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They Dig Us

Arab regimes are restoring abandoned Jewish historical sites, a subtle acknowledgement of where power now resides in the Middle East

Lee Smith
January 26, 2010
Beirut’s Magen Abraham synagogue, currently undergoing renovation.(Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)
Beirut’s Magen Abraham synagogue, currently undergoing renovation.(Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

“Where’s the synagogue?” I ask a young solider in a beret. A member of the large security detail guarding the Lebanese prime minister’s residence, he is leaning against a jeep and cradling an automatic weapon in one hand. He pulls on a cigarette and regards me warily. I am a foreigner asking directions to a place of Jewish worship from a soldier too young to know Jews as anything but warlike neighbors to the south. He jabs his thumb to the left of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s new mansion, Beit al-Wasat, which was built on land worth tens of millions of dollars, right beside the Maghen Abraham synagogue, the center of a Jewish community that no longer exists.

It’s strange seeing the synagogue’s Hebrew letters in the middle of Beirut. Hezbollah billboards near the Southern border sometimes bear propaganda translated into Hebrew, and there are Hebrew letters on the tombstones of Beirut’s Jewish cemetery. But Maghen Abraham is a different story, a Jewish house of worship being rebuilt in an exclusive Beirut neighborhood with the blessing of the Lebanese government. It would be a symbol of rebirth, if not for the fact that no one is likely to worship there, certainly none of Lebanon’s five and a half million Jewish neighbors in Israel, with which the Beirut government is officially at war.

“It’s a vanished community in what was a vanished neighborhood,” says Nada Abdelsamad, author of an Arabic-language novel, Wadi Abu Jamil: Stories of the Jews of Lebanon, named after this onetime Jewish district. The book’s first printing sold out quickly. “People were interested to know something about the subject,” Abdelsamad explains. “Some people didn’t know we used to have an active Jewish community.”

Aside from Israel, Lebanon was the only Middle Eastern country in which the number of Jews increased after 1948. It wasn’t until the civil war that started in 1975 that Jews began to leave the country in large numbers. The chief rabbi of Lebanon left in 1978. “The Jews left in silence,” Abdelsamad says. “They didn’t try to contact their old friends. So the Lebanese still don’t know what happened.”

A more pertinent question might be, what’s happened to make the Lebanese, and other Arabs, so interested in Jewish cultural remains like Maghen Abraham? In Cairo, the Egyptians are restoring a synagogue in a neighborhood called the Alley of the Jews. In Baghdad, officials are demanding the return of the books, manuscripts, and records of the Iraqi Jewish Archive, which American forces retrieved in the early days of the invasion from a building belonging to the Iraqi intelligence agency, the Mukhabarat.

“Iraqis must know that we are a diverse people, with different traditions, different religions, and we need to accept this diversity,” the director of the Iraq National Library and Archive, Saad Eskander, told the Associated Press. “To show it to our people that Baghdad was always multiethnic.” Or, as Zahi Hawass, general secretary of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, said in a New York Times interview, “What we are doing now is not for the Jews. It is for us, for our heritage.”

These restoration projects, as Arab officials like Eskander and Hawass have attested, are not meant to revive the Jewish communities of the Middle East. They are meant to convince the world of Arab tolerance. The Cairo synagogue renovation coincided with Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosny’s bid to head UNESCO, a post he failed to win in part because of his apparent sympathy with Holocaust deniers and his anti-Israeli remarks. Tolerance of Jewish cultural remains can be exchanged for Western goodwill and aid without necessitating any messy engagement with actual Israelis. The mufti of Syria explained to a visiting delegation of American academics that the conflict with Israel was a war not against Jews but against Zionists.

And yet if you listen closely there is a deeper and more important subtext to the Arabs’ strange and sudden fascination with the remains of the vanished Jewish communities of the Middle East. These restorations of Hebraic antiquity are not simply a safe way of acknowledging the longevity, and thus legitimacy, of the Middle East’s oldest surviving religious community. They are also the means by which Arab governments have begun to recognize that community’s influence and power over their fates. For it is Jewish warplanes, not Jewish remains, that have Arab princes and presidents captivated. Nowhere has this been made more explicit than in the recent valentine to Mossad chief Meir Dagan published in Egypt’s semi-official daily newspaper Al-Ahram, calling him “the Superman of the Jewish state.” Dagan is worthy of Cairo’s love insofar as he “has dealt painful blows to the Iranian nuclear program.” Thus the only question Egyptians ask a visitor from Washington: When will the Israelis finally bomb the Iranian nuclear program?

Egypt and its Arab allies believe that Obama’s engagement with the Iranians will fail, that the Russians and Chinese will not join a sanctions regime, and that the Americans will eventually move to a policy of cold war-style containment and nuclear deterrence. The American president and his Middle East adviser, Dennis Ross, intimated that the Israelis might take dramatic action against Iran’s nuclear program, confirmation for many Arab observers that the United States has taken its own military options off the table. This is not the case, these same observers believe, for the Israelis, who have acted against Iran’s eastern Mediterranean allies—Hezbollah and Hamas—and will, with luck, take action against Iran itself.

Israeli strength and Arab weakness are therefore seen as part of a common pattern that will yet bring about the defeat of a common enemy: Iran. Here in Beirut there’s talk that Prime Minister Hariri’s recent trip to Syria, where he was coerced into humbling himself before the regime that allegedly assassinated his father, was merely a maneuver in a holding pattern until the Israelis strike. Sources close to Hariri explained to me that Saudi Arabia, the young prime minister’s patron, believes an attack is imminent and that there is still time to wrest Syria away from the Iranians. Hariri’s visit was seen as a down payment on an expected Syrian realignment.

The Arab fascination with Israeli might is nothing new, explains Lokman Slim, a Lebanese Shiite and founder of a Beirut-based, pro-democracy NGO called Hayyabina. “It’s partly in the realm of fantasy,” says Slim. “It’s a sexual dream about the military libido—it’s a dream the Arabs and Israelis share, but that the Israelis also enjoy in reality.”

We’re sitting in a bar in a Sunni quarter of Beirut. Everyone at the table is Shiite but anti-Hezbollah—which means that they are more worried than even the Sunnis that Iran might acquire the bomb. An Iranian nuclear capability would represent a victory for the ideology and culture of resistance, and would condemn Lebanon’s Shiite community to another generation of wandering in a wilderness of ignorance, violence, and oppression.

When I explain to Lebanese Shiites that the big foreign policy debate in Washington right now is not about Iran but about Afghanistan, they are speechless. “What vital interest does Washington have in Afghanistan?” they ask. “Rocks? Where is the oil? You are afraid of looking weak because Osama Bin Laden says you are?”

The Sunni Arab states are no longer capable of shaping the region or even their own destiny, and so they wait to be rescued by Israeli Jews. The vast, opulent halls of Arab authority are vacant shells, while the crumbled synagogues of Beirut and Cairo are reminders of a power that once dwelled among the Arabs but has since migrated elsewhere.

Regional power has shifted away from Washington’s familiar Arab partners and toward non-Arab states. The fate of the Middle East no longer depends on the desires of Cairo and Riyadh. The choices that shape the lives of Arabs are now made in Tehran, Tel Aviv, and perhaps a newly ascendant Ankara.

An Israeli strike on Iran may or may not be a mirage, but it is the only possible salvation for Arab states too weak to control their own destiny. Though Washington is still the pre-eminent power in the region, its confused and changing priorities appear to have blinded it to the Middle East’s new configuration, and it is unlikely that America’s continuing political and financial crises will make our vision any clearer.

One reason that the White House’s Middle East peace process has, in Obama’s words, “not moved forward,” is that old Clinton hands like Dennis Ross, George Mitchell, and Rahm Emmanuel believed the Egyptians and the Saudis still had great influence. When events proved them wrong, they appeared simply to throw up their hands and blame the stubbornness of the locals. But something much more profound has changed.

When we wake up to that change we will find that one distinguishing characteristic of the shift in regional power to Iran, Turkey, and Israel is that all three countries are less dependent on the United States than they were five or ten years ago. Iran has troubles at home but is also a rising nuclear power that has been freed from the threat of an American military strike. Turkey was jilted by the European Union and no longer looks to America and the West. Israel has little interest in continuing to spend political capital to help Barack Obama.

The days when Prince Bandar, the longtime Saudi ambassador to Washington, smoked cigars on the Truman balcony have begun to look good when compared to an era in which the significant regional powers are neither Arab nor American, and do not feel the same urgency about returning Washington’s calls. What such a region will look like is anyone’s guess. It may not be very pleasant to live in. But it will surely be interesting to watch.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.