Friday, October 17, 2014

Can Jewish life return to Beirut?

For anyone truly familiar with the history of the Middle East it is no surprise to hear that Jewish communities once flourished across the region from Jerusalem to Aleppo and Baghdad to Tehran. It's not a story that gets much attention in the mainstream press, but the loss of Jewish communities in so many places in the Middle East and North Africa where they had flourished, in some cases, for more than a thousand years cannot be ignored.

Given that this narrative is not often in the headlines, I took note when I saw a piece published on the Foreign Affairs website by Adam Rasmi, entitled "Lebanon's Jewish Renaissance." In this article, Mr. Rasmi sounds an optimistic note about a possible revival of Jewish life in the country. I like his optimism, and while there was a time when Lebanon was a relatively cosmopolitan, tolerant country, those days seem long gone now.

As the author notes in his article, the Jewish community did not do all that well during the turbulent latter half of the twentieth century in Lebanon, and today there is an excellent argument to be made that the country is essentially a failed started, with large sections of its territory under control of Hezbollah. Anyone who doubts the influence of this terror organization need only go to northern Israel, as I have done several times, and look over the border to see the flag of Hezbollah - not that of the government of Lebanon - flying on village rooftops. Even though there are people mentioned in his piece who want to draw a distinction between hatred for Israel and Anti-Semitism, the idea that Hezbollah believes the same is ridiculous. In fact, it is quite clear that Hezbollah has no problem targeting Jews or Israeli civilians - given this, I can't imagine anyone who is Jewish would be eager to live in a country partly controlled by  this terrorist organization.

In his article Mr. Rasmi makes a good point that investing in the Jewish community and reopening of the synagogue in Beirut has important symbolic value, especially at a time when ethnic and religious minorities in the region are under threat, including Kurds, Christians and others. It also serves to remind the world that Jews have an ancient and continuous connection to the Middle East, something which is all too easily and often forgotten.

That being said, Mr. Rasmi notes that fewer than 200 Jews call Lebanon home today, and I've seen estimates that there may be fewer than thirty. I think that from a practical perspective we are also unlikely to see Lebanese Jews returning en masse from abroad to Beirut and other former communities. There are many reasons for this - for one thing, from the outside, Lebanon hardly strikes me as the sort of place where many people would want to live as a member of a very small minority community.  Furthermore, with tension always at a low boil between Israel and Lebanon, I frankly doubt it would take much for Hezbollah and other troublemakers to incite violence against Lebanese Jews when and if there is another war with Israel.

I'm personally glad to see that there are a few people thinking about the Jews of Lebanon in a current context, and Mr. Rasmi deserves kudos for drawing attention to their noble efforts, but I can't help feeling that the rebuilt synagogue is likely to become a museum at best, and a target for those who hate Jews and Israel, at worst.

Perhaps in a more tolerant environment the renovation of the synagogue could serve as a rallying point for understanding, but it's hard to imagine such a scenario any time soon.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

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