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LEBANON: Documentary film examines country's Jewish history, evokes memories

Pic for the crowdMany left in silence, hastily packing their belongings. From one day to the next, the Jews of Lebanon were gone.

"We sat down and cried on the doorstep of the house," said one elderly Lebanese woman in a new film about Lebanon's now-destroyed Jewish community.

The 45-minute Arabic-language documentary, "The Jews of Lebanon: Loyalty to Whom?" by BBC journalist Nada Abdelsamad, tracks the lives of Lebanese Jews before, during and after their departure. 

It is based on accounts from Lebanese Jews, who fled or migrated to other countries, and memories from their old neighbors and friends and the residents of former Jewish neighborhoods in Beirut and Sidon.

The 1948 establishment of Israel, the subsequent Arab-Israeli conflict and warfare between Israel and Lebanon triggered exoduses of Lebanese Jews to Israel and other countries around the world. It is estimated that only a few hundred or so Lebanese Jews are left in the country, compared with well over 20,000 in 1948.

The film begins with scenes of the Beirut seaside juxtaposed with images of Israel as soft Arabic music is playing the background. The camera then turns to a couple of old buildings, some of them riddled by bullet holes from Lebanon's 15-year-long civil war, in Wadi Abu Jamil, the neighborhood near downtown Beirut that in earlier days used be the city's Jewish quarter.

One older Lebanese woman in the movie takes out a black-and-white photo of her Jewish friend Gamalo that her friend gave her 60 years ago. Gamalo was leaving the country with her family and wanted her friend to keep a memory of their friendship.

30234192 "She told me her goodbyes and said 'I'm traveling and we might not see each other again.' ... Don’t tell anyone, but I’m leaving with my family to Israel,''' the woman recounted.

Many years have passed since Lebanon's Jews left, but nostalgia for the old days still appears to be there, according to the film. Former neighbors and acquaintances interviewed still wonder what happened to their Jewish friends, where they went, and about their families.

"Of course I think of them," one Lebanese woman said in the film. "I ask myself whether they're still alive, doing well, or if they are dead. I don't know. I think of them so much."

During tearful goodbyes, some of those who left assured their friends in Beirut that they would come back one day.

The movie is filled with bittersweet ironies. Marco Mizrahi, born to a Jewish father and Christian mother in Beirut, returned to Lebanon in the early 1980s -- as a soldier with the Israeli army during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. 

He said he never felt accepted by Lebanese, but that Israelis were suspicious of him too. His commander quizzed him about his loyalty to the Israeli Defense Forces and the Jewish state, he said.

Would Mizrahi have a problem killing a Lebanese soldier or someone from a Muslim militant group, if it turned out he knew them from his childhood?

If it were a matter of life and death, Mizrahi answered, "I prefer that it's him who dies and not me."

The film is based on Abdelsamad's book on Lebanon's Jews, "Wadi Abu Jamil" , with which she made headlines in Lebanon earlier this year. A couple of weeks ago, the lines ran long at one of Beirut’s theaters for the screening of her film.

Not many remnants are left in the area of those days, except for the Maghen-Abraham synagogue, which is being rebuilt. Posh new residential communities are in the planning while slick new high-rises dot the skyline nearby.

The film has stirred emotions among some, and Abdelsamad said most of feedback she's received has been positive. Though a small number of Lebanese Jews attended the screening, the days of Lebanon's thriving Jewish community are a long gone era.

"All there is left is some photos and stories and some names in official records," the Lebanese journalist says in the closing scene of the film, as the camera closes in on old pictures and personal belongings.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Upper photo: A recent screening of Lebanese journalist Nada Abdelsamad's documentary film at a theater in Beirut drew large crowds. Credit: Housein Mullah / Associated Press

Lower photo: Beirut's Maghen-Abraham synagogue is under reconstruction. Credit: Reuters

Comments () | Archives (11)

Why won't you call it what it really was: Ethnic cleansing of the Jews of Lebanon

The head of the Jewish community was kidnapped and killed as were many others. The Jews had no choice but to flee.

I hope that they throw light upon the issues of Israeli myhology.

We used to perceive Israel as a victim in that conflict. But the Mossad operatives are murdering the enemies of regime all over the world? Eh, does that look like an opressed victim behavior? I doubt that.

Looks like the same old history demonization that numerous countries — Germany, Slovakia, Hungary, Albania — went through (http://eastwest-review.com/article/demonization-history-part-2-true-image-angels-and-demons-history)

I have one criticism of your article. You wrote 'The 1948 establishment of Israel, the subsequent Arab-Israeli conflict and warfare between Israel and Lebanon triggered exoduses of Lebanese Jews to Israel and other countries around the world.' I believe that this is a misleading assertion, considering what has been argued in other books on the topic and in previous articles that your paper printed. In the 9 Feb 2010 article on Dr. Shams' book you wrote 'But after multiple Arab-Israeli wars, Israeli invasions and Lebanese Hezbollah's 2006 war with the Jewish state, Dr. Shams and most of the other Jewish families from "The Valley of the Jews," as the neighborhood also was called, are long gone.' This is similar to the argument by Kirsten E. Schulze in her book 'The Jews of Lebanon: Between Coexistence and Conflict', who wrote 'Moreover, the Lebanese Jewish community increased rather than decreased after 1948...' (4)-she then goes on to explain how the Jewish community reacted to different events in Lebanon, arriving at the situation today-where there are only a few Jews living in Lebanon-similar to what the BBC movie says. As such, I think your recent comment seems inconsistent with what has been previously printed in your newspaper and the findings in these two books-which presents the situation of the Jewish community in Lebanon as much more complex and diverse. I think, particularly at a time when groups are being problematically homogenized and reduced to sectarian divisions, it is important to stress this diversity-emphasizing that there are many factors that people consider when living their lives (internal and external pressures).

It won't stop until radical islam takes over the world

Well we should keep in mind that the existence and brutality of Israel would trigger anyone's hate! just to give you additional example: We in the West, are all over Palestinian Gaza and Hamas, the facts are that these people are put in an open air Jail (by Israel) and Israel siege the area, sealing it completly from any medical or humanitarian aid for more than 1.5 years. Many lost their beloved ones because there was not enough medical care supplies available. Also, many children are meanwhile handicap and people suffer from Trauma postwar situations in particular the hundreds of thousands of children there. What do we expect them to do? (well we need them to silent...right? and when they protect or defend themselves, by stating to the world that FREE us from the Israeli siege on us, we are deaf and hear nothing. Then they fire a rocket or two to state the same message in a different way, then we prosecute them as terrorists!

The situation of Jewish Lebanese will not get better, until the conditions of BEFORE the establishment of the political State of Israel in 1948, are restored. That means, Re-establishing the Palestinian State as it was supposed to happen when Palestine was under the British Mandate prior 1948!

Arabs, like the Germans and Poles, just love stories about dead Jews - the good old days; Jews forced to pay the Jew tax, Jews used as honest front men for doing business with their French counterparts in the West, Jews who in order to stay alive sided with neither waring party but advocated tolerance and peace, Jews who who set an example of family and community life based on religious precepts.

When things go wrong in Lebanon, don't blame the majority Christians or Muslims' behavior, blame the minoity Jews and take it out on their hides!! Great for everyone but the Jews, so they left Lebanon when Israel was established so they could be treated like human beings, not dhimmi.

Well, after the creation of Israel, the Lebanese Jews became persona non grata and may have been virtually expelled as an act of vengeance by the Arabs there.

Right, blame the 1950 bombing of the Alliance Israelite school in Beirut on the European Jews - not to mention all the bombs placed in Wadi Abu Jamil during he 1940s and 1950s. And was anyone ever prosecuted by the Lebanese authorities for the Alliance bombing? Of court not. And then there were the angry mobs that used to descend on Wadi Abu Jamil shouting "al yahud kalabma w'falastin bladna!" Lebanon has never confronted this dark chapter (one of many) in it's history.

Why didn't the Jews fought like the lebanese Christians did,who went martired hundred thousands of them..!

The Jews left on their own , no one ever forced them to leave , they choose it. Of course the Lebanese war played its role but they suffered like everyone : like Christians and Muslims.

Blame it all on the eastern European influx into Palestine during the late 1940s. And I mean all of it.


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