The restoration of the Maghen Avraham Synagogue is the result a collaborative effort, but with public Jewish life in Lebanon all but extinguished, are refurbished symbols enough to recreate a community?
The story of the Jewish community of Lebanon is in many ways like that of all the other sects that reside in the small Mediterranean enclave. It is filled with the same challenges, privileges and political tensions.
Yet the story is also special in many ways, not least because after over 2000 years of habitation, the Jewish presence in Lebanon has almost vanished. Most reports estimate that the current population of Jews in Lebanon is less than 100. Fifty years ago it numbered in the thousands.
As with other religious and cultural groups, symbols have played an important role in communal identification throughout Jewish history. These include the Maghen David or Star of David, the sacred text, the Torah, and synagogues as the houses of worship. There were once sixteen synagogues in Beirut alone and many more scattered throughout Lebanon. All are now gone, except for one – the Maghen Avraham.
Located in the former Jewish district of Wadi Abu Jamil in what is now downtown Beirut, the Maghen Avraham, like any other Jewish house of assembly, was primarily a place for the community to come together and pray, but it was also a place of teaching and learning as well as a geographical focal point for Beirut’s Jewish community to gather in times of celebration and sorrow.
What marks the Maghen Avraham out as different is that its fortunes, in many ways, parallel the paradoxical history of Lebanon’s Jews. After being abandoned in 1976, the building sat empty for years, graffiti and urine covering the walls, until a decision was made by a non-Jew to raise funds to restore it. This has meant that the singular symbolism the synagogue once had as a gathering point for Jews is no longer quite as straightforward.
Today, the Maghen Avraham Synagogue has become a lodestone that has grown to encompass not only the history of Lebanon’s Jewish community but the country’s tolerance of diversity amid the sectarian chaos of the Middle East.
In this context, symbols can belie their true power. The 20th century philosopher George Santayana once spoke of the ‘deadly significance of symbols’. One need not only use the Jews as an example, but also the Kurds of Turkey and Iraq, the Copts of Egypt or the Tutsis of Rwanda, to see that communal symbols such as language, religion, dress, customs and certain geographical locations have all been significant, and deadly, for many groups throughout history. Ethnic conflict specialist Donald Horowitz also suggests that ‘the objective of symbols is a public affirmation of legitimacy where that legitimacy is contested.’ So, in countries where a group’s religious identity is questioned – like the Jews of Lebanon – symbols that reinforce the legitimacy of that religion are used both as an outward declaration of validity but also as a shield to shelter and protect.
It is this ambiguity that lies at the heart of ethnic and religious symbols. Consequently, it can be expected that minority groups, whose personal worth has been cast into doubt, will vigorously seek reassurance of their identity through the use of the sacraments.
In the Australian context, the Adam Goodes spear furore is just one example of how powerful symbols can be in the public psyche. When Australia’s Indigenous, Asian and more recently Muslim communities see themselves under threat, these communities have used traditional signs to link their political claims with psychological demands for affirmation of worth and belonging. Essentially, symbols form a particularly important part of communal life as a way of both legitimising and distinguishing ‘us’ from ‘them’.
Whether it be inner-city hipsters searching for the best coffee, evangelical Christians rejoicing at Catch the Fire ministries, or Goths sweating through their black velvet, this sense of belonging to a community, together with its associated symbolism, is an important aspect of what it means to be human.
While it is generally presumed that communal life in the more affluent West has been somewhat weakened by the forces of globalisation, ‘community’ remains vitally important for many around the globe, particularly in the Middle East. Perhaps because the bonds that tie peoples’ identity to the nation-state are generally not well formed in countries like Lebanon, other communities, such as an individual’s family, tribe or religious group, often form the backbone for their self-identification.
Over many years, social scientists have hypothesised as to why and how communities have been constructed. In 1991, Benedict Anderson coined the phrase ‘imagined community’. By this he meant that a community did not really exist but instead was something that was socially constructed or ‘imagined’ by people who perceived themselves part of the group.
In 2001, Anthony Smith said that a community is ‘a named population sharing a collective proper name, a myth of common ancestry, shared historical memories, one or more differencing elements of common culture, an association with a specific “homeland” and a sense of solidarity for significant sectors of the population’. Regardless of what definition is used, for all communities, be they national, ethnic, cultural or religious, symbols are a paradoxical way of both proclaiming and permitting difference from other communities.
The Jews of Lebanon have always fulfilled Anthony Smith’s definition, having had a strong sense of communal identity that stems from a long and rich religious and cultural tradition in those lands. There are claims that the first Jews came to the ancient port city of Tyre, in what was then Phoenicia, around 1000 BCE.
The first actual records of Jews date to the time of King Solomon, around 200 BCE, when it is believed that the Jews worked as middlemen selling cedar for the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Later they worked as dyers of threads and textiles in important commercial hubs like Saida (Sidon) and Tripoli and later still working as silk producers and in agriculture in the Chouf Mountains.
Over the rise and fall of many empires, the fortunes of the Jews, not unlike the Christians, Druze, Armenians, Alawites, Yazidis and others minorities of the Middle East, have waxed and waned. Revolt and dispersal, however, remained common. From the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans in 135 to the first crusade of 1095 and the conquest of Jerusalem by Salah al-Din in 1173 that once again expelled all non-Muslims from Jerusalem, whenever Jews have felt their way of life under threat they have taken action – either by force or by leave.
During this time, the small university town the Romans then called Beryte or Beritus was just one of many small towns on the banks of a burgeoning Mediterranean. It was not until the Ottomans carved out their empire in the 19th century that the area known then as Balad al-Sham was divided, with Beirut becoming the capital of the area now roughly known as Lebanon.
In 1925, the Maghen Avraham Synagogue opened its doors. Named after the son of Avraham Sassoon, Moise Avraham Sassoon of Calcutta, and built on land donated by the first Moukhtar or Mayor of Beirut’s Jewish community, Rabbi Youssef (Joseph) Isaac Mann, it was located in the heart of what had become the Jewish Quarter of the city, Wadi Abu Jamil.
To the Jewish community, Lebanon was their beautiful, ethnically diverse and culturally progressive home. Lebanon’s was the only Jewish population in the Middle East to increase after the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 because for many Jews, Lebanon was seen as a tolerant country compared to the rest of the Arab world. Many Syrian and Iraqi Jews, fleeing persecution in their own countries, sought asylum in Lebanon. In 1958, there were an estimated 14,000 Jews living there.
It was not until the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 that the fortunes of the Jews in Lebanon began to sour. Though Lebanon was not involved in the conflict with Israel, the impact of the war significantly altered the country’s political landscape. A large number of Palestinian refugees entered the country and Palestinian armed groups began frequently launching resistance operations against Israel from Lebanon.
Just as they had done throughout history, many Jews feared for their own security and the perpetual instability forced many to leave. They did not, however, go to Israel, which in their minds offered them no more security than Lebanon, but instead immigrated to safe havens like America, Canada and France, far from the conflicts of the Middle East. If they were going to be forced to leave Lebanon because of conflict, they did not want to start again in a place that had similar problems.
According to an article published in the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar in 1995, the Jewish community had diminished to around 4000 by 1971. As fate would have it, the outbreak of the second Lebanese civil war in 1975, that was to last fifteen long years, saw the Jewish neighbourhood of Wadi Abu Jamil caught on the frontline dividing Beirut between East and West, Muslim and Christian. A year after the start of the civil war the Maghen Avraham Synagogue closed. The majority of the Jews that remained left the country, not because of anti-Semitism but because of warfare and self-preservation. Wadi Abu Jamil became a no-mans-land in a bitterly divided country.
When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, the security situation of the small Jewish community that remained deteriorated even further. During the invasion, Israeli shrapnel hit the Maghen Avraham Synagogue as the Israeli Air Force tried to flush out Palestinian militants that had holed themselves up in Wadi Abu Jamil. Symbols can be used as shields after all.
In Lebanon, Jews who had lived their whole lives in the country with ancestors dating back centuries became associated in the Lebanese national psyche with Israel, Zionism and treason, and because of this many Jewish community leaders were kidnapped and killed. The Jews that stayed after 1984, numbering less than 200, were forced to keep their Jewish identity secret. When they were religiously observant, it was in the privacy of their own homes. There were no longer any outward symbols of the community left that had not been abandoned or destroyed.
Today there is no longer any public Jewish life in Lebanon. There is no communal congregation. There is no Rabbi or Torah remaining with which to conduct services. In the Jewish cemetery outside the synagogue the last tombstone is dated 1999. The few Jews that remain are secretive about their religion, preferring to keep it hidden for fear of ostracism or hostility. Despite being Arabic-speaking and French-educated with common Christian and Muslim surnames like Haddad, Hamadani, Srour and Sayegh, many Jews have ‘married out’ with their children no longer knowing about or identifying with their Jewish heritage.
In practice, there is no real Jewish community left in Lebanon.
Imagine the surprise, then, when it was announced in May 2009 that Beirut’s Maghen Avraham Synagogue was being restored. The project would cost between US$4–5,000,000 and take around six years to complete. It gained funding from many Lebanese Jewish expatriates but also from Lebanese Muslims and Christians. Even Solidere, a construction company owned by the prominent Sunni political family, the Hariri’s, who are renovating Downtown Beirut, kicked in $150,000.
Virtually all Lebanese, including the political/military group Hezbollah that has fought a number of wars against Israel, have supported the project. Hezbollah’s spokesperson announced, ‘We respect the Jewish religion just like we do Christianity. The Jews have always lived among us. We have an issue with Israel’s occupation of land.’
Isaac Arazi, the self-appointed head of what is left of the Jewish community in Lebanon confirmed that, ‘Not all Jews are Zionists. We identify as Lebanese and we belong in Lebanon 100 per cent. Our condition is just like that of the rest of Lebanon. We suffer just as they do…’
But with Hezbollah now a major player in Lebanese politics and essentially providing the security for the state, what else could he say?
This is the paradox of the Maghen Avraham Synagogue as a symbol for Lebanon’s Jews. While the renovations of the synagogue revive the symbolic nature of a Jewish community and assuage the guilt of its dispersal, it belies the fact that in reality there is none.
Despite being completed last year, it remains virtually impossible to gain entry to the synagogue. And even if you could, there is no Torah or Rabbi now in the country with which to conduct services. Special access may be granted by obtaining an entry permit from Solidere but issuing of the permit is not guaranteed.
Meanwhile, access for the public is likely years away, if at all. All this leads to the conclusion that restoration of the synagogue is mostly a symbolic gesture. However, despite the inability to access the synagogue physically, the symbolic power of the renovation has reawakened something both within Lebanese society and in the Jewish-Lebanese diaspora.
From pictures, the synagogue is a beautiful building with high vaulted ceilings. The original fretwork was been painstakingly restored using both paint and inlay. There are leadlight windows that soften the harsh Mediterranean light.
While what remains of Lebanon’s Jewish community is in many ways a non-existent, imagined community within Lebanon, the ‘community’ itself has been re-enlivened and re-imagined even if that community is now geographically disparate. For the first time since they left almost fifty years ago, many now elderly Jews feel that it is safe to make a return visit. Around 2000 Jewish émigrés enter and exit Lebanon freely each year.
While Anthony Smith’s definition of community may at first glance seem relatively stagnant, the Jewish experience in Lebanon distorts the reality that communities are actually something dynamic and evolving.
Even though the current Jewish community in Lebanon remains diminutive, the divergent Jewish Lebanese ‘imagined community’ has grown in stature through the restoration of the synagogue. Beirut’s Maghen Avraham Synagogue has become both a potent symbol of Lebanon’s ethnic diversity and also, in a strange way, an acceptance of Judaism in the heart of the Middle East.
Original illustration by Guy Shield.