Imagine the United States was at war with Israel. As an American Jew, this would no doubt be a paradoxical matter. An improbable scenario, but this is what Lebanese Jews had to contend with when Israel gained independence in 1948. Life for Jews in the capital city of Beirut was tranquil compared to the precarious life of Jews in other Arab countries. There was a sense that there was nothing to fear and, given that the economy was improving, there was more to gain by remaining in Lebanon. They lived with no conflicting feelings between their Jewish identity and their sense of pride in being Lebanese; in fact, Lebanon is the only Middle Eastern country where the Jewish population increased following the creation of Israel. This all changed with the outbreak of Lebanon’s 1958 civil war. Lebanese Jewish emigration began towards the end of the 1958 civil war and reached its peak following the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, which pitted Israel against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Many Jews in Lebanon felt conflicted, as they had a strong sense of a Lebanese identity and nationalism. In their hearts, they were (and still are) Lebanese – nothing was going to change that. At the same time, they felt attached to the new Jewish state. In fact, some did leave for Israel immediately when independence was achieved while others left much later.
The history of Lebanese Jews dates back to ancient times. For instance, Jewish communities existed as far back as the Biblical times; for example Jewish communities existed in the first century after the Bar Kokhba Revolt, in the seventh century under Caliph Muawiya in Tripoli, in the tenth century in Sidon, and the 11th century in Tyre. Nonetheless, the modern Jewish community of Beirut evolved in three distinct phases. Until 1908, the Jewish population in Beirut grew by migration from the Syrian interior and from other Ottoman cities like Izmir, Salonica, Istanbul, and Baghdad. Commercial growth in the thriving port-city and relative safety and stability in Beirut all accounted for the Jewish migration. Thus, from a few hundred at the beginning of the 19th century, the Jewish community grew to 2,500 by the end of the century, and to 3,500 by the First World War. While the number of Jews grew considerably, the community remained largely unorganized. During this first phase, the community lacked fundamental institutions, such as communal statutes, elected council, welfare and taxation mechanisms. The 1908 Young Turk Revolution sparked the organizational process. Within six years, the Beirut community created a general assembly, an elected twelve-member council, drafted communal statutes, appointed a chief rabbi, and appointed committees to administer taxation and education. The process created tension and even conflicts within the community, but eventually, the council established its rule and authority in the community. With the establishment of Greater Lebanon in 1920, the Jewish community of Beirut became part of a new political entity. The French mandate rulers adopted local political traditions of power sharing and recognized the autonomy of the various religious communities. Thus, the Jewish community was one of Lebanon’s sixteen communities and enjoyed a large measure of autonomy, more or less along the lines of the Ottoman millet system. During this third phase of its development, the community founded two major institutions: the Magen Abraham Synagogue, and the renewed Talmud Torah Selim Tarrab community school.
The Lebanese Jews were very well-respected merchants who were held in high regard by the different confessions in Lebanon. The Jews of Lebanon were not the classic ahl al-dhimma, or protected minorities of the Muslim community but rather they were one of twenty-three constituent minorities of the Lebanese polity. The constitutionally recognized division of power amongst the leading confessional communities which privileged the Western-oriented Maronite Christians provided for several decades of a non-ideological, non-militantly nationalist, laissez-faire atmosphere in which the apolitical, commercially-oriented Jews could conduct business and lead their easygoing Mediterranean lifestyle in relative tranquility.
Being officially apolitical did not mean that Jews took no interest in Lebanese political life. They simply did not choose to play an actively visible role, which, of course, was the norm for Jews everywhere throughout history in much of Diaspora. The overwhelming majority of Jews supported the Maronite Kata’ib (Phalanges) Party in elections, formed a tacit alliance with it, and looked to its militia to protect them in times of violent unrest on the Muslim Arab street. In keeping with their publicly apolitical profile, few Jews were actually party members. As the smallest of all the minorities in the country and with no militia of its own, the Jews saw continued Christian political predominance as the best insurance that Lebanon would remain an exception within the Arab world and a refuge for non-Muslim minorities. At the same time, however, they cultivated cordial relations with the other groups wherever and whenever possible
The joint Jewish-Lebanese identities do not need to compete. For instance, Gabriel Politis, who currently resides in Montreal, Quebec (Canada), does not see a conflict between the two affiliations. Politis, who is now in his mid-60s, was quite politically active and sees himself as a Lebanese who happens to be of a Jewish background. The youngest of nine children from a very religious family, he feels no connection to Israel. He understands that Israel is a fait accompli and a refuge for Jews around the world, but, for him, the concept of Israel goes against the principles he believes in first and foremost as an atheist.
However, Gabrielle Elia – a daughter of Albert Elia, who was kidnapped by the Syrians for aiding the emigration of Syrian Jews to Lebanon – looks at her sense of Lebanese identity from a cultural perspective that is intertwined with the typically Lebanese element of strong family bonds. She feels that her parents “provided several assets… but, most importantly [they provided two key life tools]: a good education and common sense.” Elia, a teacher in Montreal, further believes that these two life skills that her parents instilled in her were centered around the synagogue in Lebanon. “Jewish life had invariably been directly connected to the synagogue, focus of religious and social meetings…. Unfortunately its (Magen Abraham Synagogue) destruction in 1975 also coincided with the departures of the last Jewish families from Lebanon.”
On the other hand, Edgar Attié, who now resides in Monaco, left Lebanon quite late for Jewish Lebanese standards, in 1976 – a year after the civil war began. Attié’s story shows a different facet of the Lebanese Jewish experience. His father – Dr. Joseph Attié – was a doctor, the President of the Lebanese Jewish community (le conseil communal), and one of three (alongside Gabrielle Elia’s father) who assisted Jews of Syria in their migration to Lebanon. As a result, Mr. Attié had access to many of the high-profile leaders of the day and, as such, has his own personal views. When asked about which country he sided with while living in Lebanon, he felt, intellectually and emotionally, “220% behind Israel” because it never dawned on him to support Lebanon as a Jew. He equated it to when Israel would invade the Gaza Strip and “you were a Jew living in America or Canada (for argument sake), most Jews would side with Israel.” It never dawned on him to leave in the 1950s and 60s because he was living well and studying. The only time he experienced violence was that of the Syrians, when he returned to Lebanon in 1980 in order to sort out his parents’ property because militias had looted it.
At the outbreak of the 1975 Lebanese civil war, many Lebanese Jews living in Lebanon at the time could identify with at least one of these three stories. However, Dr. Kirsten Schulze sums it best when she talks about the political and cultural identification of the Lebanese Jews, “Zionism as an additional political entity was able to co-exist, because Zionism in the Lebanese context had few practical implications…. Thus, Lebanon’s Jews considered themselves to be Lebanese by nationality and Jewish by religion.” What made the Lebanese Jews unique was their pragmatism towards Zionism while maintaining their affiliation to Lebanon.