Lebanon

Highest Jewish Population: c. 6,000 in 1950s


The borders of the modern country of Lebanon were established in 1920. Before this, the area was governed by various peoples and states throughout history. There has been a sporadic Jewish presence in Lebanon for 3,000 years due to proximity of the land to the ancient state of Judea. The area came under Ottoman rule in 1512 and was placed under the jurisdiction of various Syrian cities throughout the Ottoman period.


From the 18th century Beirut began to grow in importance as an international port. Lebanon came under increasing French influence and Christian communities grew. The most influential of these were the Maronites, although there was also a sizeable Jesuit community. The modern Jewish community of Beirut was founded in the early 19th century, as Jews from Syria, Greece, Turkey, and later from Acre and Iraq joined a growing number of economic immigrants arriving in Lebanon from all over the Ottoman world. By the time WWI broke out, Beirut was home to more than 3,000 Jews and had a roughly equal Christian-Muslim population.


In 1920 the borders of modern Lebanon were defined, and in 1923 the country, alongside Syria, came under French Mandate. Three years later, in 1926 the Constitution of Lebanon ensured equal rights and protections to all citizens, including Jews, however due to the community’s relatively small size, it was not afforded a seat in the new Lebanese parliament. The community in Beirut flourished during this period, building schools and synagogues, and establishing newspapers. It shared good relations with Jews in British Mandated Palestine, despite being generally uninterested in political Zionism and distancing itself from the growing conflict in (what was then) British Mandated Palestine.


In 1929 the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was exiled and settled in Beirut. He began to preach against Jews and this, together with growing the popularity of Nazi propaganda, led to several Jewish families leaving Lebanon. In 1940 Lebanon came under the control of the Vichy French government, but was subsequently occupied by British troops in 1941 before antisemitic laws could come into effect.


Outside of Beirut, antisemitism had continued to grow and in 1945 fourteen Jews in Tripoli were killed in anti-Jewish riots. Lebanon became fully independent in 1946 and in 1948 supported neighbouring Arab countries against Israel in their War of Independence. Twelve more Jews were killed in riots in Tripoli. By 1950 almost all of Lebanon’s Jews had moved to Beirut.


The establishment of the State of Israel had a large impact on Lebanon’s demographics. Over 100,000 Palestinian refugees crossed the border, where many of them still live. In addition to this, over 10,000 Jews, fleeing persecution in Syria and Iraq, moved to Lebanon. In 1950 Jews in Lebanon were barred from the civil service, although a handful of Jewish officers were allowed to remain in the Army, and the community were able to continue to carry out business unhindered. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s some Jews began to leave Lebanon, although this was primarily as a result of the worsening local economy and not religious persecution.


In 1967 the Six Day War broke out, prompting an exodus of Jews from Lebanon. Despite this, at least 2,000 Jews were still living in Beirut when civil war broke out in 1975. The civil war, fought between the many different Christian and Muslim and Druze factions in Lebanon, lasted until 1990 and claimed over 120,000 lives. Over the course of the war it is estimated that almost 1 million people left Lebanon, amongst them the vast majority of the country’s Jews. 


Between 1975 and 1982 several Jewish community leaders were kidnapped or killed. In 1982, when Israel entered the Lebanon Civil War and the First Lebanon War broke out, remaining members of the community left the country. There are a handful of Jews living in Beirut today, although there is no fully functioning synagogue in the country.

 

Interviewees

SVUK is grateful for the support of The Exilarch's Foundation, The KC Shasha Charitable Foundation & The Shoresh Charitable Trust

 

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