HIAS’s “Espionage Ring” in Lebanon

Jews have lived in what is now Lebanon since ancient times, which has contributed to a strong Lebanese and Arabic identity among the Jews hailing from modern-day Lebanon. Since the early 2nd century CE, The Jewish community in Lebanon maintained peaceful coexistence with other regional religious and ethnic groups, and such relations continued into the 20th century, especially relative to neighboring Syria and Iraq.

But, beginning in the 1950s, anti-Jewish sentiment grew as the Maronite Christian majority was being opposed by the growing Muslim minority who were influenced by Arab nationalism, perhaps nudged in that direction after the creation of Israel in 1948.[1]

Still, while Lebanese Jews were mostly favorable toward Zionism, most preferred to stay in Lebanon rather than emigrate to Israel or elsewhere, even despite some sporadic violence, such as the bombing of the Alliance Israélite Universelle school in 1950).[2]

Unfortunately, the situation only worsened over the course of the 1950s, to the point where emigration was beginning to become a pressing reality for many Lebanese Jews. It is at this point that HIAS begins making contact with the Jewish community in Beirut, though that came to an abrupt halt when fifteen Jews were arrested for “spying for HIAS.”

Letter from James Rice regarding the situation in Lebanon (from the unprocessed records of Executive Directory James P. Rice, HIAS archives).

The translation from the Jewish Day Journal is below, and the “item in the JTA” that Rice mentions is probably the article “Lebanese Paper Urges All Jews to Leave Lebanon; Says 2,500 Emigrated,” by the Jewish Telegraph Agency, which quotes a Beirut paper, Kul Sheye (elsewhere styled Kul Shay), as reporting that 5,000 Lebanese Jews had emigrated, going on to say, “‘We will not regret it if another half of Lebanese Jews will leave the country [….] It is better that they leave on their own at the earliest opportunity than wait until we shall ask them to leave when we might get in trouble with the United Nations.'”[3] 

Only a few months before, there had been trouble between Lebanon and Israel, when Israel captured an alleged Lebanese spy plane.[4]

While most Lebanese Jews looked favorably on the creation of a Jewish state, they did not feel compelled to emigrate to Israel. Unlike many Jews in the Soviet bloc, North Africa, or Cuba, Lebanese Jews did not want to leave their homes, nor did they feel very much pressure to leave. If anything, the struggle for power between the Maronites and the Muslims caused more economic uncertainty and political instability than fear of religiously motivated attacks. It was this instability that was causing some Jews to consider emigrating,.

However, paranoia appeared to grow among the more extreme proponents of Arab nationalism. Rebel groups threatened to blow up the Jewish quarter in Beirut, known as “Wadi Abu Jamil,” claiming that munitions were being stored in the synagogue there. Any support for Israel was more and more seen as treasonous—even contact with HIAS would appear suspect.[5]

Jewish Daily Journal article on the HIAS “espionage ring” (from the unprocessed records of Executive Directory James P. Rice, HIAS archives).

It seems that more than ethnic or religious differences, it was Lebanon’s proximity to Israel that led to such a marked change in the political landscape that Lebanese Jews no longer felt welcome in their own country, a land they had lived in for millennia. Though Lebanon sat out the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, it could not shield itself from the political fallout. The occupation of southern Lebanon by the PLO and later by Israel and then Hezbollah and the long-term presence of the Syrian military caused most of the remaining Jews to begin emigrating.[6]

“The Arab-Israeli war of 1967 marked the turning point in the history of Lebanon’s Jews. Though Lebanon stayed out of the conflict, the war’s impact changed the country’s political landscape. A large number of Palestinian refugees entered the country and Palestinian armed groups were now frequently launching resistance operations from Lebanon against Israel. Many Jews feared perpetual instability and started leaving the country.”[6]

Most estimates put the number of Jews in Lebanon today at around 200, most of them certainly living under the radar.[7,8] As we continue processing the collection, we will keep our eyes out for more information on HIAS’s role in helping Jews emigrate from Lebanon after thousands of years of calling it their home.

[1] http://www.ajcarchives.org/AJC_DATA/Files/1960_13_IsraelMidEast.pdf
[2] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0003_0_02321.html
[3] http://www.jta.org/1959/11/27/archive/lebanese-paper-urges-all-jews-to-leave-lebanon-says-2500-emigrated
[4] http://www.jta.org/1959/06/01/archive/israel-releases-crew-of-intercepted-lebanese-bomber-detains-plane
[5] http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/6236
[6] ibid.
[7] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/09/lebanon-jewish-past-history-2014913132242954598.html
[8] http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/05/lebanon-israel-beirut-jew-synagogue-coexistence-palestine.html


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