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Abdel-Rahman Ayas (email@example.com)
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In the winter of 1999, I was with a friend in one of Sodeco Square's movie theaters, watching "The Confession," starring Ben Kingsley and Alec Baldwin. When the movie was over, we left disappointed because of the massacre perpetrated by the censors against the movie. And we were not alone. Collective sighs could be heard from the audience every time an edited-out scene was announced by the appalling noise that accompanies the cut. My friend and I could not understand why some scenes were taken out. The movie was about a man (Kingsley) who killed a doctor and a nurse in revenge for their causing of his only son's death through negligence. Then he turned himself in and insisted on pleading guilty even if that led to his execution. We did not expect from the context that the edited-out scenes were of the sexual nature that the censors believe we are too immature to see.
But when I saw the same movie on a satellite movie channel, I noticed that the scenes in question included quotes from the Torah by Kingsley to his attorney (Baldwin), then to the judges and jury, to explain why his love for his only son was a part of his duties as a religious Jew. Then I said to myself: "Is the Torah banned here, though it is recognized as sacred by both Christians and Muslims?"
Since then, Lebanese censors have stripped all films of any scenes related to Jews or Judaism. I do not mean "only" the scenes that may draw the sympathy of viewers for the victims of the Holocaust. But even if I accept, for the sake of argument, that cutting out scenes related to the Holocaust can be somehow justified, why have Jews and their religion become a taboo? I have the right to ask this question in Lebanon because in this country Judaism is one of the 18 officially recognized sects. Ironically, Sodeco Square is very near to the Jewish cemetery, which have been rehabilitated by the remaining Lebanese Jews a few years ago, as newspapers reported. So what is our problem with the Jews of Lebanon? How many of them are still among us, and have the others left Lebanon for the West of for Israel, like so many other Jews in the Arab World after 1948?
The answers to these questions and others can be found in Kirsten Schulze's good book, "The Jews of Lebanon: Between Coexistence and Conflict", which appeared in London a few weeks ago. The book tells the story of Lebanon's Jews since the beginning of history, but it emphasizes the period between the arrival of Allied troops to the Near East in 1918 and the launching of the reconstruction process in postwar Lebanon in the mid-1990s, when leftist MP Najah Wakim criticized Prime Minister Rafik Hariri for allowing Jews to buy shares in Solidere, the company in charge of the process. Schulze argues that Lebanon's Jews were different from their co-religionists in other Arab countries because of their heartfelt identification with their fellow Lebanese In other words, they were Arabized and Leventine. Lebanese Jews believed in Lebanon as a permanent country for them and sympathized with Israel in a religious sense only. Interestingly, those who had left during the two civil wars of 1958 and 1975, feeling that the Lebanon of religious tolerance and cultural pluralism had ceased to exist, actually went to Europe and the Americas instead of to Israel
Lebanon's Jewry had a special affinity for France, whose Jewish Alliance schools did their best to propagate French language and culture among Jews in the Arab World. Lebanese Jews had a newspaper in Arabic. According to Schulze, while the numbers of Jews in other Arab countries were decreasing in the 1940s, the number of Lebanese Jews doubled to 14,000. Syrian and Iraqi Jews, fleeing the fallout of the conflict in Palestine, came to this oasis of freedom, and were welcomed by the Lebanese authorities, thought they were not given the Lebanese citizenship. Wadi Abu Jamil, or "the Jewish Street," was no ghetto; it was just a Jewish neighborhood, as there were neighborhoods for Sunnis, Shiites, Orthodox Greeks, Syriacs, etc. This is the standard neighborhood demography of any Leventine city. Many Lebanese Jews were economically prosperous, and the wealthiest left the neighborhood to more classy areas, like Ras Beirut and Qantari. Owners of real estate in Wadi Abu Jamil were granted shares in return for their property appropriated by Solidere, similar to Muslim and Christian compatriots.
Almost each family had two homes: one for the winter in Beirut or Sidon and another for the summer in Bhamdoun and Aley. There were 14 synagogues. News about the few Lebanese Jews who went to Israel did not encourage other Jews to follow in their footsteps. Work in kibbutzim was tedious, while services or electricity, water and telephone were poor, and leisure time non-existent. While most were fluent in Arabic and French, their weakness in Hebrew disappointed the Zionists in Palestine. Jewish life was not always easy in Lebanon, nevertheless, Lebanese Jews continued to develop their cultural, educational and religious institutions here after 1948. Lebanese Jews had famous doctors, like neurologist and Community Council President Joseph Attieh, who represented Lebanon in international medical conferences in the 1950s and 1960s. They also had famous journalists, bankers and merchants.
The book, despite some faults, like its irregular English and its failure to elaborate on interesting events, is informative. It is based on many good references, documents and interviews. And it sheds light on a period of tolerance in Lebanon that no other Arab country knew. In Lebanon's heyday, the country's Muslims chose it over Arab unity, its Christians over European protection, and its Jews over "the Promised Land." Maybe reviving tolerance - starting, perhaps, with movies - can help this country regain a role it lost.