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Is it taboo to be Jew?

July 20, 2010
It was the middle of a heartfelt conversation, so I wasn’t surprised when my friend told me she had a secret to share. We’d known each other for about a year, and we had become quite close.

"I need to tell you something. I’m part Jewish – from my mother’s side,” Chloe said, as if confessing a dark family secret.

I paused for a minute. I was troubled by her anxiety at telling me; after all, I had plenty of Jewish friends growing up in New York, and besides, Judaism is one of Lebanon’s 18 official confessions. So did Chloe really need to be so apprehensive?
Truth be told, in spite of the Maghen Abraham Synagogue in downtown Beirut being renovated, a sign that Judaism is tolerated in Lebanon, Chloe is not alone in her nervousness at disclosing her faith. Liza, one of the last Lebanese Jews residing in the country,up until a few months ago lived in a home near the Synagogue protected by a Solidere security guard. The guard himself was confused as to whether the woman living under his wing was Lebanese or Israeli, a reflection of many Lebanese people’s understanding of what is it to be Jewish in the land of Cedars.

Steven, an American who is part Jewish, says that people in the Arab world do not distinguish between being Jewish and Zionist. He has lived in Jordan and Syria and now studies in Lebanon. To him, anyone who wants to comfortably announce their Jewish faith has to simultaneously prove they are anti-Israel. "No matter how well intentioned, it’s not enough to guarantee my safety,” said Steven, who speaks Arabic and has volunteered in Palestinian refugee camps in the country. Ironically, according to him, the only ones who accurately make the distinction between Jewish and Zionist are the people he worked with in the camps. "At some point, it really messes with my head,” he said. "It’s such anarchy here; you don’t know what to expect.”

"If I’m around people who are saying derogatory things [about Jews,] I might step in to make them realize, for example, that not all Jews support Israel,” said Jennifer, a British journalist whose mother is Jewish. "Luckily, my name does not give me away, but I am prudent because of preconceptions,” she added, recalling an incident when she overheard someone dismissing the lack of distinction between Jews and Israelis as less significant than that between Palestinian militants and Palestinian civilians.

While Chloe, Steven and Jennifer are cautious about disclosing their background, other Jewish visitors to the country, like Richard, are less anxious. "People in New York thought I was crazy to spend the summer in Lebanon, even though the Lebanese friend who invited me told me it was fine. I did not want to be dubbed a self-righteous liberal, so I contacted the people running the downtown Synagogue’s renovation,” Richard said. According to Richard, they told him that as long as he avoided political and religious-oriented discussions, he would be fine. Though he has loved his time in Beirut, he is saddened that there is a taboo around admitting one’s Jewish background.

Aliya Saidi, assistant director at the American University of Beirut’s CAMES department, says that she offers all foreign students the same advice, to keep discussions of politics and religion limited. "We don’t really know for sure, and we definitely don’t ask who is Jewish, because religion is not important to us,” she told NOW Lebanon, stressing that safety is what matters to AUB, and that few students have inquired on the matter. "I have my thoughts from their names and background, but I never know for sure who is Jewish, and they most probably get their advice from their home schools,” she explained, noting that as far as she knows, there has never been a serious problem since the program’s inception.

But is there a legal reason for Jewish visitors to Lebanon to be concerned? The assassination of Hamas official Mahmoud al-Mabhouh by Mossad agents in Dubai back in January allegedly led to a new policy of monitoring visitors to Lebanon with Jewish-sounding names. (Though it seems that many foreigners in general are dealing with increased attention from the authorities. One Scandinavian who was studying and working in Beirut told NOW Lebanon that after struggling with the General Security, he was asked to leave Lebanon a few months ago.)

According to human rights lawyer Nabil Halabi, the General Security is concerned about Jewish people inside Lebanon because Israeli policy states that anyone who is Jewish can also acquire Israeli citizenship. Lebanese law, however, does not discriminate against being Jewish per se, but rather against those who have travelled to Israel before coming to Lebanon, which is officially illegal.

But as one Jewish American living in Beirut noted, any spy who wants to enter the country would make sure his name didn’t sound Jewish in the first place. "I don’t broadcast my Jewish heritage, but I don’t go out of my way to hide it either,” he said. Though he seems assured, he, like the other Jewish visitors interviewed for this article, insisted that his name be changed or concealed.

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