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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Magen Avraham synagogue in Beirut

Take what they say about Lebanese Jewry supporting Israel and about Israeli shells damaging the synagogue in 1982 with a grain of salt. The rest of this story of one of the last remaining synagogues in Beirut is quite interesting.
The Magen Abraham Synagogue in Wadi Abou Jemil is probably the last remaining symbol that Lebanon''s currently vanishing Jewish community was in fact once fully integrated into Lebanese economic, social, cultural and political life. Actually, when Greater Lebanon was proclaimed in 1920, they were the only Middle Eastern Jewish community to be constitutionally protected!

The Synagogue was built during an era of prosperity, throughout which the Lebanese Jewish community began to flock towards the Wadi Abu Jemil district, making it their cultural, religious, social and economic centre.

In fact, Lebanon was the only Arab state to see its Jewish community increase after the establishment of Israel. Lebanese Jews remained generally opposed to the Zionist movement and their attachment to life in Lebanon as full Lebanese citizens was stronger than their sympathy for Israel.

During The 1958 conflict however, many Jews left for Europe, the U.S. and South America. Again, very few went to Israel. Like most other Lebanese who emigrated, Lebanese Jews remained attached to their homeland.

Following the June Arab-Israeli war and the civil war of 1975, Wadi Abu Jemil was deserted, and the synagogue was closed. Located near the old city centre, it was unfortunately caught between the conflicting factions. But ironically, the synagogue took most of the damage from direct Israeli shell fire during their 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

When later on Solidere was created, Beirut’s City Centre started undergoing a full fledge face lift. The restoration of the synagogue didn’t seem to come up in any of the plans, until a project to build a massive Hariri Mosque in the Martyrs’ Square area took form.

At the time, there was need to acquire more land in the chosen spot. It is believed that Former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri had concocted a deal with the Safra family (one of the most established Jewish banking families in the world), whereby they donated land they owned for the mosque, in exchange for Hariri’s adoption of the Synagogue’s restoration. The anticipated project also included a garden, surrounding the Synagogue, open to downtown strollers. This would have been the icing or the cherry that would crown Rafiq Hariri’s political career and diplomacy. Things did not go quite as planned…

Currently the Mosque is completed, and Rafiq Hariri’s remnants from his horrifying assassination (god rests his soul) is buried within its premises…and the Synagogue is still plunged in its deep slumber. Is it destined to perish in oblivion?

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