As Webmaster of the website des Fleurs (see page 19 Avotaynu, Vol XXI, Number 1 Spring 2005), I have come across many Jewish families from Lebanon who had emigrated after its several civil wars and wars with Israel.
The genealogy of the many families linked to the author’s own family has been published on Les Fleurs. That information includes a document by the late Ferdinand Anzarouth (1917-1997) entitled “Les Juifs du Liban”, written a year before his demise (http://www.farhi.org/Documents/JuifsduLiban.htm).
Years later, that article came to the attention of a businessman in Morocco, Nagi Zeidan, a Lebanese national. Mr. Zeidan was researching and writing a book on the Jewish communities of Lebanon. For that purpose, he had single-handedly translated Arabic newspapers, electoral lists (1983) and death records in order to establish a large database and history of Jewish families living in Lebanon until the 1980s. I published several excerpts (in French) of his work in progress on Les Fleurs website.
This paper presents the results of Nagi Zeidan’s research. Initially, he collaborated with Mrs. Mathilde Tagger, an expert in the publication of Jewish databases, and also with Isaac Salmassi and Cecil Dana both of whom have extensive personal knowledge of the Lebanese Diaspora, and are familiar with Hebrew and Arabic scripts and languages. Later, surmounting the suspicions of some former Lebanese Jews about the motives behind his questions, Zeidan befriended many of them on Facebook, with the result that their collaboration created an ever-growing genealogy database of such families.
The death records database of the Jewish communities of Beirut has been published on Dr. Jeffrey Malka’s SephardicGen.com website. The genealogical information is also partially available on Les Fleurs, with the usual restrictions of privacy for living people.
The author would like to thanks all those dedicated genealogists who worked on these projects. And now to today’s topic.
In around 1869, one of the Picciotto families (wealthy traders and consuls in Aleppo) emigrated from Aleppo and built a mansion for themselves in Wadi Abou Jamil, close to Beirut. This became the new Jewish Quarter of Beirut.
By 1940, most of the residential houses of Haret el Yahoud had been converted for commercial use as their owners moved to Abou Wadi Jamil. Haret El Yahoud was destroyed in the Civil War of 1976.
The scale of the immigration into Lebanon can be seen from the Montefiore censuses of 1846-1861-1884-1885-1889-1893-1895.
Jews lived in the following cities: Beirut, Saida. Tripoli, Deir el Kamar, Barouk, Hasbaya, Tyr, Aley and Zahlé. After the construction of the Beirut-Damascus railroad in August 1895, Aley became a popular weekend destination for the Jews of Beirut.
By the 20th century, the Jewish communities of the following towns had vanished due to emigration to the larger cities – Baalbek, Deir el Kamar, Ramiche, Mokhtara, Hasbaya and Tyr (where Jewish emigrants from North Africa bound for Safed settled in 1834 following the devastation of Safed in an earthquake). The 20 families of Hasbaya left the town after riots in 1860. Ramiche had only one remaining family - the Grunbergs who owned a cheese factory there until 1911.
LEBANON HISTORY AND GEOGRAPHY
The country we know today as Lebanon was carved out of the Greater Syria, a country created following the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War II and put under a French Mandate.
During the Ottoman Empire and prior to 19th century, the area known as Balad El Cham extended from Turkey to the Gulf of Akaba. Around 1834, with the first construction of roads following the invasion of Ibrahim Pasha’s armies of Akko, namely the roads from Beirut to Damascus, from Damascus to Jerusalem and from Jerusalem to Jaffa, the Ottoman Empire created three main provinces (wilayats): Mount Lebanon with the Mediterranean Coast from Akko to Turkey (with Beirut as capital), Syria from Aleppo to the Red Sea on the west side of the Jordan river (capital Damascus) and Palestine (capital Jerusalem).
In 1920, the Greater Syria under the French was split again into Lebanon (something referred to “Le Grand Liban”) and Syria; and Lebanon achieved its independence in 1943.
Lebanon was originally a part of an area called Phoenicia in the Bible and in older sources. Its capital was Tyr that was linked to a small university town the Romans called Beryte or Beritus. Jewish prisoners were concentrated there after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple
Kirtsen Shultz, a historian at the London School of Economics, claimed in her book “The Jews of Lebanon” that the first Jews came to Tyr around 1000 BCE. Jewish residents were first recorded there during the time of King Solomon, when it is thought that Jews were involved in selling cedar for the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. However, it is more likely, as recorded in the Bible, that these trees were sold by Hiram, King of Srour (Tyr) without any Jewish middlemen. (Source: St Takla Coptic Bible: http://st-takla.org/Full-Free-Coptic-Books/FreeCopticBooks-002-Holy-Arabic-Bible-Dictionary/06_H/H_247.html).
Little is known about the history of Jews in the area subsequent to that first dispersion, except for some ancient tombstones found in the port area of Saida (Sidon). (Source: Ferdinand “Fred” Anzarouth). Saida and Tripoli were the main commercial centers of the Mediterranean coastline.
In 1173 Saladin expelled the non-Muslim from Jerusalem and Safed. In that same year, Benjamin de Tudela, travelling from Zaragoza to Jerusalem (1165 to 1173) reported that there were about 50 Jews in Saida, mostly working in the dyeing of threads and textiles.
A census, conducted for the Ottoman authorities by Nabil Khalife in 1519, reported the presence of 19 Jews in Beirut, probably having fled from the plague that ravaged Jerusalem in about 1514.
There is a reference in the Jewish Encyclopedia of 1905 to 5 Iraqi Jews who had settled in Beirut. They were from the Levy family and lived near Saint Elie Catholic Church and the Assaf Mosque. In 1807 they built a synagogue named Mesguad Ladek (demolished in 1930). Many Ottoman immigrants moved into the same area that became known as Haret el Yahoud (the Jewish Quarter).
At the beginning of the 19th century (ca 1832), the population of Beirut included 400 Europeans from Italy, France and Austria, settled there for trading reasons. None of them were Jewish. (Source Zeidan)
Over the years, Jews from Akko (1809), Greece (1821-30), Egypt, North Africa (1837), Aleppo and Damascus (1900-1948), Iraq and Iran (1900-1955), and Ashkenazim from Europe (1833,), also settled in the Lebanon.
The port of Beirut became important after the decline of Akko in the 19th century. (Thomas Philipp, ACRE. The Rise and Fall of a Palestinian City, 1730-1831 , Columbia University Press, New York, 2002).
In June 1860, following civil unrest and rioting between the Christian and Druze population in the town of Deir El Kamar, Barook and Hasbaya, the Jewish families from these cities moved to Aleh and Damascus. Among them the Zalt, Dahan, Khabieh and Zeitoune families. Those from Hasbaya became known as Hasbani.
LEBANESE 1932 CENSUS
An official census was conducted in 1932, when many Jews from Damascus claimed to be Lebanese just to get recorded in the civil records. The Census recorded only 3,531 Jews in just 5 cities:
From 1839 to 1876 Sir Moses Montefiore commissioned censuses of the Jewish populations of Alexandria and the Holy Land (which included the area now called Lebanon).
The 1839, 1840 (Alexandria only), 1849, 1855 and 1866 Censuses have been placed on the Internet by the Montefiore Endowment and can be consulted openly at this URL. Work is continuing on the 1875/6 census. The 1866 and 1875 did not over Beirut & Saida.
LEBANESE RECORDS FOR JEWISH RESIDENTS
A list of all Jewish names can be compiled from census records and electoral rolls. The more recent censuses were conducted by a State Agent in the presence of the Mokhtar of each city or area. The Mokhtar, a civil servant with duties like the mayor of the city, was supposed to know all his constituents personally and had to certify the accuracy of the censuses.
The Censuses recorded everyone present in the country, while the Electoral Lists included only the Lebanese nationals,
In the local Jewish folklore only three families - Hana, Dana and Mana -were considered ethnically Lebanese while all the other were immigrants. In fact those families also started as immigrants, from Akko, Tunisia and Lithuania respectively, but had lived in Lebanon for so long that no one remembered their origins.
From 1925, under a free trade and customs agreement, Lebanon and Syria were run separately but as part of a union between the two countries. Syrian nationals who came to Beirut were never granted Lebanese nationality automatically. Under that Union, abrogated by Syria in 1950, Lebanon occasionally gave citizenship to Syrian immigrants from Damascus but denied it to those from Aleppo. There was no direct legal path to citizenship, which was granted by the authorities as they saw fit – and in practice only to a few resident businessmen: taxpayers never got it.
After Israel’s independence in 1948, Syria stopped issuing passports to Jews and many Syrian citizens already residing in Lebanon suddenly lost their passports.
Stateless Lebanese residents could buy foreign passports and become Iranian or Panamanian nationals. However, these passports carried no right of abode in their issuing countries. Lebanon, like many other Arab countries, issued Laisser-Passers to its stateless Jews for a one-way trip out of the country.
At the height of its population explosion following the immigration of the refugees from Aleppo in 1950-1952, the Jewish community of Lebanon numbered about 10,000 people. Later, many emigrated to Israel, Europe, North and South America as well as to Asia and Australia: this was mostly for economic reasons and was seldom due to religious or political persecution. The Lebanese civil wars accelerated the exodus. Between 1975-1980, several Jews including the President of the Jewish Community were kidnapped for ransom and often murdered by various gangs.
In an article published in the Lebanese paper Al-Nahar in 1995, it was claimed that the community had been reduced to 4,000 by 1971.
According to some observers, the number of Lebanese Jews who voted for candidates representing Minorities in the 1970’s elections may not have exceeded 1500 votes.
From 2009, the Electoral rolls included about 9,000 Jewish names - even though many had died or emigrated (L’Hebdo Magazine 1 Mai 2009 p 48). Such lists may have been used for electoral fraud. In 2005, the list for Deir el Kamar contained 100 names but only one cast a blank vote in protest.
By now, (Al Akhbar 12 April 2012), uncorroborated Lebanese sources put the post-1984 Jewish population at 200, mostly living in hiding. According to Jewish sources that number should be fewer than 30, with many married to Christian and Muslim partners.
The Jewish community of Lebanon reached its greatest expansion, fame and glory during the French Mandate. They owned newspapers, banks, international trading companies, real estate companies as well as many small businesses in Beirut and smaller cities.
When Christian Arabs ruled Lebanon, Jews enjoyed relative toleration. In the mid-50’s, approximately 7,000 Jews lived in Beirut. As Jews in an Arab country, however, their position was never secure, and the majority left in 1967.
Fighting in the 1975-76 Muslim-Christian civil war swirled around the Jewish Quarter in Beirut, damaging many Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues. Most of the remaining 1,800 Lebanese Jews emigrated in 1976, fearing the growing Syrian presence in Lebanon would curtail their freedom. Most Jews went to Europe (particularly France), the United States and Canada.
In the mid-1980’s, Hezbollah kidnapped several prominent Jews from Beirut — most were leaders of what remained of the country’s tiny Jewish community. Four of the Jews were later found murdered.
Nearly all of the remaining Jews are in Beirut, where there is a committee that represents the community.2 Because of the current political situation, Jews are unable to openly practice Judaism. In 2004, only 1 out of 5,000 Lebanese Jewish citizens registered to vote participated in the municipal elections. Virtually all of those registered have died or fled the country. The lone Jewish voter said that most of the community consists of old women.3
The Jewish cemetery in Beirut is decrepit and cared for by an elderly Shiite woman. The gravestones, written in Hebrew and French, are a testament to the Lebanese Jewish community that is now only a shadow of its former self.4
The Arab-Israeli conflict, and Israel’s long military presence in Lebanon, provoked strong anti-Israel sentiment. All travel from Lebanon to Israel is strictly prohibited. Meanwhile, Hizballah uses southern Lebanon as a base for terrorist attacks against Israel.
In September 2008, Isaac Arazi, the leader of Lebanon’s Jewish Community Council announced that he planned to rebuild the Maghen Abraham synagogue in Beirut and that additional plans were underway to restore Beirut’s Jewish cemetery, which is home to some 4,500 graves.5 Originally built in 1926, the synagogue was seriously damaged during the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war when looters stole its Torah ark and prayer benches and gutted its electrical system. Renovation work began in August 2009, with approval from the Lebanese government, planning authorities, and Hizballah. Reconstruction was funded by donations from private donors and a donation from Solidere, a construction company privately owned by the family of assassinated prime minister Rafik Hariri.6
Today decrepit buildings are the only vestiges of a once large and vibrant Jewish community in Lebanon. Old Lebanese synagogues are now falling into disrepair or being used as personal dwellings instead of religiously significant landmarks. Tourists often visit these old synagogues but few serve a religious or communal service any more. The Ohel Yacob Synagogue in Saida, with it's shoddy wooden door and a metal window grate featuring Stars of David, is the only one that remains open to the public currently. Ohel Yacob has been turned into a home with couches and a television set instead of a bima and a place for the Torah scrolls. 7
Lebanon's oldest synagogue, Magen Abraham Synagogue, located in the mountains of Aley has been undergoing a renovation project after being abandoned as a place of worship following the Lebanese civil war. The building sustained heavy damage and looting during the war and did not reopen afterwards due to structural damage and a dwindling Jewish population. Currently, the renovation project is underway but moving slowly and the ground is littered with dirt, old boots, and garbage. The building also no longer has a roof7.
The synagogue in the town of Deir al-Qamar is currently the most well restored synagogue in the country. A stone building with tall vaulted ceilings, the Deir al-Qamar synagogue is owned by the Lebanese government who took on a project to restore the synagogue along with the rest of Deir al-Qamar's historic district. Occasionally the building is rented out by local organizations for events, however it is not used on a regular basis7.
The Bhamdoun Synagogue is one of the largest to ever exist in Lebanon, and is the most intact today. The stone slabs in front of the building bear the words of the ten commandments written in Hebrew, and inside the building the remenants of a bima and a "Holy Ark" for the Torah can be found. The Bhamdoun Synagogue was built in 1922 and is known as the "New Temple" because it was one of the last synagogues to be built in Lebanon7.
THE JEWS OF LEBANON 2013 (46.26) BBC documentary by Nadia Abdelsamad on the Lebanese Jews and their history in Beirut and Sidon.
THE LEBANON I DREAM OF Pierre Dawalibi 2011 (45.16)
This documentary intends to open the eyes of the Lebanese youth to the real problems in their society. it gathers 45 carefully selected Lebanese figures who start by showing how beautiful Lebanon is and how terribly ugly we have made it. Then it states every practical issue in their daily life: social, political, economic, ecological and humanitarian. When reaching to solutions, those who were supposed to be a solution turn out to be the real problem: The judicial system, Media and civil society. The only solutions left are education and elections. In the end they all dream of the Lebanon they would like to have and turn with a direct message to the young generation and hand them the responsibility of change.