Thursday, 18 September 2008

Beirut synagogue


Bloomberg posts an interesting account of attempts to rebuild the synagogue in Beirut:

In 1983, Isaac Arazi and his wife were caught in sectarian fighting during Lebanon's 15-year civil war. A Shiite Muslim militiaman helped the couple escape.

Arazi, a leader of Lebanon's tiny Jewish community, sees the incident as a lesson in the Arab country's tradition of tolerance. Now he is trying to make use of that tradition, along with the global diaspora of Lebanese Jews, in a drive to rebuild Beirut's only synagogue, damaged during the war.

"Those who don't have a past don't have a future,'' Arazi said to explain his push to rebuild the synagogue.

Beirut's Maghen Abraham Synagogue opened in 1926 in Wadi Abou Jmil, the city's Jewish quarter, located on the edge of west Beirut near the Grand Serai palace, where the government meets, and within walking distance of parliament.

Lebanon then was something of a haven for Jews, some of whom were the descendants of those who had fled the Spanish inquisition; it later served a similar role for refugees from Nazi Germany.

With "no history of anti-Jewish tensions,'' it was the only Arab country whose Jewish population rose after Israel's creation in 1948, according to Kirsten Schulze, a lecturer at the London School of Economics and author of The Jews of Lebanon.

By the mid-1960s, there were as many as 22,000 Lebanese Jews, said Arazi, 65. In addition to heading the Jewish Community Council he owns a food-machinery business with 1,000 customers.

"Christians, Muslims and Jews were all living together when I was growing up,'' said Liza Srour, 57. "Whenever there was a war with Israel, or tension, the government used to provide protection for us.''

That changed with the nation's 1975-1990 civil war, as Jews fled the violence triggered by rivalries among the nation's Christian, Muslim and Druze factions and emigrated to Europe, North and South America.

Now, Arazi said, only 100 Jews live permanently in the country, while another 1,900 go back and forth or have intermarried into other religions. Srour is the only Jew still residing in Wadi Abou Jmil.

In 1982, according to an Associated Press report at the time, Israeli shells tore through roof of Maghen Abraham as the Jewish state invaded southern Lebanon in an effort to crush Palestinian guerrillas. The synagogue has been closed ever since, its brittle entrance gate chained and padlocked. Plaster and rubble are scattered on the floor.

Walking among the weeds overgrowing the cemetery's tombstones, Arazi said: "I remember my father when I come here.''

Image is an artist impression of what the restored building will look like.

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