BEIRUT — Tucked away in Wadi Abu Jamil, a neighborhood near downtown Beirut, is the only standing Jewish synagogue in Lebanon, and its renovation is almost finished.
The Maghen Abraham Synagogue, built in 1925, was abandoned and closed down a year after the start of Lebanon’s civil war in 1976. A few years later, in 1982, the synagogue was hit by Israeli shrapnel during a bombardment of the Palestinians in the synagogue’s neighborhood.
Al-Monitor was given rare access to the synagogue, where no photos were allowed for security concerns. The entrance bears a sign in Hebrew with its name, held up by columns. Inside, wooden chairs covered in bubble wrap are laid out on the stone floor. In the center of the room, a small marble podium stands where the Jewish scriptures, the Torah, will be read.
A scaffold blocks a small stage at the back of the room, where a small ornamental closet waits to store the Torah scrolls again. A Star of David adorns the wall as a reminder of whom the synagogue represents.
Only about 200 Jewish believers remain in Lebanon. Weary of media attention, they were not willing to respond to Al-Monitor’s inquiries. But Bassem al-Hout, a Muslim lawyer who represents their interests, told Al-Monitor that even though the synagogue renovations are nearly finished, security in the country is not high enough yet for it to reopen.
“We are waiting for the struggle to end,” he said, referring to the regional conflicts spilling into Lebanon from Syria and Iraq. “The region is on fire.” Hout stated that when the synagogue is opened, Jews and supporters from around the world will be invited for a dedication ceremony.
For now, the Jewish community within Lebanon’s borders practices its faith in the privacy of home. Hout explained, “They are afraid of a reaction by individuals," who do not understand their religion is not synonymous with the State of Israel.
But Hout also said the Lebanese public needs to be educated about the difference between Lebanese Jews and Israel, and it is the responsibility of the media to expose such information.
Edy Cohen of Bar Ilan University in Israel told Al-Monitor, “Most Jews from Arab countries don’t relate to the Israelis," but rather they relate to the countries that raised them. Cohen himself, a Lebanon native, identifies as Lebanese first, differentiating his nationality from his religious practice. He left Lebanon when he was 19 after the country’s civil war. He said his father was kidnapped by Hezbollah a few years before, in 1985, and was killed when the Israeli government refused a prisoner exchange.
He confirms most of the Jews in Lebanon did not want to migrate to Israel during the war, saying, “Israel is always in a state of war; it’s known." They had relatives in other places such as the United States, France or Canada. Cohen believes those who fled Lebanon for the West did not want to start a new life in a place of war.
But Hout said that Lebanon’s Jews “do not like Israel; they are Arabian.” Like Cohen, Hout believes Lebanese Jews identify with their nationality versus their religion.
In Tel Aviv, Canadian-Israeli citizen Corey Gil-Shuster hosts a YouTube channel called “Ask An Israeli,” a project he started nearly four years ago in 2011, to better understand the narrative on the streets of Israel about the Palestinian conflict and the Arab world around them.
In one episode, entitled “Meir: Lebanon,” dated September 2013, he interviews a Lebanese-Jewish man called Meir, who admits he misses Lebanon. Meir said that in Israel, people are stressed, but in Lebanon, “You lived like kings. In Lebanon, things were great: the food, the atmosphere.” But the war changed everything. Meir once had Muslim friends, but now there is no one. His own family lives in the West, while for now, he feels more comfortable in Tel Aviv than New York. He would return to Lebanon if there were peace.
Shuster follows with another episode in which he asks Israelis whether it is possible to have peace with Lebanon. While most say the divide is the fault of “terrorist organizations,” namely Hezbollah, one man, Shai, who served in the Israeli military and was deployed to Lebanon in 1977, believes the “noisy minority” — extreme parties in both Lebanon and Israel — prevents relations between the countries.
Shuster told Al-Monitor the knowledge base in Israel is a “closed system.” He explained many Israeli citizens are unaware of the Arab world outside their borders, including Lebanon, and base what they know off “what’s on TV” at night. He said there are “only two narratives; you’re either pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli," and there’s little understanding of an alternative storyline.
Most texts point to the formation of an Israeli nation through Jewish-religious roots. The interpretation of how their people-group should exist, however, is changing due to many Israelis abandoning their religious beliefs and practices.
But those living in the Arab world who find solace in the Jewish religion are finding their identity torn. In Lebanon, Hout stated there are “individuals who do not see the difference because of the war.”
Certainly, Hezbollah’s refusal to recognize the State of Israel has not helped, nor has a series of conflicts at Lebanon’s southern border. But spokesman Hussain Rahal was quoted back in 2008 as saying, “We respect the Jewish religion just like we do Christianity … we have an issue with Israel's occupation of land.”
The Lebanese government and the Israelis are officially considered enemy states after nearly 70 years of complicated border relations and war. Lebanese citizens are prohibited from speaking to Israelis, though there is no law against speaking to the Lebanese Jewish population.
Even so, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has often referred to his country and demanded others recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” implying that the Israeli government is the representative of the Jewish religious belief system.
In her book, “The Jews of Lebanon,” Kirsten Schulze, a professor at The London School of Economics focusing on Middle East conflict and security, stated, “The creation of the State of Israel, the Arab boycott and the outcome of the first Arab-Israeli war … affected Lebanon.” She explained, “Maronite politicians were accused of complicity with Israel, Sunni politicians pushed for integration of the [Palestinian] refugees,” tipping the Lebanese population toward a Sunni majority and potentially subjecting the Lebanese Jewish community to further public scrutiny.
Despite the Jews being loyal to the Lebanese nation, the wars caused them to disperse.
So, as the finishing touches are made to Lebanon’s largest Jewish relic, the question remains: Will the Lebanese people be able to receive a religious group so closely associated with the controversial State of Israel? According to Hout, “They will accept, because they already live together.”