SWM 2015: Lebanon - The disappearance of Wadi Abu Jmil, Beirut’s Jewish district

Embargo: 2 July 2015 00.01 (GMT+1)

Case study by Rania El Rajji

Lebanon’s wars have had a lasting impact on the country’s urban fabric. The infamous ‘green line’ which divided Beirut into East and West between 1975 and 1990 forced various religious groups – primarily Muslims and Christians, but also other smaller minorities who found themselves drawn into the conflict – to resettle on either side of the city for their own safety. With a few exceptions, many of the city’s once diverse neighbourhoods were left homogenized by the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict – a legacy that sadly persists to this day.

Beirut as a city has always been a haven for refugees, dating back to the arrival of persecuted Armenians in 1915, the subsequent wave of Palestinians from 1948 and more recently, an influx of Syrians displaced since 2011. The Lebanese war also caused a large wave of internal displacement, accompanied by an exodus from rural areas. All of these movements led to the multiplication of informal settlements and the occupation of land within or on the fringes of Beirut. Due to Lebanon’s religious diversity, these migrations contributed to the remapping of the city into increasingly segregated districts.

The confinement of particular religious groups in different parts of Beirut, such as the largely Shi’a southern suburbs of Dahieh or the predominantly Sunni Palestinian camps of Shatila, Bouj Al Barajneh and Mar Elias, has reinforced their separation. Meanwhile the smaller religious minorities, particularly the Jewish population of Beirut, became undocumented casualties of the war.

During the 1960s, Lebanon’s Jewish population numbered a few thousand and even grew as a result of migration from neighbouring Arab countries where they were declared personae non gratae following the 1948 creation of the state of Israel. In Beirut, the city’s Jewish population was centred in the neighbourhood of Wadi Abu Jmil, west of the city centre. The eruption of the war in 1975 led the last of the city’s Jewish population into exile, while an unknown number – estimated by some to be between 200 and 500 individuals – remained, but disguised their religious identity, or in some cases converted, to avoid being targeted during the years of civil war. Wadi Abu Jmil was emptied of its population and the beautiful synagogue of Maguen Abraham, once the centre of the community, was closed down and subsequently damaged by Israeli bombardment during the war.

In 1994, the privately owned Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut Central District, otherwise known as Solidere, took on the task of reconstructing and developing the city centre. Since then, the controversial organization has been strongly criticized for its role in exacerbating social divides in Beirut as well as displacing yet again the original inhabitants and shop owners in the city’s downtown. Although it is impossible to know the exact number of Lebanese Jews who still live around Wadi Abu Jmil or own property within the area,

Solidere’s reconstruction of Wadi Abu Jmil has transformed it, like other parts of central Beirut, into an upmarket ‘urban village’ with clubs and other facilities that are unattainable for anyone but the city’s most affluent population. Despite numerous efforts to complete its restoration, the area’s synagogue has yet to be opened to the public. The city centre, as a result of Solidere’s policies, has therefore become a ghost town, deprived of its original religious diversity and the many inhabitants who once gave it life. Redevelopment, like the conflict before it, continues to erase the rich history of Beirut’s Jewish community – a process that, if it continues, could make its disappearance complete.

This article appears in MRG’s annual flagship report State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015. View the full report.

Photo: Maguen Abraham synagogue, Beirut

Credit: Petteri Sulonen


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Date: 11/06/2015




State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015
Religion/Religious minorities

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Name: Rania El Rajji

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