BEIRUT


BEIRUT, capital city and chief port of Lebanon. From the second century B.C.E. Jews lived in its vicinity, and probably in the city itself. The Chronicle of Joshua the Stylite mentions the existence of a synagogue in Beirut at the beginning of the sixth century. *Abiathar b. Elijah (late 11th century) includes Beirut and Gebal (Byblos) among the cities subject to the gaonate of Palestine. At the time of the Crusader conquest (1100) Beirut contained 35 Jewish families and *Benjamin of Tudela (c. 1170) found 50 households there. According to Isaac of Acre, many Jews were killed during the Muslim capture of the city in 1291. Jews frequently visited Beirut on their way to Ereẓ Israel, but a pupil of *Nahmanides who stopped there at the beginning of the 14th century did not note the presence of Jews in the city. An anonymous pupil of Obadiah *Bertinoro wrote in a letter (1495) "At Baroto (Beirut) there are no Jews, and I do not know the reason, because the Ishmaelites at Baroto are better than all the other people of the Kingdom and are very well-disposed toward the Jews." However Jews settled again in Beirut after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Moses *Basola, who visited the city in 1521, found 12 Jewish families from Sicily. Abraham Castro was in charge of customs. During Basola's stay in the city, the activity of David *Reuveni, whom a Jewish merchant encountered at Gaza, excited the Jews. *David d'Beth Hillel, who visited Syria in 1824, relates "There are [in Beirut] some 15 families [of] Jewish merchants, natives of the country [i.e., the place] who speak Arabic and have a small synagogue, their customs resembling those of the Jews of Palestine."

In 1856 Ludwig August *Frankl stated that he found in Beirut 500 Sephardi Jews, mostly merchants and porters. In the course of time other Jews moved to Beirut from Damascus, Smyrna, Aleppo, Constantinople, and ultimately also from Russia. In 1878 the *Alliance Israélite opened a girls' school and the following year, one for boys. In 1901, 271 pupils were studying at the latter, and 218 at the former. In 1897 the Alliance opened a crafts school for girls.

In 1862 and in 1890 blood libels resulted in Christian attacks on the Jewish quarter. In 1890 order was restored by the Turkish authorities and the rioters were arrested. At that time Beirut contained a synagogue and 12 batei midrash. After World War I the Jewish population grew in Beirut, the newly established capital of *Lebanon.

The community was regarded as the most highly organized in Lebanon and Syria. The principal synagogue Magen Avraham was the center of the communal institutions, which included the schools of the Alliance and of the congregation, the B'nai B'rith Lodge, and the Maccabi Club.

The Jews of the city belonged mostly to the middle class, and the overwhelming majority of them engaged in commerce. They were not concentrated in special quarters, but the poorer Jews resided in streets formerly part of the Jewish quarter in Wadi Abu Jamil. When the State of Israel was established, the Lebanese security forces were ordered to protect the Jewish quarter, and when an anti-Jewish demonstration was held and infuriated mobs advanced on the Jewish quarter, members of the Maronite Christian Phalanges dispersed the demonstrators. The Jewish paper al-ʿAlam al-Israili ("The Israelite World") changed its name to al-Salam ("Peace"). The Jewish community was compelled to contribute a sum of money to the fund of the Arab League but in general the Jews were not mistreated.

In 1880 there were about 1,000 Jews in Beirut; in 1889, 1,500; between 1892 and 1906 there were 3,000; between 1907 and 1910 their number reached 5,000.

[Simon Marcus]

From 1948

The number of Jews rose from 5,000 in 1948 to 9,000 in 1958, as a result of the immigration of Syrian Jews to Lebanon. However, the numbers were subsequently depleted, especially from 1967; and in 1969 only about 2,500 were left. By 1970 the community had decreased to about 1,000–1,800.

Until the 1975–90 conflict (see *Lebanon), the Jewish community in Beirut, like the rest of the Jews living in the country, was considered to be an integral part of Lebanon's multiethnic society. During periods of crisis, such as the 1948 War, the first Lebanese civil war in 1958, and the 1967 War, the Lebanese authorities ordered the security forces to protect the Jewish quarter in Wadi Abu Jamil. The wealthy Jews living in new suburbs among members of other faiths were also unharmed. In contrast to other Arab countries, Jewish life in Lebanon continued almost normally: Jews were not discriminated against or arrested by the government in an arbitrary manner, and their property was not confiscated. In 1950 extremist Arab nationalists place a bomb beneath the *Alliance Israélite Universelle school building, causing it to collapse. The Alliance administered three other institutions, in which 950 pupils studied in 1965. In addition, 250 pupils attended the talmud torah and 80 studied at the Oẓar ha-Torah religious school. The Jewish scouts and Maccabi sports organization were closed by the government in 1953. The community council, which had nine members, was elected biennially. The Bikkur Ḥolim committee of the council was responsible for medical treatment of the poor, and their hospitalization if they were not Lebanese citizens. Its income derived from the Arikha (assessment) tax, paid by all males, as well as from endowments and from synagogues. Most Beirut Jews were merchants or employees of trading and financial enterprises.

[Hayyim J. Cohen]

During the early stages of Lebanon's second civil war (1975–90), the Jews in Beirut, like members of other minorities who resided in the Lebanese capital (e.g., Armenians and Kurds), found themselves caught in the crossfire between local and foreign forces that battled for control of the city and its neighborhoods. The proximity of the Jewish quarter to the "Green Line" separating Beirut's Christian and Muslim sectors exacerbated its inhabitants' insecurity. In the course of the fighting, many Jewish homes and businesses were damaged, as were their communal institutions, most notably the Magen Avraham synagogue (the building itself, which was reportedly hit by an Israeli shell in 1982, was, however, not destroyed). Jewish communal life was further disrupted when the local rabbi left the country in 1978. Meanwhile, impoverished Shiʿi Muslims, who had been driven from their homes by the war, began to settle in the Jewish quarter. The continued violence and chaos in Beirut encouraged most of the Lebanese Jews, whose number on the eve of the war was estimated at about 1,800 (of these, more than a thousand resided in Beirut) to leave the country, whereas others moved to safer areas in and around the capital. From 1975 on most Lebanese Jews immigrated to France, Italy, the U.S., Canada, South America, and Israel.

In 1982 there were an estimated 150 Jews in the western part of Beirut and 100 in its eastern sector. But Israel's invasion into Lebanon and the siege imposed by its army on the Lebanese capital, combined with the chaos that prevailed in the city following the Israeli withdrawal and the failed attempt to reconstruct the Lebanese state in 1982–84, impinged on the situation of the country's remaining Jews, which were now estimated at 100–200. Radical Shiʿi factions began to target the Jewish community in Beirut in order to exert pressure on the Israeli government and avenge attacks by the Israeli army in South Lebanon. Thus, in the period 1984–87, the Organization of the Oppressed on Earth, a radical Shiʿi faction reportedly close to Hizbullah, abducted 11 prominent members of the local Jewish community, including its head, Isaac Sasson. The kidnappers claimed that their actions were part of their "resistance" to the Israeli occupation in Lebanon and demanded the release of Shiʿi prisoners held by Israel and by its proxy, the South Lebanon Army. But Israel refused to comply. The bodies of four Jews were later recovered and the fate of the other seven remained unknown. These factors caused the Jewish community in Beirut to drop to about fewer than 100 members in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In the 1990–2001 period, the number of Jews in Lebanon, who by then resided almost exclusively in Beirut and its vicinity, dropped even further. Wadi Abu Jamil was almost emptied of its Jewish residents, and the majority of the remaining Lebanese Jews resided in the eastern part of the Lebanese capital or in Mount Lebanon. During the 2004 municipal elections, only one of the registered Jewish voters in Beirut showed up at the polling booth. It was reported that most of the remaining Jews in Lebanon were elderly women.

[Oren Barak (2nd ed.)]

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

S.D. Goitein, in: Eretz Israel, 4 (1956), 152; G. Scholem, in: KS, 2 (1925/26), 103; I. Ben-Zvi, Masot Ereẓ Yisrael le-Moshe Basola (1938), 38–40; A. Yaari, Masʿot Ereẓ Yisrael (1946), 135f., 525f.; index; Ashtor, Toledot, 2 (1951), 121f.; S. Landshut, Jewish Communities in the Muslim Countries of the Middle East (1950), 54–56. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: K.E. Schulze, The Jews of Lebanon: Between Coexistence and Conflict (2001).


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.