Lebanon's wrecked synagogue awaits restoration

One of Lebanon's sole remaining synagogues was set to get a restoration that has the rare blessing of all the factions in this divided country — even that of the anti-Israeli Hezbollah. But the global financial crisis has scuttled the effort for now, leaving the Magen Abraham chained, padlocked, badly damaged and rife with weeds.

The synagogue, like the country's once-thriving Jewish community, fell prey to the savage 1975-90 civil war. Once the fighting ended, the few dozen Jews who remained could not maintain the proud old structure.

A $1 million project set to begin in November had been organized by the Lebanese Jewish community to restore the two-story ramshackle building which is now surrounded by the gleaming new skyscrapers of Beirut's downtown building boom.

But potential Jewish donors overseas who were to provide the bulk of the funds said the reconstruction would have to wait because of the hard times brought on by the global financial crisis, said Isaac Arazi, leader of the country's tiny Jewish community.

"I'll wait for two or three months. If no money is forthcoming, I'll launch a fundraising campaign in America and Europe for the rebuilding project," he told The Associated Press.

The building's need is acute.

Garbage, empty bottles, broken glass and shattered roof bricks are scattered on the synagogue's floor. Wide cracks cover the walls and stairways leading to the second floor.

But the Stars of David inscribed on walls have been left untouched, as have the Hebrew writings even though Muslim militiamen had apparently used some of the building's rooms as offices during the sectarian fighting.

The synagogue sat on the battle lines dividing the city during the civil war.

In addition to Magen Abraham, there are two other synagogues in mountain towns east of Beirut which were damaged by the fighting and then closed, Arazi said.

The 65-year-old Arazi pointed out that as many as 22,000 Jews lived in Lebanon in the mid-1960s. The number dropped to 15,000 at the outbreak of the civil war in 1975 and by its end, a mere 100 were left.

During the conflict, in which 150,000 people out of a population of 4 million were killed, Beirut's main Jewish neighborhood, Wadi Abou Jmil, fell under the control of Muslim militias battling their Christian counterparts.

Jews did not take part in the fighting. But the violence forced many to emigrate. The trickle turned into a flood when the community became a target of Muslim militants two years after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and occupied parts of the country, including — for a brief time — Beirut.

Eleven Jews were kidnapped and apparently killed during the hostage-taking spree of the 1980s that targeted foreigners and Lebanese alike in Beirut. The bodies of only four were recovered, bearing the marks of torture.

Muslims displaced from other parts of the country gradually moved into the shattered old streets of the neighborhood that had once been filled with Jewish shops selling clothes, perfume and kosher meat, until much of the area was razed in the rebuilding projects of the 1990s.

Liza Srour is the last Jew living in the old neighborhood, in a small flat in one of the few old buildings remaining.

"We had Christian, Sunni, Shiite and Druse neighbors with whom we had an excellent relationship," the red-haired and light-eyed woman in her 60s said, as she pulled on an ever-present cigarette.

Srour, who is unemployed, ekes out a living on the monthly stipend of $200 provided by the Lebanese Jewish Council.

There was rare consensus among Lebanon's fractious factions that the synagogue should be restored, although none has offered up any cash.

Lebanon's Western-backed government, which includes Hezbollah's representatives, welcomed the restoration of the synagogue "because it is a place of worship," said an official in the prime minister's office, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations.

Even Hezbollah, the militant Shiite Muslim group which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist and has fought the Jewish state for decades, backs restoration.

"We respect divine religions, including the Jewish religion," said Hussein Rahhal, Hezbollah's media chief. "The problem is with Israel's occupation (of Arab lands), not with the Jews."

Solidere, the giant company that has taken the lead in flattening and then rebuilding much of downtown, said preservation of the synagogue fits within its plans to "conserve" the places of worship, as well as heritage buildings and archaeological sites.

But the company would not assist in restoration costs, saying it was up to religious sects to fix their own properties.