1948: 20,000 | 2020: 291
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.
Nagi Georges Zeidan, an expert on the Jewish community in Lebanon, said, “Since they kidnapped nine Jews in 1985, executed them and their burial place isn’t known, every Jew in Lebanon began to fear for their fate.”
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
Jewish Cemetery in Beirut (2008)
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, Hezbollah 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 Hezbollah. The renovation was completed in 2019, but the synagogue was damaged by an explosion at the Beirut port in August 2020. 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
Maghen Abraham Synagogue
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 its 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, believed to date to 1850, 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, has been renovated 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 afterward due to structural damage and a dwindling Jewish population.7
The synagogue in the town of Deir al-Qamar is currently the most well restored synagogue in the country. It was built in the 17th century as part of the palace of Emir Fakhreddine II. 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 basis.7
Deir al-Qamar Synagogue
The Bhamdoun Synagogue is one of the largest to ever exist in Lebanon, and is the most intact today. “The Palestinian and Druze forces protected it during the war,” a local resident told Al Jazeera. “In the end, the synagogue was the only religious place to survive; everything else was flattened.”
The stone slabs in front of the building bear the words of the ten commandments written in Hebrew, and inside the building the remnants 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 Lebanon.7
In the mountains of Aley is the shell of a synagogue built around 1885 that was used until the civil war. It was looted and left abandoned.
According to the State Department, the Jewish Community Council was given a permit in 2018 to restore the Sidon cemetery after it had been vandalized, but work has not yet started. Meanwhile, the council’s 2011 lawsuit against individuals who constructed buildings in the Jewish cemetery in Tripoli continued. The Council also reported new acts of vandalism at Jewish cemeteries in Beirut and Sidon but the government ignored their complaints.
The Department also reported the Internal Security Forces summoned a senior member of the Jewish Community Council in 2019 for interrogation concerning the identities of visitors to synagogues and cemeteries during the summer months. The Council also said the governor of Beirut ordered the removal of a sculpture in downtown Beirut because of its resemblance to the Star of David, even though the gallery responsible for the installation said it had nothing to do with Israel.
Unrelated to the Jewish community, religious workers are subject to legal prosecution and immediate deportation for any activity involving religious or other criticism directed against the state or any other country – except Israel.
In addition to the estimated 70 Jews living in the country, the State Department reported in its 2020 report that another 5,500 registered Jewish voters living abroad have the right to vote in parliamentary elections.
“The Ministry of Interior delayed the verification of the results of the Israeli Communal Council’s election of members that occurs every six years, according to the State Department. “The council has repeatedly submitted requests to change its government-appointed name to reduce stigma, with no success. The council blames its official name in part for the difficulties experienced with renewals every six years.”
“It is not taboo to be Jewish here,” Paul Taber, an associate professor of sociology at the Lebanese American University, told Al Jazeera in 2014. “But it is difficult, and that’s largely because of the the political climate in the region, especially the current policies of the Israeli state, such as the war in Gaza and settlements in the West Bank.”7
In 2020, Kinda el-Khatib was arrested and accused of being an Israeli agent and of opposing Hezbollah. Ultimately a Military Court sentenced her to three years in prison for “collaborating” with and traveling to Israel.
The State Department also noted that Lebanese law bans any audiovisual media that promotes a relationship with Israel.
Sources: 1 “Beirut synagogue renovated after port blast, but no Jews likely to pray there,” Times of Israel, (December 17, 2020).
2 Maariv, (June 21, 1991); Jewish Telegraphic Agency, (July 22, 1993); Jewish Communities of the World.
3 Majdoline Hatoum, “Of 5,000 Jewish Lebanese, only 1 voted,” The Daily Star, (May 10, 2004).
4 Stephen Talbot, “Syria/Lebanon: The Occupier and the Occupied,” PBS Frontline, (2004).
5 “Lebanon Jews to rebuild Beirut’s Maghen Abraham Synagogue,” Ya Libnan, (September 18, 2008).
6 “Renovation work underway at Beirut’s main synagogue,” Haaretz, (August 18, 2009).
7 “Uncovering Lebanon’s Jewish Past,” Al Jazeera, (October 7, 2014).