Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
During the 1960s, there were thousands of Lebanese Jews living in the country. They resided all over the country and were mainly known as the inhabitants of the area of Wadi Abu Jmil in downtown Beirut. Officially referred to as ‘Israelis’ or sometimes as Mousawiyyin – literally ‘the followers of Moses’ – Lebanon’s Jews have mostly left the country as a result of social pressure, unpunished violence against them, fears of persecution and the various wars with Israel, which have had a significant impact on their existence in the country.
There are no official estimates as to the size of Lebanon’s remaining Jewish community today. While estimates suggest that there are now only 200–500 Jews in the whole country, Jewish community representatives have reported that the figure could be as low as 100. Most have chosen to change their names and do not reveal their religious identity out of fear of persecution.
Unlike other Arab countries, where Jews were declared unwelcome following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Lebanon did not expel its Jewish population. During the 1960s, Lebanon’s Jewish population numbered a few thousand and even grew as a result of migration from neighbouring Arab countries following the 1948 creation of the state of Israel. In Beirut, the city’s Jewish population was centred in the neighbourhood of Wadi Abu Jmil, west of the city centre.
Yet, despite this initial increase in the Jewish population, the defeat of the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian armies in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war created increasing uncertainty for Lebanon’s Jewish population. Growing anti-Israeli sentiment drove attacks against Jews in Lebanon and the onset of the civil war in 1975 put their future into further doubt. Many migrated as a result, leaving much of their property and old way of life behind. Wadi Abu Jmil was emptied of its population, and the beautiful synagogue of Maguen Abraham, once the centre of the community, was closed down and subsequently damaged by Israeli bombardment during the war.
Due to their small size and political marginalization, the Lebanese Jewish community has become invisible and its future in Lebanon becomes more uncertain by the day. Jewish synagogues and cemeteries were closed down and heavily damaged by the war or desecrated. The last official Jewish rabbi left Lebanon after the onset of the civil war and no religious official authority remains today. Like many of Lebanon’s smaller religious groups, they are excluded from the country’s sectarian power-sharing system. Acts of vandalism against Jewish-owned cemeteries and hate speech linking Jewish communities with Israel and Zionism have continued since the war, encouraging a climate of hostility towards the country’s few remaining Jews.
The surviving legacy of Lebanon’s Jewish community in the capital, Beirut, has also been threatened by the city’s rapid redevelopment over the past two decades. In 1994, the privately-owned Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut Central District, otherwise known as Solidere, took on the task of reconstructing and developing the city centre. Although it is impossible to know the exact number of Lebanese Jews who still live around Wadi Abu Jmil or own property within the area, Solidere’s reconstruction of Wadi Abu Jmil has transformed it, like other parts of central Beirut, into an upmarket and exclusive urban neighbourhood geared towards its affluent new residents. After numerous efforts to complete its restoration, the area’s renowned Maghen Abraham Synagogue now serves as a private community centre but has yet to be opened to the public.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in