Raymond Dana shrugs from behind the counter of his small discount store in Astoria, NY. “Sometimes I have customers come in and tell me, you know Raymond, I just saw my lawyer, he’s Jewish, very nice guy, or my dentist is Jewish, or something like that, I don’t understand why, why they feel the need to tell me about every Jewish guy they know.” Dana like many Lebanese-Jews left his homeland in the 1980’s during the height of the Lebanese Civil War and moved to France before coming to The United States in 1992. Before Jews were living peacefully among Christians and Muslims, until they felt that their safety was compromised, and so they left. The Lebanese civil war created many tensions between the different religious groups that were living in Lebanon at the time. Prior to the war, Maronite Christians had a heavy political hand and large influence. Post-Israel’s creation, many Palestinian refugees made their way to Lebanon, changing the demographic of religion favoring Muslims and creating militias like Hezbollah which was backed by Iran. Israel’s invasion in Lebanon also created additional turmoil between Arab countries, causing a rift between all religions in Lebanon. The civil war lasted 15 years and resulted in over 250,000 causalities. Now there is a population of less than 100 Jewish left in Lebanon.
Raymond Dana was among that diaspora, his entire family left Lebanon in hopes of starting a new life. He and his family settled in Bayridge, Brooklyn once arriving to New York, and opened up his shop in Astoria, Queens. When asked if he would return to Lebanon, he replies that no Lebanese Jew would go back, “we are too scared. Everybody practice religion, so when you practice every day it’s important.”
Many Lebanese Jews resettled in Western Countries, like the US or France, while others moved to Israel seeking asylum. In Israel, however, they were faced with prejudices and tensions within the Ashkenazi Jewish community.
Despite the stigmas, Lebanese Jews have a strong loyalty with their culture. They speak Arabic, they eat Lebanese traditional food, they dance dabke, a Lebanese traditional dance, and they listen to Lebanese music. Because of this Ashkenazi Jews often look down upon them, and don’t fully accept them into the community. Many Lebanese Jews don’t speak Hebrew or Yiddish.
Rola Khayyat is a documentarist and film maker; she was born and raised in Lebanon, and is currently working on a project based on the Jewish community in Lebanon and New York. Although she is not Jewish she was able to break into the community which is otherwise impossible.
Khayyat is currently working on the documentary “Brooklyn to Beirut” where she follows a Brooklyn Lebanese Jew returning back to his roots in Lebanon. The main character talks about how Lebanon hasn’t fully recovered from the 15 years of civil war, but also how much progress he has seen thus far. He goes on to say that it is a big deal that he is able to return to Lebanon at this time.
“They are more Lebanese than I am,” she explains. They have preserved the Lebanese culture, it is pure and untarnished whereas she feels that other Lebanese immigrants have assimilated more with Western culture. She recalls the sites that still remain in Lebanon and elders that reminisce about their old Jewish neighbors.
“They are always very nostalgic.” In fact, there is a synagogue that is being restored in downtown Lebanon today. She says that the people of Lebanon would love to have their Jewish neighbors back. Many people outside the religion and culture don’t realize that Lebanese Jews are constantly battling their identities and faced with choosing one over the other. “It’s like choosing a parent” Khayyat explains.
It might seem surprising that Shia Islamist militia Hezbollah would be ok with such a party but Khayyat said they are even encouraging it and are very positive about the project, “Because they are Lebanese after all.” The country is largely run by the Hezbollah Leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, and although he has been quoted expressing his desire for the three religions to live peacefully in a democratic state, many Jews are still scared to return. Lebanese Jews, although A-political, may have received financial aid from Israel during the height of the civil war, a lot of Lebanese Jews carry a stamp on their passport, therefore it becomes a major risk when entering Lebanon. Although Lebanese Jews are not Zionists, they are still seen as traitors, for the sheer fact that Lebanon is at war with Israel.
Soft rock is quietly playing throughout the store. Raymond mumbles something in Spanish to his employee as he looks at me with tired eyes, “I am 100% Lebanese. Religion is not the issue, but people they make it the issue. Religion is inside of people it is very hard to take it out.” In Astoria, he is among the Arabic community and never faces any stigmas, regardless of the faith in which he follows.