NOW Lebanon sits down with Liza, one of the last Lebanese Jews to remain in Beirut. An internal refugee from the civil war, Liza now lives with several generations of pet cats in an abandoned building set for demolition in the old Jewish quarter of Wadi Abu Jamil. Her unique story traces the recent history of Jews in Lebanon, from a childhood of tolerance and acceptance to the dark days of suspicion, emigration and violence after 1967 and the civil war.
Liza reflects on her life and community, and the challenges of being Lebanese in a country that no longer accepts her.
Liza: Before anything else, I want you to know that I am Lebanese… and I am Jewish. Don’t ask me questions about Israel because I know nothing about that.
NOW Lebanon: I want to ask you about your Lebanese identity and whether it is perhaps even more complex for you, as a Jew in this country. What makes you, personally, feel Lebanese?
Liza: When I was a child, my family used to take trips to Bhamdoun and we would spend our summers there. I used to play with other families – Christians, Muslims, Druze, anyone you could imagine – and we would sing songs and find fun ways to spend our long days. The ability for me, a Jewish woman, to play with Christian and Muslim girls and boys, and never think anything of it, makes me as Lebanese as anyone else. Even at the Talmud Torah School [a Jewish school that once stood near to the synagogue], I would leave class and never think of myself as Jewish and different. I felt like any other child in Beirut, and it was great then.
NOW Lebanon: I’d like you to describe the changes you felt following the 1967 war.
Liza: I was 18 at the time, and had finished my ‘Brevet’ at the Alliance [French-Jewish school] when the war happened. My dad made sure my family stayed home during the tense days that followed. I remember our neighbors, Kurds from Syria, taking care of us at the time. We were too afraid to buy food from the supermarket, so they helped us until things calmed down. But to be honest, things never really calmed down after the war.
NOW Lebanon: What do you mean?
Liza: We didn’t feel safe, even at home. My father, God rest his soul, used to own a stationary shop down in the ‘Wadi’ [Wadi Abu Jamil]. He hired someone, a friend, to help him manage the shop because he didn’t want to work as much. That friend, a Jew, eventually left the country. We were one of the few families still here when the war broke out in 1975. We stayed one year in our old home, until things got so bad that we moved here, to this place.
NOW Lebanon: And you’ve been here, since?
Liza: My parents died during the war but from natural causes. I have two sisters who moved to Canada, to Quebec, and my younger brother stayed with me here. He passed away in 1996, and I’ve been here alone…but I have my other family…My cats are my friends, now. The Jewish friends I had from childhood, I don’t speak to them as much. They are gone, and sometimes they send me money, but it’s been such a long time. I have a few friends in the East [eastern Beirut], and now and then I visit them. But I am mostly alone, and I prefer it that way.
NOW Lebanon: Why is that?
Liza: You know, a lot of people know I am Jewish, and that is always dangerous for me. You never know who will want to hurt me because of my religion. They could be anyone – Sunni, Shia, Christian, I don’t care – the point is, the friends I have are the ones that accept me as Jewish, and the rest turned their backs and prefer to avoid contact with any Jew, including me.
NOW Lebanon: Are you in touch with the other remaining Jews in Lebanon? Most people say the number is less than 60.
Liza: We are here, we are the only ones who refused to leave, and we stayed for different reasons. Some were too old to leave when given the chance; others simply couldn’t afford to go. I was offered Israeli citizenship in 1982 when [Ariel] Sharon came to Beirut that summer. I wasn’t the only one then to simply turn it down. I am not, and will never be, Israeli. That is my story. As for the others, I know of them, but I don’t speak to them. They weren’t my friends before, and they will likely remain strangers to me.
NOW Lebanon: In your opinion, what will it take for you to feel safe as a Jew in Lebanon? What do you think is necessary for the Lebanese Jews living abroad to return to this country and invest their future here?
Liza: The Jews that left will never come back. They are gone, forever; trust me on that. You are asking for the impossible, for me, a Jew, to really feel part of this country. Don’t get me wrong, I am Lebanese, 100% Lebanese. But I am rejected, because people think I am Israeli, or a Zionist or a Mossad agent. For me to have a normal life here, you will need real peace between the Arabs and Israelis; for the Palestinians to get a fair deal; for the Syrians and Americans; the Iranians and the Israelis to get along. Until then, I will not be welcomed in this country, and actually, no one will feel stable here. Look here [pointing to the religion section on her Lebanese birth certificate]. Even the government is too afraid to list me as a Jew. I am ‘Moussawi,’ because I follow Moses. But the followers of Moses are Jews, so why can’t I be a Jew? I can’t because of the problem with Israel. Get that solved and I’ll be fine.