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


James P. Rice, Executive Director, 1955-1966

James P. Rice began his tenure with HIAS in 1955 to assist in the merger of HIAS, the United Service for New Americans, and the Migration Department of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee into the new United HIAS Service. Rice had worked for the Joint over the previous 10 years, most of which he spent in Europe helping to resettle Jews displaced during the war. Towards the end of his time at the Joint, Rice was assigned to Switzerland as the liaison to the International Refugee Organization, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration.

The consolidation of the three organizations into United HIAS Service marks a turning point in European migration following the war. Under Rice’s leadership, HIAS closed many of its European field offices and began shifting its resources to North Africa, opening branch offices in Tangier and Casablanca. HIAS House in the Negev opened in Beersheba in August of 1955, around the same time Rice was brought on board, to serve as a hostel for new immigrants to Israel, especially scientific and technical workers who could help develop Israel’s southern region.

Rice (at right in glasses) at a HIAS Passover seder in 1958 (I-363, Records of HIAS (unprocessed)).

Born in 1913 and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Rice attended the nearby Western Reserve University, where he is said to have been a “star medium-distance runner and competed in the 1932 Olympic Trials” (Tribune). He graduated in 1934 and continued at Western Reserve to receive his masters in Social Administration in 1936.

Major migration events during Rice’s time as Executive Director include the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, independence in Morocco and Egypt, the Cuban revolution, the revolution in Belgian Congo, and increasing anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish sentiment Communist Romania and in Syria and Lebanon.

Rice (second from left) at an event in his honor at the Chicago Public Library, 1979. To his left are Edwin Shapiro, then-president of HIAS, and Gaynor Jacobson, then-current executive director (HIAS Photographic Archive, 5L 54 B).

Rice left HIAS in 1966 and moved to Chicago to become executive vice president of the Jewish Federation, overseeing its merger with the Jewish Welfare Fund. According to his obituary in the Chicago Tribune, “he represented the federation at the White House during the signing of the 1978 Camp David peace accord between Egypt and Israel.” Rice retired in 1979, but he continued to work as a consultant for organizations such as the United Jewish Appeal and Chicago’s Council for Jewish Elderly. He died in in 1997. He was 84.


  1. I-363, Records of HIAS, unprocessed, American Jewish Historical Society.
  2. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1997-10-27/news/9710270135_1_jewish-federation-william-rice-mr-rice
  3. http://www.jta.org/1956/12/31/archive/james-p-rice-named-executive-director-of-united-hias-service
  4. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0017_0_16720.html
  5. http://www.jta.org/1955/08/17/archive/hias-house-opened-in-israel-touster-given-honorary-citizenship

Re: Old Files

As archivists, we are very attentive to how an archive—the collection as a whole as we received it—is arranged. The arrangement of an archive says something about the organization that produced it, the business processes that shaped the records remain as a sort of after-image of the arrangement of the records. So it’s funny to us to find instances of HIAS trying in various ways to understand how it maintains its own records. You can see here, in a letter from May 1956, Louis Horowitz, director of HIAS’s European Operations, looking for advice on records management.

“Re: Old Files,” Horowitz’s letter on the “question […] of how to dispose of old files and records.”
We have noticed in the records from the mid-50s a move to close a lot of branch offices in Europe. We assume that at this point most WWII refugees had been resettled—either in the US, Latin America, or Israel—and HIAS was turning its attention to helping Jews in the Middle East and North Africa.

In the late ’50s, HIAS got the idea to consolidate all of their archival records (mostly case files serving as the official record of immigration) as part of its 75th anniversary celebrations into the newly named (“brisened”?) Wilhelm Weinberg Hall of Records, named for the banker and art collector who had fled the Nazis in 1941 and had recently died. We are still finding out more and more about the Hall of Records, but even before the hall was opened, one HIAS employee had a few complaints about the proposal.


Ilja Dijour served as the Director of Research for HIAS at this time. We first came across his name in a letter he’d written (in French) to Executive Director James Rice a few years prior. It seems that he’d worked with HIAS in some capacity from 1928 to 1940. We like Dijour, something about him seems very cosmopolitan, and the candor and stubbornness revealed in his letter suggest he is a man of principles. Also he advocates for a professional archivist and for a standardized catalog of the records—what’s not to love!

Below is a promotional photograph for the Hall of Records—Rice is in the middle. Absent from the festivities, of course, was Mr. Dijour, who did not attend—purposely!



But Dijour’s wasn’t the first call to action regarding HIAS’s recordkeeping practices. Below is a page from the “Survey of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society,” circa 1918, by the Field Bureau of the National Conference of Jewish Charities.


The section of the survey called “Files and Records” points out that there is “no central files and records room or unified system of filing [….] Records are scattered through almost all the offices in the building [….] The result is that the valuable material is frequently mislaid […] and not infrequently, frantic and fruitless surveys are made of all available files in the search for a needed case record or letter.” Surely, if Dijour had known about this survey (by then nearly 40 years old), his letter to Rice wouldn’t have been so cordial.

Old Office Document Formats from the HIAS Archive

Since beginning the project two months ago, we’ve already run across some interesting formats from the 1950s, formats that were once common in office settings and now seem quaint. We’ll start with a random (way overstuffed) folder from HIAS’s executive office.

Overstuffed Folder

You can see how the pressure from the documents packed too tight has caused many of the documents to curl around the others. These documents are usually on very cheap paper, so overstuffed folders can lead to different preservation issues depending on the format of the document in question.

Curled Paper

Onionskin is a kind of paper we find a lot in records from the 1950s. It is very thin, lightweight, and translucent, making it a good stock for carbon copies, permanent filing, and airmail–helping businesses save money on storage space, postage, and copy typists. You can see in the photo below how thin this paper really is.

Onionskin See Through

The issue we find is that it’s very easy for onionskin paper to get mashed up by the thicker paper around it. Here’s an example of some onionskin that has been crushed up against a box for decades. Notice how the acids in the box’s cardboard have browned the ends of the sheet.

Crumpled Onionskin

Luckily, onionskin is pretty durable. It has a high content of cotton fibers, making it strong and flexible as well as containing little-to-no acidic lignin, which causes most paper from this era to yellow and crumble. At the same time, this durable paper holds a crease very well. If a sheet of onionskin falls down in the back of a slumping folder, you get something like this:

Crumpled Blue Onionskin

However durable, it’s still an incredibly thin stock, leading to some easy tears. Back before photocopiers and desktop printers, a lot of hard labor was saved with the help of scotch tape. Unfortunately, the glue in scotch tape is not particularly stable and the adhesive is often very acidic, eating its way from the back . . .

Taped Back

. . . to the front.

Taped Front

After sixty years, though, most of the adhesive has dried and the tape itself is so desiccated that it peels right off without a problem, though that’s not always the case, as seen in the photo below.

Pages Stuck

Old, acidic, wood-pulp-based paper slowly disintegrates over the decades until it is brown and very brittle.

Brittled Paper

Here you can see how easily brittle paper cracks . . .

Embrittled Paper Edge

. . . and flakes off.

Cracking Brittle Paper

There are also reproduction formats particular to this time. Thermofax was a photocopy technology introduced by 3M in 1950. The process used infrared light, which was absorbed by the black ink of the original document, heating it up, and that heat would then transfer to the special heat-sensitive paper, resulting in something like the document you see below.

Thermofax Front

The problem with Thermofax is its tendency to darken over time, due to the heat-sensitive leuco dye embedded in the paper. Over time, the dye continues to develop and is often corrosive to surrounding documents as well as the copy itself, which becomes brittle over time. You can see here how much this document has lost contrast (though, it’s difficult to say whether this is solely the work of the passage of time or of the very inexact and temperamental Thermofax process).

Thermafax closeup

And the final uniquely mid-century format we’ve run into (so far!) is Agfa Copyrapid. Introduced in 1949, Copyrapid is based on a process called diffusion transfer reversal, which is very similar to silver-halide-based black-and-white photography (in fact, the diffusion transfer reversal process was key to inventing instant cameras such as the Kodak Land Camera).

Copyrapid back

Instead of projecting light through a transparent negative onto light-sensitive paper to create a positive image (much like traditional black-and-white photography), Copyrapid uses a special negative transparency that is exposed to light reflected off the original document. The image on the negative is then physically transferred to a special sheet of copy paper by pressing them together. The transferred image shows up as a positive image.

Copyrapid Front

Don’t ask us how it works. For all we know, it’s just mid-century magic. Hopefully, we’ll keep running into interesting obsolete formats and posting them here, and rest assured we will continue to do our best to flatten curled and crinkled documents, capture fading text, and give the documents a better chance at surviving intact for the foreseeable future.