Why it pays to restore synagogues in the Arab world

The Christian Science Monitor treated us to a fairy tale the other day, with Nicholas Blanford gushing about the Maghen Avraham synagogue, now being restored in Beirut:

The interior has been restored to its original décor with sky-blue walls, arched windows, and whitewashed columns with small brown painted streaks that mimic the fossilized shells in the original limestone columns. Work is expected to be completed by summer, and the first rabbi in nearly four decades is expected to arrive soon.


“Once the rabbi is here, we will be able to hold weddings again,” says a Jewish Council member in Lebanon who oversaw the restoration. He declines to allow his name to be quoted, illustrating that Lebanese Jews still prefer to maintain a low profile (emphasis added).

Here the CSM enters the realms of complete fantasy. The first rabbi, did you say, Nicholas? A rabbi officiating at Jewish weddings, noch? To what congregation would this rabbi minister, given that there are perhaps a dozen Jews in the country, none of them living in the synagogue’s vicinity? What happy couples would he marry, given that there are few, if any, eligible young people? And if the Jews are so frightened to identify themselves, what are the chances of them attending services? And there is always the chance, has ve’halila, that such congregants as are brave enough to arrive at the Maghen Avraham synagogue might be sitting ducks for anyone wishing to cause trouble. Hezbollah, for instance.

The Christian Science Monitor is guilty of other bits of misinformation. For instance, it repeats the fiction, spread by Kirsten E. Schulze, the author of the only in-depth book in existence on the Jews of Lebanon, that most Jews left during the Lebanese civil war, thus making them random targets of a generalized conflict. To assert that the Arab-Israeli conflict drove out the Jews is not strictly accurate either — they were driven out by the anti-Semitic backlash to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Indeed, the vast majority of Lebanon’s 14,000 Jews left before or immediately after the Six-Day War.

Blanford repeats another assertion that has become set in stone: the Beirut synagogue was bombed by the Israelis themselves: “Much of the structural damage was inflicted, ironically, by shelling from Israeli gunboats in 1982.” This rumor was started by none other than the Middle East “expert” Robert Fisk, whose reputation for truth-telling has taken a few knocks recently.

The CSM report is typical of a trend in Middle Eastern reporting hailing the restoration of Jewish buildings in countries with no more than a handful of Jews as somehow indicative of pluralism and tolerance in the Arab world. Even Jews fall for the fantasy, grateful for the slightest acknowledgement that members of the Tribe once lived there.

“Look, we even have Jews here!” a restored Jewish site proclaims.

Or, as one journalist put it, “Tolerance of Jewish cultural remains can be exchanged for Western goodwill and aid without necessitating any messy engagement with actual Israelis.”

Picking up the Christian Science Monitor report, Stewart Winer in the Times of Israel recalled that last year, before his regime was shaken to its foundations by the “Arab Spring,” Bashar al-Assad announced plans to restore 11 Syrian synagogues. This is in a country incapable of assembling a minyan (quorum) of 10 able-bodied Jewish men.

We are told that the restoration plan was meant to buy brownie points with the US; more specifically, with the 75,000 Syrian Jews now living in the US.

Excuse my cynicism, but how is it that these countries can get away with ethnically cleansing their Jewish communities yet reap the PR benefits of restoring Jewish buildings?

I have just finished reading Harold Troper’s “The Ransomed of God,” which tells the story of the savage persecution of the Jews of Syria who remained there until the early 1990s, and how one Canadian woman, Judy Feld Carr, played a central role in their rescue. The regime kept these Jews as hostages, showing no compassion to those who needed urgent medical treatment abroad. A woman who, in desperation, tried to escape clandestinely was shot and paralysed for life. Two brothers about to board a plane for Italy were kidnapped, incarcerated, tortured and abused for four years.

What a small price to pay — there is never any need to apologize. Just restore a few crumbling buildings, and then pocket the tourist revenues. It’s a win-win situation.

About the Author
Lyn Julius is a journalist and co-founder of Harif, an association of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa in the UK. She is the author of 'Uprooted: How 3,000 years of Jewish Civilisation in the Arab world vanished overnight.' (Vallentine Mitchell)