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The Jewish Community of Beirut

Arabic: بيروت‎ 

French; Beyrouth

Capital of Lebanon

 

Beirut is the largest city in Lebanon, and also the country’s main seaport. It is also one of the oldest cities in the world.

This item includes attached files with maps of the former main Jewish residential district before 1948, along with the names of the prominent Jewish families that lived in the area.

 

21ST CENTURY

Restoration of the Magen Avraham synagogue, which was damaged during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), began in May of 2009.

The Jewish cemetery of Beirut is located near Sodeco Square. It was slightly damaged during the Civil War. The cemetery has continued to serve the Jews of Lebanon.

In 2012 Nada Abdelsamad produced a documentary about the Jews of Lebanon, Lebanon’s Jews: Loyalty to Whom? The documentary featured interviews with Jews from Beirut and other areas in Lebanon, as well as of their former neighbors.

In 2004, one registered Jewish voter showed up at the polling booth during the municipal elections.

 

HISTORY

Jews were living in Beirut and the vicinity from the 2nd century BCE. The chronicle of Joshua the Stylite mentions the existence of a synagogue in Beirut at the beginning of the 6th century. According to Abiathar b. Elijah (late 11th century), Beirut and Gebal (Byblos) were subject to the Palestinian Gaonite (the main Talmudic academy and legal body of the Jewish community in Palestine, c. 9th-11th centuries).

By the time of the Crusader conquest (1100) Beirut was home to 35 Jewish families; when the Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela visited around 1170 he counted 50 Jewish households. In addition to the city’s permanent Jewish residents, Jews also frequently visited Beirut on their way to Eretz Yisrael.

According to the Jewish kabbalist and student of Nachmanides, Isaac b. Samuel of Acre many Jews were killed during the Muslim conquest of the city in 1291. Another student f Nachmanides who stopped in Beirut at the beginning of the 14th century did not note the presence of any Jews in the city. An anonymous pupil of the Italian rabbi Obadiah b. Abraham Bartenura wrote in a 1495 letter that "at Baroto (Beirut) there are no Jews, and I do not know the reason, because the Ishmaelites at Baroto are better than all the other people of the kingdom and are very well-disposed toward the Jews."

Beirut’s Jewish community was renewed after the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and in 1521 Moses Basola found 12 Jewish families from Sicily living in the city. During Basola’s stay, he also noted that Beirut’s Jews were particularly interested in the activities of David Reubeni, whom a Jewish merchant had encountered in Gaza. Abraham Castro was in charge of customs during this period.

David d'Beth Hillel, who visited Syria in 1824, observed that "there are [in Beirut] some 15 families [of] Jewish merchants, natives of the country who speak Arabic and have a small synagogue, their customs resembling those of the Jews of Palestine." The writer and poet Ludwig August von Frankl visited Beirut in 1856 and found 500 Sephardi Jews living there, most of whom worked as merchants and porters. Jews also began arriving in Beirut from Damascus, Smyrna, Aleppo, Constantinople, and even Russia.

Two blood libels were levied against the Jewish community during the second half of the 19th century, one in 1862 and another in 1890, both of which led to Christian attacks in the Jewish Quarter. Order was finally restored in 1890 by the Turkish authorities, and the rioters were arrested.

Community institutions during the late 19th century included a synagogue and 12 batei midrash. In 1878 the Alliance Israelite Universelle opened a school for girls; a school for boys followed a year later. A crafts school for girls, also under the auspices of the Alliance, opened in 1897. There were 271 students enrolled in the boys’ school and 218 enrolled in the girls’ school in 1901.

In 1880 there were about 1,000 Jews living in Beirut. By 1889 that number had grown to 1,500. Beirut’s Jewish population between 1892 and 1906 was 3,000, and between 1907 and 1910 their numbers grew to 5,000.

Beirut’s Jewish population grew after World War I (1914-1918), particularly after Beirut was established as the new capital of Lebanon. The community came to be regarded as the most highly organized in Lebanon and Syria. The main synagogue, Magen Avraham, was the center of the community’s institutions, which included the Alliance schools, the congregational schools, a B'nai B'rith lodge, and a Maccabi club.

Most of Beirut’s Jews were middle class. By the 20th century the Jews were no longer confined to a special quarter, but the poorer Jews tended to live on the streets that had once been part of the Jewish Quarter. Nonetheless, the former Jewish Quarter still played a significant role in the public imagination; after the establishment of the State of Israel (1948), anti-Jewish demonstrations were held, and mobs descended on the Jewish Quarter (the mobs were eventually dispersed by the Christian community).

The establishment of the State of Israel compelled Beirut’s Jewish community to make a number of changes. The newspaper Al-Alam Al-Israeili (The Israelite World) changed its name to Et Al-Salam (Peace). The Jewish community was also required to contribute a sum of money to the Arab League fund. In general, however, the Jewish community continued to live peacefully. Indeed, during Israel’s War of Independence (1948), the internal unrest in Lebanon during the ‘50s, and the Six-Day War (1967), the Lebanese authorities ordered the police to protect the Jewish Quarter in Wadi Abu Jamil. Additionally, wealthier Jews living among Christians and Muslims in the new suburbs were unharmed.


In contrast to many other Arab countries, Jewish life in Lebanon continued as usual after Israel’s establishment and through the subsequent wars. Indeed, after the establishment of Israel Lebanon’s Jewish population grew, as Syrian and Iraqi refugees began arriving after being expelled from their countries. Nonetheless, the community could still be subject to violence. In 1950 a bomb was planted by Muslim nationalists underneath the Alliance school building, causing it to collapse. The government also closed the Jewish Scouts and the Maccabi sports organization in 1953.

Nonetheless, the Alliance continued its work, and administered three other institutions. The organization’s educational programs enrolled 950 pupils in 1965. Additionally, 250 students attended the Talmud Torah, while the religious school Ozar HaTorah had 80 students.

During the 1950s and ‘60s, the community council, which was made up of nine members, was elected biennially. The council’s bikkur holim was responsible for medical treatment for the poor, as well as for their hospitalization if they were not Lebanese citizens. The council derived its income from the arikha (assessment) tax, which was paid by all men, as well as from endowments and synagogues. During this period most of Beirut’s Jews worked as merchants or as employees of trading and financial companies.

On the eve of the Lebanese Civil War, there were approximately 1,000 Jews living in Beirut, out of a total Lebanese Jewish population of about 1,800.

 

LEBANESE CIVIL WAR (1975-1990)

After the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, the Jews of Beirut, along with the city’s other minority populations, found themselves caught in the crossfire; many of Beirut’s Jews also lived near the border separating the city’s Christian and Muslim sectors. Jewish homes, businesses, and institutional buildings sustained extensive damage during the fighting. The Magen Avraham synagogue was among the buildings that was damaged during the war. As a result of the chaos and violence of the war, Lebanon’s Jews began leaving the country. By 1982 there were approximately 250 Jews remaining in Beirut, 150 in the western section, and 100 in the eastern section.

After the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, as well as the disorder that reigned after the Israeli withdrawal, the Jewish community of Beirut began to be targeted by radical Shia factions. 11 prominent members of the community, including the head of the community, Isaac Sasson, were kidnapped over a 3-year period (1984-1987); four bodies of the kidnapped victims were later recovered, while the fate of the rest has remained unknown. By the early 1990s the Jewish community in Beirut dropped to fewer than 100 members.
 

Place Type:
City
ID Number:
162808
Written by researchers of ANU Museum of the Jewish People
Nearby places:

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BALAYLA, BALAILA

This surname was chosen by the method of bibliomancy, i.e. the use of Jewish sacred books for divination. Some Jewish families that used this method for adopting a family name by opening randomly a Hebrew sacred book and choosing the first words they came across.

According to family tradition, the family name Balayla originated with Yichia Zerachia, who lived in Damascus, Syria, during the first half of the 19th century. Following the death in infancy of one of his children and the illness of another child, he asked his rabbi for advice. In accordance to the widespread practice among traditional Jews, the rabbi advised him to change his name. The rabbi opened the Book of Genesis and his finger stopped at the word "balayla" ("during the night", in Hebrew). Balayla, also spelled Balaila, became the family name of his two sons, Yaakov (Jacques) Balayla (Balaila) (b. 1855) and Joseph Balayla (Balaila) (1857-1951). The Balayla family moved to Lebanon, where the brothers Yaakov (Jacques) Balayla (Balaila) and Joseph Balayla (Balaila) were among the founders of the Magen Abraham synagogue and lay leaders of the Jewish community in Beirut, Lebanon. 

Balayla is documented as a Jewish family name with the Canadian physician Dr. Jacques Balayla  Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and with Dr. Isaac Balaila (Balayla), a lecturer and researcher at Technion  - Israel Institute of Technology, the developer of the "Balaila Model" for manpower allocation in service systems. 

The community leaders during Maccabi sports
event in Beirut, Lebanon 1950's.
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot,
courtesy of Yoseph Lichtman, Jerusalem)
Inside "Magen Avraham" Synagogue,
Beirut, Lebanon, Summer 1982.
Photo: Micha Bar-Am, Israel.
(The Oster Visual Documentation Center, Beit Hatfutsot)
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Arabic: طرابلس‎ 

A city in Lebanon

Tripoli is the largest city in northern Lebanon, and the second-largest city in the country.

 

21ST CENTURY

The synagogue building has remained standing. It has been turned into a fabric dye store.

 

HISTORY

A Jewish community existed in Tripoli in the 7th century. At the beginning of the mid-7th century Muslim conquest, the governor of Syria established a guard of Jewish fighters in the citadel of the port to defend the area against the Byzantines.

Life was not always easy for the Jews of Tripoli. At the beginning of the 11th century the caliph El-Hakem imposed restrictions on the activities of non-Muslim congregations. As a result, the synagogue was closed and converted into a mosque. Additionally, many of the Jewish houses were destroyed. Once the restrictions were removed, the community built a new synagogue.

Tripoli was conquered by the Crusaders in 1109, after which the city became an independent capital. A Jewish community existed throughout the Crusader period. The Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela visited Tripoli in the 12th century; his observations and stories about the community included the fact that many Jews were among the victims of an earthquake.

The Mamluks occupied Tripoli in 1289; they destroyed the city, and built a new town nearby. The Jewish community was also renewed in this new location. During the Mamluk period, in addition to the Jewish community, Tripoli was also home to a Karaite community and a Samaritan community.  

Rabbi Ovadiah ben Abraham Bartenura (1445-1515), an Italian rabbi, related that during the 15th century there were about 100 Jewish families living in Tripoli. The population grew during the 16th century, when Jews who had been expelled from Spain settled in Tripoli and began working in commerce.

Rabbi Yitzhak Mishan served as the chief rabbi in the middle of the 16th century. He was succeeded by Rabbi Shmuel Hacohen. Rabbi Shmuel Hacohen was succeeded by his son, Joseph.

Many Jews left Tripoli at the beginning of the 17th century, after experiencing persecution from the Ottoman governor Yusuf Pasha. However, there was still a small community, which continued to function. Another Jewish population declined during the 19th century, and in 1824 there were 15 Jewish families living in Tripoli.

On the eve of World War II (1939-1945) only 4 Jewish families remained in Tripoli. After the establishment of the State of Israel (1948), the Jewish community ceased to exist.