in 1926 Abraham Sassoon an Indian Jew built the Maghen Abraham Synagogue. While in Sidon its Jewish community at the time was large and was recorded in 1974 to be at 1,500 where the number was much higher before however, what was left from the community left after the Israeli occupation which was taking care of Jewish sites at the time there. As a matter of fact, Sidon’s Synagogue (Ohel Jacob) is believed to be the oldest in Lebanon as some estimate it to be built on a much older Synagogue that existed in 66AD however it officially was built in 883 AD also Sidon has one of the Holy sites in Judaism which is the Tomb of Zevulun were Lebanese Jews believe that the Prophet Zevulun the head of the Zebulun tribe from Biblical times was buried. As for the communities in Aley and Bhamdoun they were formed after the Damascus- Beirut railway opened and they were destinations for rich Jews in the summer also both towns had Arab Jews coming in the summer. Synagogues in both towns exist till today but are deserted today . As a matter of fact Bhamdoun’s Synagogue is the biggest in the country.

Shula Cohen the famous Beirut Spy who worked closely with the Mossad.

Then came interesting times were in 1948 after the creation of Israel ironically the Jewish population doubled in Lebanon and rose up to 25,000 as many Jews who were expelled from other countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Iran took refuge in Lebanon as many had familial ties or preferred to stay in Lebanon rather than Israel. At the time of the creation of the state of Israel the Lebanese Jewish community was divided between those who support its initiation and those who were against it, however, hate against the Jewish community in Lebanon started as the atmosphere wasn’t friendly towards them. Some Lebanese Jews worked closely with the Mossad and most notably Shula Cohen who used to gather Beirut’s aristocrats in her Luxurious house to get information and used to help Lebanese Jews run to Israel also in that time some Lebanese Jews such as Edmond Rothschild started buying land in the south of Lebanon to form settlements as an extension to the northern Israeli border. Their stories were shared in Lebanon at the time and gave the impression that all Lebanese Jews were Mossad agents and supported the creation of the state of Israel and had led to Jewish prosecution as many attacks against them occurred such as the well-known incident in which 12 Jews were killed in 1945 by a mob in Tripoli and many other attacks occurred. During the 6-day war, 1967 Lebanon witnessed the highest wave of Jewish migration as tensions rose and the wave continued until the 1980s where the community’s number fell dramatically.

Today there aren’t any clear estimates on the number of Jews in Lebanon as they are engaging in Crypto-Judaism which is practicing Judaism in secret and most declare themselves as Christians or as any other religion in the country as inter-marriages happened. The number that is circulated as the official is 100–150 however it can be more than that. What is left from the Jewish community are their deserted or closed Synagogues and stories of their time in Lebanon. However, as the situation is changing in the region with the peace deals happening between Arab countries and Israel if it ever happened with Lebanon, we could see the Jewish community coming back to Lebanon. Like any time in history, the Jewish community in Lebanon is affected by what happens in the region.

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Writing about Geo-politics, Society, Culture, History, and Economics.

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Michael Maalouf

Michael Maalouf

Writing about Geo-politics, Society, Culture, History, and Economics.

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