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They Dig Us

Arab regimes are restoring abandoned Jewish historical sites, a subtle acknowledgement of where power now resides in the Middle East

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Beirut’s Magen Abraham synagogue, currently undergoing renovation. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

“Where’s the synagogue?” I ask a young solider in a beret. A member of the large security detail guarding the Lebanese prime minister’s residence, he is leaning against a jeep and cradling an automatic weapon in one hand. He pulls on a cigarette and regards me warily. I am a foreigner asking directions to a place of Jewish worship from a soldier too young to know Jews as anything but warlike neighbors to the south. He jabs his thumb to the left of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s new mansion, Beit al-Wasat, which was built on land worth tens of millions of dollars, right beside the Maghen Abraham synagogue, the center of a Jewish community that no longer exists.

It’s strange seeing the synagogue’s Hebrew letters in the middle of Beirut. Hezbollah billboards near the Southern border sometimes bear propaganda translated into Hebrew, and there are Hebrew letters on the tombstones of Beirut’s Jewish cemetery. But Maghen Abraham is a different story, a Jewish house of worship being rebuilt in an exclusive Beirut neighborhood with the blessing of the Lebanese government. It would be a symbol of rebirth, if not for the fact that no one is likely to worship there, certainly none of Lebanon’s five and a half million Jewish neighbors in Israel, with which the Beirut government is officially at war.

“It’s a vanished community in what was a vanished neighborhood,” says Nada Abdelsamad, author of an Arabic-language novel, Wadi Abu Jamil: Stories of the Jews of Lebanon, named after this onetime Jewish district. The book’s first printing sold out quickly. “People were interested to know something about the subject,” Abdelsamad explains. “Some people didn’t know we used to have an active Jewish community.”

Aside from Israel, Lebanon was the only Middle Eastern country in which the number of Jews increased after 1948. It wasn’t until the civil war that started in 1975 that Jews began to leave the country in large numbers. The chief rabbi of Lebanon left in 1978. “The Jews left in silence,” Abdelsamad says. “They didn’t try to contact their old friends. So the Lebanese still don’t know what happened.”

A more pertinent question might be, what’s happened to make the Lebanese, and other Arabs, so interested in Jewish cultural remains like Maghen Abraham? In Cairo, the Egyptians are restoring a synagogue in a neighborhood called the Alley of the Jews. In Baghdad, officials are demanding the return of the books, manuscripts, and records of the Iraqi Jewish Archive, which American forces retrieved in the early days of the invasion from a building belonging to the Iraqi intelligence agency, the Mukhabarat.

“Iraqis must know that we are a diverse people, with different traditions, different religions, and we need to accept this diversity,” the director of the Iraq National Library and Archive, Saad Eskander, told the Associated Press. “To show it to our people that Baghdad was always multiethnic.” Or, as Zahi Hawass, general secretary of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, said in a New York Times interview, “What we are doing now is not for the Jews. It is for us, for our heritage.”

These restoration projects, as Arab officials like Eskander and Hawass have attested, are not meant to revive the Jewish communities of the Middle East. They are meant to convince the world of Arab tolerance. The Cairo synagogue renovation coincided with Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosny’s bid to head UNESCO, a post he failed to win in part because of his apparent sympathy with Holocaust deniers and his anti-Israeli remarks. Tolerance of Jewish cultural remains can be exchanged for Western goodwill and aid without necessitating any messy engagement with actual Israelis. The mufti of Syria explained to a visiting delegation of American academics that the conflict with Israel was a war not against Jews but against Zionists.

And yet if you listen closely there is a deeper and more important subtext to the Arabs’ strange and sudden fascination with the remains of the vanished Jewish communities of the Middle East. These restorations of Hebraic antiquity are not simply a safe way of acknowledging the longevity, and thus legitimacy, of the Middle East’s oldest surviving religious community. They are also the means by which Arab governments have begun to recognize that community’s influence and power over their fates. For it is Jewish warplanes, not Jewish remains, that have Arab princes and presidents captivated. Nowhere has this been made more explicit than in the recent valentine to Mossad chief Meir Dagan published in Egypt’s semi-official daily newspaper Al-Ahram, calling him “the Superman of the Jewish state.” Dagan is worthy of Cairo’s love insofar as he “has dealt painful blows to the Iranian nuclear program.” Thus the only question Egyptians ask a visitor from Washington: When will the Israelis finally bomb the Iranian nuclear program?

Egypt and its Arab allies believe that Obama’s engagement with the Iranians will fail, that the Russians and Chinese will not join a sanctions regime, and that the Americans will eventually move to a policy of cold war-style containment and nuclear deterrence. The American president and his Middle East adviser, Dennis Ross, intimated that the Israelis might take dramatic action against Iran’s nuclear program, confirmation for many Arab observers that the United States has taken its own military options off the table. This is not the case, these same observers believe, for the Israelis, who have acted against Iran’s eastern Mediterranean allies—Hezbollah and Hamas—and will, with luck, take action against Iran itself.

Israeli strength and Arab weakness are therefore seen as part of a common pattern that will yet bring about the defeat of a common enemy: Iran. Here in Beirut there’s talk that Prime Minister Hariri’s recent trip to Syria, where he was coerced into humbling himself before the regime that allegedly assassinated his father, was merely a maneuver in a holding pattern until the Israelis strike. Sources close to Hariri explained to me that Saudi Arabia, the young prime minister’s patron, believes an attack is imminent and that there is still time to wrest Syria away from the Iranians. Hariri’s visit was seen as a down payment on an expected Syrian realignment.

The Arab fascination with Israeli might is nothing new, explains Lokman Slim, a Lebanese Shiite and founder of a Beirut-based, pro-democracy NGO called Hayyabina. “It’s partly in the realm of fantasy,” says Slim. “It’s a sexual dream about the military libido—it’s a dream the Arabs and Israelis share, but that the Israelis also enjoy in reality.”

We’re sitting in a bar in a Sunni quarter of Beirut. Everyone at the table is Shiite but anti-Hezbollah—which means that they are more worried than even the Sunnis that Iran might acquire the bomb. An Iranian nuclear capability would represent a victory for the ideology and culture of resistance, and would condemn Lebanon’s Shiite community to another generation of wandering in a wilderness of ignorance, violence, and oppression.

When I explain to Lebanese Shiites that the big foreign policy debate in Washington right now is not about Iran but about Afghanistan, they are speechless. “What vital interest does Washington have in Afghanistan?” they ask. “Rocks? Where is the oil? You are afraid of looking weak because Osama Bin Laden says you are?”

The Sunni Arab states are no longer capable of shaping the region or even their own destiny, and so they wait to be rescued by Israeli Jews. The vast, opulent halls of Arab authority are vacant shells, while the crumbled synagogues of Beirut and Cairo are reminders of a power that once dwelled among the Arabs but has since migrated elsewhere.

Regional power has shifted away from Washington’s familiar Arab partners and toward non-Arab states. The fate of the Middle East no longer depends on the desires of Cairo and Riyadh. The choices that shape the lives of Arabs are now made in Tehran, Tel Aviv, and perhaps a newly ascendant Ankara.

An Israeli strike on Iran may or may not be a mirage, but it is the only possible salvation for Arab states too weak to control their own destiny. Though Washington is still the pre-eminent power in the region, its confused and changing priorities appear to have blinded it to the Middle East’s new configuration, and it is unlikely that America’s continuing political and financial crises will make our vision any clearer.

One reason that the White House’s Middle East peace process has, in Obama’s words, “not moved forward,” is that old Clinton hands like Dennis Ross, George Mitchell, and Rahm Emmanuel believed the Egyptians and the Saudis still had great influence. When events proved them wrong, they appeared simply to throw up their hands and blame the stubbornness of the locals. But something much more profound has changed.

When we wake up to that change we will find that one distinguishing characteristic of the shift in regional power to Iran, Turkey, and Israel is that all three countries are less dependent on the United States than they were five or ten years ago. Iran has troubles at home but is also a rising nuclear power that has been freed from the threat of an American military strike. Turkey was jilted by the European Union and no longer looks to America and the West. Israel has little interest in continuing to spend political capital to help Barack Obama.

The days when Prince Bandar, the longtime Saudi ambassador to Washington, smoked cigars on the Truman balcony have begun to look good when compared to an era in which the significant regional powers are neither Arab nor American, and do not feel the same urgency about returning Washington’s calls. What such a region will look like is anyone’s guess. It may not be very pleasant to live in. But it will surely be interesting to watch.

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Very enlightening opinion. Thank you.

Carlos says:

I don’t understand why you refer to the Jewish communities as having disappeared. The Jews didn’t disappear they were ethnically cleansed. The fact that the Arab countries are now fixing up the synagogues where I and my fellow ex-Arab Jews used to worship is a sick joke.

Richard Z. Chesnoff says:

I am sure Lee Smith may be right – the renovation of the Beirut synagogue could well be a subconscious nod in the direction of Israel’s regional strength.
But I believe that in part it is also a simple attempt to build up tourism. More to the point, renovating Jewish sites in Arab capitals is often a way to avoid any responsibility for the 20th century ethnic cleansing that forced almost all Jews in the Arab world to flee and abandon the communities they had built over more than a millennium. Indeed, the last thing the Arab leaders want to admit is that more Jewish refugees fled the Arab world than Arab refugees fled Palestine.
Consider this: during a visit to Libya in 1994 I discovered that no one less than Muammar Qadhafi was in the midst of renovating the ruins of the central synagogue of Tripoli. When I asked “The Leader” why (after all, there are no Jews left in Libya) he said “they are part of our history. And Jews could live here now. There is no need for Israel to exist…Any Libyan Jew who wants to return may do so” (to the best of my knowledge none has volunteered yet.
Still, not every Arab state wants to underline its Jewish past. The traditional site of the tomb of the Prophet Ezekiel which lies south of Baghdad has always been distinctively Jewish (though Christians & Muslims also came to pray there). Our allies in Iraq are now “renovating it” and in the process removing all Hebrew inscriptions and Jewish ornaments.

Lebanese Jew says:

I’m a Lebanese Jew, living IN Lebanon. Though much of the article is good I find the insinuation that rebuilding the Synagogue is related to what is happening in Iraq and Egypt nothing short of misleading. The decision to finally renovate the Synagogue was made by the LEBANESE JEWISH COMMUNITY, not the government. The funding is coming from the LEBANESE JEWS.

And for the millionth time, why do you ignore what the official community council publicly states on its website- there are HUNDREDS of Jews living in our community in Lebanon. Why don’t you check the website:

I am currently on business abroad, I find these articles encouraging but nevertheless misleading. Our experience in Lebanon is NOTHING like that of those who were persecuted out of their countries.

The article has a couple of errors. Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s mansion is not in the same neighborhood as the synagogue. Hariri’s mansion is in Qreitem and the synagogue is in Wadi Abu Jamil. Jim Smith is probably alluding to the Grand Serail, which is in the vicinity of the synagogue. The Grand Serail is the headquarters of the Prime Minister of Lebanon who is now Saad Hariri. The historic building is not the personal property of Hariri. Smith also didn’t point out that the synagogue was not the only religious structure destroyed in downtown Beirut during the war. Unfortunately, churches and mosques were also destroyed. He also failed to mention that the synagogue is not the last structure to be restored. The Church of St. Vincent is still in ruins, lacking funding. While I agree that Wadi Abu Jamil’s Jewish identity has been erased, many neighborhoods in Beirut also faced the same fate. For example, the suburb of Raouda was predominately Shia Muslim and is now predominately Christian while Mreijeh was predominately Christian and now is a Shia suburb. This is the unfortunate result of a 15-year brutal war. Finally, but definitely not least, Smith states that the “restorations of Hebraic antiquity are not simply a safe way of acknowledging the longevity, and thus legitimacy, of the Middle East’s oldest surviving religious community, they are meant to convince the world of Arab tolerance.” As a Lebanese, I find this statement very offensive, and I would like to remind Mr. Smith that when America, only few decades ago, was intolerant of its own population due to the color of their skin, and where segregation was the law in many states, the people of Lebanon from all religious groups, including Jews, were integrated and enjoyed equality under the law. The coexistence of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Lebanon is millennia old. It is nothing new. If there is a symbol attached to the restoration of the synagogue, it is that despite the wars that have been inflicted on Lebanon and its people, tolerance and coexistence always prevail—something Israel need to start believing as well.

Carlos says:

To Luke–There was co-existence until the Moslems began to outnumber everyone else. The Moslems (at least in the middle east) don’t know what co-existence is. There are practically no Jews left in Arab countries and the only Country in the middle east where the Christian population is increasing instead of decreasing is the only non-Moslem country–Israel.

Michael says:

Hmm, wishful thinking, I think!

jacob t. says:

perhaps the restoration of synagogues, etc is comparable to Hitler’s collecting ‘artifacts of the extinct race’, Jews. And perhaps to give more credibility to the ‘against Israel, not Jews’. This is the party line given credibility among too many.

Again, tolerance and coexistence will prevail no matter what! It took Europe several centuries and many wars to realize this but they finally did it. The Levant will eventually get there as well.

Doubter says:

Yes Luke, let’s coexist, but first lte’s get some facts straight:
“the unfortunate result of a brutal war” and Israel needs to start believing in coexistence and tolerance
The “brutal war” that destabilized Lebanon was started by the Palestinians under Arafat after he was booted out by King Hussein for trying to destabilize Jordan and after being saved by misguided American foreign policy in 1982, he was ushered into the Palestinian territories in 1993, where he destabilized the Israeli Palestinian situation – big time with terror wars from the inside.
You see my coexisting Luke, that the Palestinians – spoiled silly by the UN and the far left and used by the Arab world – destabilize and bring destruction whenever they go. Their piece prize is making suicide bombings the weapon of choice for the radical Islamists world.

Wow, and I thought Muslims were the ones obsessed with conspiracy theories. Leaving aside the inordinate lack of authenticity to this article, an opinion based in the sheer number of errors that readers have pointed out, I would point out that this impression that the “evil Arab” must have some ulterior motive to protect the national treasures of his country sound a bit…. oh, what’s the word I’m looking for here…. ANTISEMETIC. In this case, the Semites being, of course, the Arabs. Sons of Ishamel and all that good stuff.

Get a grip on reality. Fact check your articles if you have pretentions of being a journalist, and try not to let your own overweening arrogance and national/ethnic pride cloud your judgment. It’s hard to see the difference between what you’re insinuating here and the people who talk about the “Jewish Media” or how “banking is controlled by Jews.”

Sarah Leah Lawent says:


Would Mr. Smith care to elucidate for us how the Iraqi destruction of the Tomb of Yechezkiel and the erection of a mosque upon the site fits into his theories? Alley of the Jews in Bagdad? Some manuscripts?

@Jamal – anti-Semitism does not include Arabs, by definition. Also, there are very few Muslims who are actually descended from Ishmael left at all. It looks neat on paper – but it is not the reality.

Oleander says:

I lived and worked in Libya prior to Gadafi and during the regime.

Jews had lived alongside Libyans amicably until the June 1967 war. That war was the reason that they were not welcome.

Perhaps a positive outcome for Kosova in the ICJ will have a knock on effect for Palestine. The borders need to be reset to their former alignment- also the Gholan Hights returned to Syria.

Richard Z. Chesnoff says:

Oleander must have lived in another Libya. Libyan Jews were subject to deadly riots and discrimination long before 1967. From 1948 to 1951, 30,972 Libyan Jews fled to Israel. On December 31, 1958 the Jewish Community Council was dissolved by Libyan law and by 1967, the Jewish population of Libya had decreased to 7,000. Facing more riots and government harassment, leaders of the Jewish community asked King Idris I to allow the entire Jewish population to “temporarily” leave the country; he consented, even urging them to leave. Through an airlift and the aid of several ships, the Italian navy helped evacuate more than 6,000 Jews to Rome in one month. The evacuees were forced to leave their homes, their businesses and most of their possession behind. Of these 6,000, more than 4,000 soon left Italy for Israel or the United States. There are no Jews in Libya today.

Helen Dukke says:

really sarah? and where did yo get your facts from? there r very few muslims descended from Ishmael left at all? HUH? man u really are delusional. and as for coexistance, my family came from the middle east, my mother spoke of how jews lived together in peace. u should find some real semite jews and ask them how well they lived before isrl and its zionists destroyed their relationships.

my family refused to live among a bunch of racist europeans on stolen lands. go back to europe, haven’t u destroyed enough already.!!

Helen Dukke says:

Richard Z. there r no jews in lybia because of the zionists that came from europe. u think u know everything. the fact is those jews that left had been paid for their loss. there r still jews who live in lebanon, they r Lebanese not isrlies. there r jews living in Iran as a matter of fact the largest group outside of isrl in Iran. those r real semite jews not converts from europe. u should learn ur own heritage before u stat spewing crap. if this keeps up i’m going to have to wear hipwaders.
it is the racist arrogant scum like you that give Judaism a bad name.

Harold says:

Helen Dukke: So Jews and Muslims lived peacefully for centuries until Zionism came along. Yeah, right. Muslims “tolerated” Jews until the Jews started wanting some rights, like the right of self-determination and the right to govern their own affairs without Muslim interference. If you believe otherwise, you’re living in a mythical kingdom of your own creation.

Helen Dukke says:

oh please they had seats in parliment, they had lots of representation. as usual u people always play the victim when in fact it is the arabs who are the victims. go back to europe since u want to be part of the european union. look on a map Palestine is not in europe. it is part of the middle east, in which u refuse to accept as it is. all u want is to wage wars and demonize the arabs. civilization was created in the middle east, u destroyed it in less than 60 years. the arabs do not hate jews they hate the zionists. but of course u haven’t figured out that the zionists r doing u wrong as well.

Harold says:

Oh please, indeed, Helen. You don’t like the fact that Jews now have the right of self-determination, you don’t think that Jews have the right to govern their own affairs. Like a true plantation owner, you think they always have to be minorities in other peoples’ countries. You’re upset with the facts presented to you by Sarah, by Richard Z. Chesnoff, and myself, and you can’t refute even one of them. So you resort to the lowest level, for example, calling Richard “racist, arrogant, scum.” And oh by the way, if it’s representation in Parliament you’re concerned about, look at the Israeli Arabs who are represented in the Knesset.

Helen Dukke says:

give me a break they always had the right. u just chose to not see that.
as usual ur playing the victim.

You just don’t get it. you are being used!! the zionists r playing u and the western world. but let me ask you something, if someone came and terrorized you off your land and out of your country, would u not fight? of course you would. is that not called self defense?do they not have a right to protect themselves and their homes? of course they do. they r not terrorsits they r freedom fighters. let me give u a quote to ponder.

“Let us not ignore the truth among ourselves … politically we are the aggressors and they defend themselves… The country is theirs, because they inhabit it, whereas we want to come here and settle down, and in their view we want to take away from them their country.”
— David Ben Gurion, pp 141-2 citing a 1938 speech.

now than u go out and find outside sources not written by zionists but humans that want peace. and u will see a very different picture than what ur gov’t painted for u. you are not the historical people of those lands. u drove out the real people of those lands. they may not all practice Judaism but that doesn’t mean they r not the indigenous ppl of those lands.

Harold says:

Helen, everything you’re saying boils down to one thing: your implicit claim that 22 Arab states are ok, but it’s not okay to have even one Jewish state. Too bad. You lose.

Helen Dukke says:

I never said anythign about not having a jewish state. but it immoral to assume that you can take a land of another people and claim u have historical rights to it. u were offered land by another nation. no if’s and or but’s, but your so called leaders refused it because they wanted Palestine.

did you know at one time the zionists were debating to take Argentina for their own. but because argentina was a powerful nation they knew it would never happen. a nation that had no way to fight back except with stones and a few rifles that they used for hunting. sorry Harold, i’m not the loser, i never lost my morals but unfortunately u did.

its to bad u haven’t figured out for yourself that the zionist regime in isrl is not on ur side. they have a higher power they answer too,and it isn’t God.

you say that i do not want a jewish state. but in the Torah it says that this land will not belong to the jews until God comes down.

can you please tell me when God came down and gave you Palestine for yourselves? becasue i do not remember God coming and giving this land to the jews. but I do remember him banishing the jews. give me the year God actually came and said this is your land. in teh torah the Bible and the Koran God did not come down. but than of course i must be mistaken, because all i ever hear is that God came and gave you this land.

Helen Dukke says:

the Muslims believe in the Torah, and they believe in the Bible, and they believe in teh koran. they believe these were sent down by God. you are calling backwards because they have different rules but in reality they are pretty much the same. so what if soem Muslims wear a hijab, does that make them backwards. instead of just calling them backwards. maybe you should read the Koran to understand them. you would be surprised at just how much their beliefs r the same as Christians and jews alike.

Harold says:

Helen, Bottom Line: you still are arguing against the Jews having their own homeland and their right to govern themselves, free of the Muslim yoke. More than 50% of Israeli Jews are refugees from lands that had been conquered by the Arabs, or they are descended from those refugees. They know what it’s like to be a minority in a country where the majority is Arab Muslim, and they don’t want any part of it. That’s their right. They should not be obligated to continue living in other people’s countries as eternal minorities, which is what YOU want. Meanwhile, the Arabs are luxuriating in their 22 states. And the Jews are not allowed to have even one? You stand for inequality, you stand for injustice. And you claim to still have your morals (???) Hah!!!

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They Dig Us

Arab regimes are restoring abandoned Jewish historical sites, a subtle acknowledgement of where power now resides in the Middle East

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