The 18th sect: Lebanon's forgotten Jewish community

NOW LEBANON looks at what remains of Lebanon's 18th sect, the Jews, and talks with one of the last remaining Jewish inhabitants of Beirut's old Jewish neighborhood, Wadi Abu Jamil.
Magen David Avraham Synagogue in Wadi Abu Jamil, Beirut's former Jewish neighborhood, today. (Photo courtesy of the author)

BEIRUT, March 7, 2008 (NOW LEBANON) – Lebanon has 18 official religious sects. Many groups, such as the Maronites, Sunni and Shia Muslims, and Druze, for example, play a daily role in Lebanon's civic affairs.  But how many Lebanese Chaldean Catholics or Ismaili Muslims have you met?  Other sects, like the Alawi, Assyrians and Coptic Christians also add to the Lebanese mosaic.

But one sect, which numbered nearly 17,000 in the 1960s, is nearly extinct today. Lebanon still has an officially recognized Jewish sect, made up of roughly 60 citizens, mostly residing in Beirut's eastern suburbs. The most recent community representative, Joseph Mizrahi, lived in Beirut until 2003, when he left for France.

Although their numbers steadily decline, Jewish shadows linger in Beirut and across Lebanon. Even if you've never been inside, chances are you've walked by the Magen David Avraham synagogue in Wadi Abu Jamil, the old Jewish quarter just below the Grand Serail. Now and then, elderly women are spotted walking into the Jewish cemetery in Sodeco or the vandalized, neglected cemetery by Saida's coastal trash landfill. Deir al-Qamar boasts Lebanon's oldest synagogue, yet the structure itself has been sealed shut for nearly 33 years. And Tripoli, Bhamdoun and Saida still have abandoned synagogues, closed since the outbreak of the civil war in 1975.

One of the last Jews to remain in Beirut is Liza (for reasons of security, her last name will be withheld).  Liza continues to live in Wadi Abu Jamil and steadfastly refuses to leave Lebanon.  An internal refugee from the days of the civil war, Liza now lives in an abandoned building set for demolition by [the development company] Solidere.  She may be the last Jewish presence in Wadi Abu Jamil.  Living alone with several generations of pet cats, she is quick to emphasize how important Lebanese identity is to her.

"Before anything else, I want you to know that I am Lebanese… and I am Jewish," she says at the beginning of our interview. "Don't ask me questions about Israel because I know nothing about that."

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Following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Lebanon’s Jewish population actually increased.  Most of the newly arrived Jews fled from Syria in search of security and found it easiest to escape to Beirut. Lebanon’s Jewish community felt safe, and saw its future here rather than abroad. Well-integrated in commerce and trade, many Lebanese Jews left the relatively poor Wadi Abu Jamil district and moved to the upper-middle class neighborhoods of Hamra and Clemenceau.

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This article was republished with permission from Now Lebanon.