1948: 20,000 | 2018: < 1001
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.
Nearly all of the remaining Jews are in Beirut, where there is a committee that represents thttps://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/bimahhe 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
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, Hizballah 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 Hizballah. 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
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 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 Synagogue, located in the mountains of Aley has been undergoing a renovation project 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 afterwards due to structural damage and a dwindling Jewish population. Currently, the renovation project is underway but moving slowly and the ground is littered with dirt, old boots, and garbage. The building also no longer has a roof7.
The synagogue in the town of Deir al-Qamar is currently the most well restored synagogue in the country. 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 basis7.
The Bhamdoun Synagogue is one of the largest to ever exist in Lebanon, and is the most intact today. 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 Lebanon7.
Sources: Sergio DellaPergola, “World Jewish Population, 2018,” American Jewish Year Book 2018, Arnold Dashefsky and Ira M. Sheskin, Eds., (Springer Nature Switzerland, 2019), pp. 361-449.
1 David Singer and Lawrence Grossman, Eds., American Jewish Year Book 2003, (NY: American Jewish Committee, 2003).
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).