Josh Wood

A journalist's observations on Lebanon and elsewhere

On Jews in Lebanon

with 2 comments

Last night Now Lebanon ran a piece looking into the taboos surrounding Jews who are in Lebanon, taking a look primarily at foreigners of Jewish heritage who find themselves in country.  It’s timely: during the summer months a lot more Westerners than usual flood into Lebanon, looking to study Arabic and get a taste of the country.  Inevitably, some will be Jewish and forced to deal with the ways that many in the country perceive them.

Despite being one of Lebanon’s recognized religious sects and being a relatively thriving community in the country not all that long ago, today Jews – either foreign or local – are rare in Lebanon.  Perceptions of Jews held can sometimes be quite hostile and it is hard for me to imagine how people of that heritage could put up with some situations that they might find themselves in here in Lebanon.

It got me thinking a bit.  Here are a couple of quick anecdotes:

Last November I was at Beirut’s airport catching a flight to Dubai.  The customs officer I had was a young woman – maybe mid 20s at most – and judging by how she was repeatedly carving her name into her keyboard with her pen, didn’t seem to take her job all that seriously.  Yet when I came up and presented my passport to her, she got a look of shock on her face.  She took my passport off to a side office where there were several officers and left me standing there.  After ten minutes or so she called me in.  As I walked into the office, she simply motioned to me and said “al yahood” (or “the Jew” for non-Arabic speakers).  I was caught aback – I do not believe my name sounds Jewish nor do I think I have “stereotypic” Jewish features.  The officers quickly flipped through my passport as I searched my mind for a rebuttal – but before I had one they saw that I was born in Saudi Arabia, muttered something about how I must be Sunni (I’m nominally Catholic, for the record) and let me go.

My first reaction during the airport incident was to reach for my St. Christopher medallion which I carried with me – I wasn’t too sure how otherwise to prove religion or lack thereof as unlike Lebanese IDs, none of mine carry a faith.  But, there was no St. Christopher to be shown.  A week earlier,  a gunman (posing as a servees passenger) wielding one of those ubiquitous Soviet bloc 9mms relieved me of it while I was in a taxi coming back to Ashrafieh from Hamra.   Long story.  At the Bir Hassan police station where I ended up though, the police weren’t too interested in the details of the mugging though.  Before I could even start talking the officer in charge looked at me and said “you are Jew” – no, not a question, a direct statement.  After this went on for about an hour in mixed Arabic and English, it was ominously threatening and their behavior was offensive.  I gave a brief statement on the crime and then it went back to the pseudo interrogation about my heritage and my politics.

I couldn’t imagine having to deal with episodes like this if I were in fact Jewish.  What is the appropriate response when the person asking the question (or rather in these cases, making the assumption) holds some position of authority and is acting in a threatening manner?  What happens if you confirm that you are Jewish in one of these situations?

The Lebanese are perpetually afraid of spies and rightfully so.  Just in the past month we’ve seen a wave of arrests of alleged spies in Lebanon.  However, the Lebanese doesn’t have to be afraid of foreigners.  If there’s one country in the world where Israel does not need to send too many actual Mossad operatives, it’s probably Lebanon.  Israel’s 22-year-long occupation of southern Lebanon gave them a long time to build up informants and spies.  Besides being able to co-opt informants from even the most unlikely places (including the son of a Hamas leader) the Israelis had allies in Lebanon throughout their occupation and during the civil war.  Local operatives probably would move a lot better around sensitive areas in the country, given how much of a hard time foreigners get poking around down south these days.

The examples that I gave were not the only instances that I’ve run into or heard of, nor do they imply that all Lebanese people are unable to distinguish things such as the divide between Jews and Zionists or that they are xenophobic.  However, the frequency of such happenings is disturbing.

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Written by woodenbeirut

July 21, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Posted in Beirut, Israel, Lebanon

2 Responses

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  1. LOLZ, I was Jennifer in that Now piece. I thought they did a bad write-up of it.

    Josie

    July 29, 2010 at 7:43 pm

  2. haha I though that might be you. When I was first reading the article I expected some disclaimer down bottom saying that the names had been changed but didn’t see anything.

    woodenbeirut

    July 29, 2010 at 9:18 pm


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