The Magen Abraham synagogue, in the heart of downtown Beirut, is bustling with renovations. Workmen are busy returning this 80-year-old place of worship to its former splendour, although the local Jewish community has dwindled dramatically – from over 22,000 prior to 1958 to less than 300 by the end of the 1975-90 civil war.
None of the political parties, not even Hizbullah, has objected to the reconstruction of the synagogue.
Why this sudden show of interest for a Jewish symbol, given the terms "Jew" and "Israeli" are often (mis)used interchangeably in Lebanon, and the country is still technically at war with Israel? Who is funding the reconstruction of the building? And what is the situation of the Jewish community in Lebanon?
Most Lebanese Jews left the country due to fear of reprisals from their Muslim and Christian compatriots after the Israeli invasion of 1982, yet the Jewish religion remains one of the 18 recognised confessions in the country.
The renovation of the synagogue comes as a sign of hope for Lebanon’s Jewish community. Some members contemplate not only a return of those Jews who left the country, but also a return to Jewish representation in Parliament. "It's only a start, but the Lebanese authorities seem to express renewed interest in our community," volunteered David, a 40-year-old French teacher in a private school in the capital, who prefers not to reveal his surname. David saw the bulk of his family take refuge in Europe to flee abuses of power during the war.
"The end of the war did not restore our rights. It is high time the Lebanese realise that a Jew is not necessarily Israeli," added David, echoing the sentiments of many other Lebanese Jews.
"No doubt the rehabilitation of the synagogue is an important step for the Jewish community of Lebanon, but we are far from the time when all Lebanese, irrespective of religious affiliation, lived in harmony," emphasises political analyst Ziad Khoury.
"The reconstruction should rather be viewed as part of the overall downtown rehabilitation project," he reflects. "Lebanon wishes to give the image of a multicultural country where the different communities live in peace, and that is the main reason why the synagogue is being renovated."
The bulk of the funding will be handled by the Jewish Community Council. A call for donations has been made to raise over $1 million to cover renovation costs. Some expatriate Lebanese Jews are contributing as well.
Other synagogues in the country are also slated for renovation, such as the ones in Sidon, in southern Lebanon, or in Aley, southeast of Beirut, where the oldest temple – built in 1870 – still stands. However, renovation will commence on these only after the overhaul of the Beirut synagogue has been completed.
From the arches engraved with the Star of David to the Hebrew inscriptions buried in rubble for 30 years, every single item in Beirut's synagogue must be scrubbed and carefully reworked. Everything was plundered during the war: benches, windowpanes, floor slabs, columns and even the majestic altar in the centre of the synagogue. Political slogans written on the arches and on the porch by militias during the civil war testify to the period when the temple was caught in the crossfire of violent fighting in downtown Beirut.
Despite the current state of the synagogue, it is stunningly beautiful.
To summarise the words of Pope John Paul II in his 10 February 2000 address to the Maronite community who had come to Rome: Lebanon is more than a nation; it a message for mankind. Viewed in that context, the reconstruction work might be the first step towards full recognition of the fundamental rights of all the communities of Lebanon.
* Pierre Sawaya is currently Head of Sections of the Beirut daily Al Balad’s French-language edition. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).