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Beirut's lost Jewish past

ArabicbookNada AbdelsamadStories about the Jews of BeirutWadi Abu Jamil

Jewsofbeirut Lebanon and Israel have had a tense relationship in recent years, but there was once a significant Jewish community in Beirut. It's the subject of the book "Wadi Abu Jamil: Stories about the Jews of Beirut" by BBC journalist Nada Abdelsamad.

Published in Arabic, the book was initially met with skepticism by publishing houses -- some saying it might be banned -- but has been selling out of Beirut bookstores. Our Middle East blog Babylon & Beyond reports:

All in all, Abdelsamad collected 21 stories about Jewish life in Wadi Abu Jamil -- accounts that show how much its residents were part of Lebanon's spectrum of communities, mingling with Christian and Muslim inhabitants while keeping their religious traditions.

Lebanon was once home to thousands of Jews but only a small number remain today. Most of them have changed their names and even their official religious status....

"It was a chain of interviews," [Abdelsamad] said, adding that she was met with a bit of skepticism at first by some of the people she interviewed. "People asked me, 'Will it be harmful for us to talk?’ They were skeptical because this is a topic that has been sleeping for all these years."

Soon, however, the memories of Wadi Abu Jamil started to come alive and Abdelsamad was able to reconstruct some of the neighborhood's long-lost Jewish characters, as remembered by their friends and old neighbors.

Much of Beirut's Jewish community has now emigrated. "As for a Lebanese Jew who lives in New York since 1967," one commenter wrote about the book, "I am thrilled to know that somebody somewhere had decided to revive our story."

There are plans for "Wadi Abu Jamil: Stories about the Jews of Beirut" to be published in French and English.  

-- Carolyn Kellogg

 
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It is a shame this community has become a victim of the conflict between Israel and her neighbors. One must wonder how much different the region would have been today if the Jewish communities in Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine had been allowed to grow with immigrants instead of the creation of a jewish state being forced on the region by the league of nations?

Interesting book - would love to read it when it comes out in English - just a note - title of book - from the bookcover is in fact "Wadi Abu Jamil: Stories about the Jews of Lebanon"

"t is a shame this community has become a victim of the conflict between Israel and her neighbors. One must wonder how much different the region would have been today if the Jewish communities in Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine had been allowed to grow with immigrants instead of the creation of a jewish state being forced on the region by the league of nations?"

As an Israeli Jew of Iraqi origin I find your comment and your ignorance laughable. There's an expression in Arabic شر البلية ما يضحك which roughly translates to a situation so terrible that a person has no choice but to laugh ironically. Truly, it is a shame that our ancient communities were uprooted from homes in which we lived for nearly 2,500 years. But your laying the blame for our violent dispossession squarely at the feet of Israel's creation reflects either ignorance or a lack of desire to face the truth about what Jews went through in Arab/Islamic countries, before AND after the establishment of Israel. Anti-Jewish discrimination, incitement and legislation were practiced even before 1948. During the 30's antisemitic Nazi literature like Mein Kamph and the Protocols were already being translated into Arabic and were widely read throughout the Arab world. In Iraq, there was a pro-Nazi coup by the Nazi sympathizer Rashid Ali Al-Geylani. In 1941, there was the Farhud massacre in which Baghdad's Jews were subjected to an orgy of riots, murder, rape and looting. Thousands of Jews were dismissed from their jobs in the government or civil service, had their properties sequestered and nationalized, their citizenship revoked, their phone-lines tapped and eventually cut off. These patterns were repeated in countries like Egypt, Syria, Yemen. This is barely a partial list of what our families endured at the hands of xenophobic brand of pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism. That is not to mention earlier atrocities in the 1920s in the Palestine mandate against the Jews of Hebron. The region might have looked different had not Arab governments, politicians and the cultural elites created an intolerant atmosphere of antisemitism that made life unbearable for these ancient communities, and had they not vented their frustration and grievances, real or imagined, on innocent populations that were largely non-political. Lebanon's Jewish community didn't experience the same level of violence that Jews in Iraq or Syria experienced, but they nevertheless were made to feel like they had no future there. Jews were dismissed from the Lebanese army however. Many also claim that at the height of the Arab-Israeli conflict Lebanon was the only country in the region whose population increased, but that was largely due to the influx of Jewish refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria.
I think the publication of this book is a step in the right direction, but I will not hold my breath with regards to putting the exodus of Jews from Arab/Islamic countries within their proper context.


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