On its face, the story of the Jews of Lebanon has much in common with that of Jews’ throughout the Islamic world: a community dating back to ancient times, which over the centuries experienced many ups and downs, but for the most part flourished until increasing hostility in the 20th century led it to be driven out. But there is more to it, writes Eyal Zisser in his review of Franck Salameh’s recent book on the subject:
There were cases, [in the mid-20th century], of Lebanese Jews being attacked physically; however, in general, the various ethnoreligious communities in Lebanon viewed the Jews living among them with an attitude of much greater tolerance than that shown to Jewish communities in neighboring Arab countries. Indeed, following the establishment of the state of Israel, the number of Jews living in Lebanon increased rather than decreased. This was because most Lebanese Jews chose to remain where they were, and they were joined by Jews who came from Iraq or Syria and chose to settle in Lebanon.
Then, during the 1970s, Lebanon sank into a bloody civil war that changed the character of the country. In the shadow of the decline into internecine fighting, the Jewish community in Lebanon was destroyed. We can now say that this was a bad omen for the country as a whole, for the factors that cast a shadow over the Jewish presence—for example, the collaboration of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) with the radical Arab nationalists in Lebanon—were the same ones that led to the destruction of the whole country and, indeed, stood at the core of the collapse that provoked the civil war.
Salameh’s book seeks to emphasize the special relationship that developed between the Jews and the Maronite community, the community that for many years kept alive the Lebanese dream and still struggles to maintain that dream. In this connection, Salameh presents a fascinating discussion of the way the Lebanese people, and especially the Maronites, viewed the Jews and Zionism. These attitudes stood at the core of the cooperation between the two communities, which began with the beginning of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel and culminated in the 1970s and 1980s.