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Lebanon Now Wants Help From the Jews It Pushed Out. What Chutzpah

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Today's Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon, where antisemitism is ubiquitous, is inhospitable to Judaism or Jewish communal life. But now the Lebanese state is appealing to its Jewish exiles for help
Today's Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon, where antisemitism is ubiquitous, is inhospitable to Judaism or Jewish communal life. But now the Lebanese state is appealing to its Jewish exiles for helpCredit: REUTERS/ Ammar Awad
David Daoud
David Daoud

Identity is complicated.

The incongruity of my fluent Lebanese Arabic and the Star of David always hanging around my neck usually prompts curious inquiries into my origins – those origins. I prefer to cut those questions short, invariably responding, "I’m from Connecticut." Particularly with Lebanese interlocutors.

I know they’ve probably heard of Lebanese Jews. Maybe from their parents, or they’ve seen Beirut’s Maghen Abraham synagogue, or watched a documentary about the community. Rarely have they met one, but seldom is their curiosity about my origins meant to initiate a genuine inquiry into Lebanese Jewry – our identity, customs, sentiments, or beliefs. Rarely, it seems, are Lebanese interested in us as real people rather than props.

These interactions often carry an implicit invitation to claim my presumed "Lebanese patrimony," tied to my parents who left in 1989, thus stamping my hechsher on an imagined pluralistic Lebanon, a country which rejects my Jewish identity. But I unfailingly refuse these invitations.

I’m simply not Lebanese. I don’t, and don’t want to, fit into their "Lebanese" box, a token, yet another "Arab Jew" – that irksome term seemingly designed to erase our ethnic identity – playing a role created by someone else.

That’s why, when I saw that the Lebanese government had taken the unusual step of inviting Jews who’d left Lebanon to a "family reunion" in its Paris embassy, where the Lebanese ambassador told them the Lebanese state was in danger and "all sects" needed to come to its aid, calling on them to come "home," I didn’t feel the delight of a long-delayed recognition of kinship. Quite the opposite.

I grew up thoroughly American in Connecticut, where I formed my most meaningful early memories and childhood connections. Without the memories (or sufficient substitutes) which anchor the older generation’s nostalgic, albeit complicated, longing for a "lost homeland," I failed to develop any feelings for Lebanon.

What little childhood exposure I had to Lebanon came from my mother – the language, music, or occasional dish – but it failed to resonate. I knew of Khalil Gebran, of Fairouz, Sabah, and Wadih al-Safi, and kibbeh nayyeh. But my father preferred Frank Sinatra, the Foundations, and Bob Dylan, among others; these were the soundtrack of my childhood, before I even formed my own musical tastes. And I thought kibbeh nayyeh was gross. I still think it’s gross.

My mother’s stories about Lebanon seemed like fables, their characters and settings lacking counterparts in my childhood surroundings. And her Arabic lessons only distanced me from Lebanon. I chafed against learning a language incomprehensible to my American friends, and which, at the time, served only to expose me to the region’s widespread antisemitic and anti-American sentiments.

America was my only country, and Israel was my ancestral homeland – two nations that gave my people dignity, whose sights and smells I’d experienced firsthand, and which embodied identities I lived daily, not an intangible one left behind by my parents in a distant land where Jews were second-class citizens. 

When I first visited Lebanon as an adult, my sentiments and identity had been fully formed. The experience reinforced my emotional detachment, the sense that I couldn’t belong without abandoning the meaningful parts of my identity.

I still remember fretting over whether to pack my tallit and tefillin and my relief as I passed through Beirut airport’s security without them being discovered. Perhaps I was being paranoid, but why would I even want to belong to a country where I’d ever have to feel that way, where I felt the need to hide my identity?

I also found myself unable to relate to the Lebanese – their culture, history, aspirations, triumphs, travails, and prejudices were simply not my own. I spoke their language and could understand them on an intellectual level. But I would never innately relate to the world through a "Lebanese lens." Not to mention the casual antisemitism, and the characteristic smugness with which Lebanese would pontificate – inaccurately – on Jews and Judaism. It wasn’t everyone, but there was enough of it to be off-putting.

Hezbollah supporters burn a poster caricaturing Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed as an ultra-Orthodox Jew wearing an Israeli flag during a Beirut protest against UAE-Israel normalization Credit: AP Photo/Hussein Malla

The Shiite woman and her daughter who recounted their fear of being poisoned by Moroccan Jewish hoteliers in France; the self-assured Sunni doctor who lectured me on how the "pornography" of the Song of Songs accounted for Jewish women’s "loose morals"; the Christian woman who surprisingly borrowed a Qur’anic term – al-maghdoub alayhum, those who anger God – to describe Jews.

I also recall my inability to respond.

It is with that mindset of indifference and wariness that I initially reacted to the Lebanese Embassy in France’s invitation to local Lebanese Jews to a meet-up in Paris, an invitation that several dozen Jews answered by attending, joined by France’s Chief Rabbi, Haim Korsia. "Are these your cousins?" a friend of mine jokingly texted. "God, I hope not," I dismissively responded. To another friend, I responded "Mixed feelings, tbh."

I’d felt those same mixed-to-negative feelings about Maghen Abraham’s restoration a decade prior – "That’s nice, but so what? Actually, maybe it’s a bad idea for Jews to visibly congregate in a country dominated by Hezbollah…"

But then I read the fine print, and indignation replaced indifference. A 70-year-old Jewish woman who had left Lebanon three decades ago asked Ambassador Rami Adwan "Why now?" He responded that Lebanon was "currently in danger, and all of its citizens, of all sects, must help save it." This wasn’t a welcome home party.

Report on 'family reunion' at the Lebanese embassy in Paris: 'Why now?'

Per An-Nahar, "this meeting dealt with the Jews as…as one of the capabilities [qudra min qudurat] of the Lebanese diaspora communities which, as a result, have the abilities to help Lebanon emerge from its downfall." 

This was a transactional event, a fundraising advertisement for the fantasy of a pluralistic Lebanon, with some Jews thrown in for good measure. Lebanon was cynically manipulating these guests – their nostalgia, memories, and longing for their birth country – to use them as an untapped resource, no different from the offshore hydro-carbon deposits it is disputing with Israel.

In desperation, Beirut was seeking to use their perceived wealth and political influence to extricate Lebanon from its self-imposed collapse, either by giving money or lobbying their respective governments to provide such aid.

My annoyance deepened with every positive Lebanese reaction to the Embassy event. Though motivated by better intentions than the event organizers, they reflected the same self-absorption.

"Excellent," commented one Lebanese-American pundit. Yes, but only for Lebanon. 

Graves from Beirut's only Jewish cemetery lie on a sidewalk after an old wall collapsed following heavy rains in the Sodeco area, causing damage to several tombstonesCredit: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

Another hoped for an invitation for Lebanese Jews to "their spiritual abode" (Jerusalem? Definitely not) "their Beirut synagogue" would be forthcoming. Underscoring the self-absorption of such well-wishes, that post was accompanied by pictures not of Maghen Abraham, but of a completely different historic building, the Abdel Kader villa. Because what difference does it make anyway?

Yet a third insisted that I was "family," sharing Lebanon’s history, culture and land, ending with the half-spoken wish that a Jewish return to Lebanon could happen, "one day..." It was meant to be wistful, but it struck me instead as ominous. What if I don’t want to be part of the "Lebanese family," with all the restrictive conditions it would impose on my Jewishness?

Lebanon’s diaspora outreach wasn’t confined to Jewish expatriates, though it was surely aware that Jews lobbying Western governments on behalf of an Arab country would be uniquely impactful. But those other communities have a real stake in Lebanon. They "own" the country, which accepts their identities on their terms, does not consider their citizenship conditional, and contains viable communities of their co-religionists.

By contrast, contemporary Lebanon is de facto inhospitable to Judaism or Jewish communal life, even though Judaism is an officially recognized religion. Only 28 Jews remain, all intermarried, keeping their ethno-religious identities a secret.

Hezbollah supporters wave Iranian, Palestinian and Hezbollah flags on the Lebanese-Israeli border in front of the Israeli town of Metula, near the southern village of Kafr Kila, earlier this yearCredit: AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari

The country is dominated by Hezbollah, an ideologically anti-Judaic organization. And they’re not alone. Hezbollah’s ally, the openly antisemitic Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP), now holds the deputy premiership. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri describes Jews as greedy, Rafik Hariri is recalled fondly for saying "no Sidonian will eat from a Jew’s hand," and former Environment Minister Wiam Wahhab jokes about loving Germany "because they burned the Jews." 

The ubiquity of antisemitism extends beyond politics. Polling has found overwhelming majorities of Lebanese hold anti-Jewish views. And it shows.

Members of the pro-Syrian, antisemitic Syrian Social Nationalist Party rally on Beirut's Hamra Street earlier this yearCredit: AP Photo/Bilal Hussein

Reverence for Nazism is not uncommon, with even celebrities admiring Hitler’s "persuasive skills." While open displays of Judaism are unacceptable – Beirut’s governor recently ordered the removal of a public display because, from a certain angle, it kind of looked like a Star of David – attacking Judaism is not.

Mainstream talk shows uncritically promote anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, including the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and accusations of "well-poisoning." Pseudo-scholar guests claim Jews worship a "genocidal murderer and butcher" deity befitting ISIS and describe the Torah as "full of filth" while decrying the "Jewish lobby’s" control of American media and the "the Jewish problem and Jewish duplicity" – only to be given platforms at prestigious Lebanese universities.

TV hosts, rather than push back, often join in. Popular talk-show host Marcel Ghanem recently cast doubt on the integrity of a financial firm advising Lebanon on debt restructuring, because "some of their names suggest they are Lebanese Jews."

Even the word "Yahudi" – Jew – is a casual Lebanese insult. Otherwise, the topic of Jews is so taboo that even Lebanese non-Jews fear publicly discussing it without endless caveats about their enmity towards Israel and Zionism.

In fairness, Lebanon wasn’t always this hostile to Judaism. Lebanon didn’t persecute Jews, or expel them after Israel’s creation, and even accepted Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Iraq and Syria. In fact, to a degree relatively unmatched in other Arab and Islamic countries, Lebanon allowed Jewish life to thrive.

Guests pose for a family photo at a wedding at Magen Avraham synagogue, Beirut, Lebanon, 1936.Credit: The Oster Visual Documentation Center at Beit Hatfutsot, courtesy of Edouard Mizrahi

Disturbances, incitement, and attacks occurred – particularly after the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli Wars – but were infrequent, largely private initiatives, and were swiftly countered by Lebanese authorities or feudal lords and their partisan militias.

But this was only ever a superficial idyll. The acceptance of Jews as Lebanese was conditional, on sufferance, notwithstanding protestations about Lebanon’s vaunted pluralism. Lebanese Jews were excluded from crafting Lebanon’s identity, a Janus-faced compromise between Western-oriented Maronite Christians and Arab world-oriented Muslims. Even the conception of Lebanon to which most Lebanese Jews subscribed was a Maronite creation.

Their alienation extended beyond that which, to some degree, was inherent in their minority status. They (and other minorities) were denied any direct political power or a parliamentary seat, despite once being Lebanon’s largest "minority sect." Prior to Lebanese independence, Maronite Christian President Emile Eddé politely – but paternalistically – rebuffed them, joking that he was a Jew and therefore their representative.

Unable to directly leverage the mechanisms of the state, their rights became subject to regional upheavals and domestic prejudices. Jewish communal life had to be "allowed" and they were in perpetual – if rarely exercised – need of "protection" by others.

The facade of Maghen Abraham, Beirut's synagogue, in downtown Beirut, Lebanon January 29, 2018. Picture taken January 29, 2018. Credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR/REUTERS

After Israel’s establishment, Lebanon imposed restrictions on Jews that – though paling in comparison to those enacted by other Arab countries – demonstrated the conditionality of their citizenship. They were forced to financially contribute to fighting Israel, while politicians and respected newspapers called their loyalty and property rights into question.

Beirut would also soon remove Jewish holidays from its official lists, cut its assistance to Jewish institutions, proscribe their youth organizations, obstruct their emigration, and restrict routine bureaucratic procedures – like obtaining passports, government contracts, and services.

Many of these measures were temporary, but the community had few means to resist. Instead, they kept a low profile, save for constantly denying their connections or loyalty to Israel. Their communal newspaper Al-Alam al-Israili ("The Israelite World") gradually became less assertive, changing its "provocative" name to Al-Salaam before shutting down altogether, ending the Jewish community’s ability to directly respond to such abuses. Their defense, and even their physical safety, rested on the inherently unreliable goodwill of others – particularly the Kataeb Party. 

As a result, Lebanese Jewish emigration accelerated in the late 1950s and 1960s. It peaked during the 1975-1990 civil war, when Lebanon's "golden years" gave way to the sectarian enmity always lurking beneath its prosperous and harmonious veneer.

The ancient Sidon synagogue, built in 833 and believed to rest on an older synagogue dating back to the destruction of the Second Temple in 66 CE, in advanced stages of disrepairCredit: Rustumpasha/Wikipedia

The main warring factions never targeted Lebanese Jews, but the community was quite literally caught in the middle: Beirut’s Jewish neighborhood straddled the fault-line between Christian and Muslim militias. But it was also during those years that Hezbollah launched a kidnapping campaign against Lebanon’s remaining Jews, spelling the community’s end.

None of this would have occurred had they been truly accepted as Lebanese.

Many Lebanese will be quick to object, "But Israel…!" In doing so, they only prove the point. Yes, today, many – if not most – Lebanese Jews are attached to Israel. Visit any Lebanese synagogue in the United States, and you’ll find an Israeli and an American flag flanking the Aron HaKodesh.

But why shouldn’t we have affection for a country embodying and respecting our Jewish identity? To spare the feelings of another that rejected us even when we weren’t Zionists?

A protester holds up a Lebanese national flag in front of burning tires blocking a main road during a protest in downtown Beirut, Lebanon this spring Credit: AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

A country that would force us to pare down our complex ethno-cultural identity to a mere "religion" in exchange for provisional acceptance? One that, simultaneously, embraces other Lebanese groups with strong ties elsewhere – the flourishing of the SSNP which wants to subsume Lebanon into Greater Syria, or Hezbollah which owes ultimately loyalty to Iran – two countries which have visited untold ruin upon Lebanon?

But identity is complicated, and many Lebanese Jews still nostalgically yearn for Lebanon.

They recall a time when they were woven into the belle epoque of Lebanon’s history; for the country where they prospered economically and culturally, and were well-integrated into the social and intellectual fabric; where they developed cross-sectarian friendships and business relationships, and their communal functions were often attended by non-Jewish compatriots, and political and religious dignitaries.

But history has proven that version of Lebanon was temporary for Jews – a superficial illusion of acceptance, much like an invitation to a Lebanese Embassy in Paris.

David Daoud is a research analyst on Lebanon and Hezbollah at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). He is also a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council. Twitter: @DavidADaoud

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