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

October 9, 2010 |  9:00 am

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

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