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The Jews of Beirut: The Rise of a Levantine Community, 1860s–1930s by Tomer Levi (review)

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Issue 7, Number 2, July 2014
pp. 92-94 | 10.1353/jji.2014.0019

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Among the Jewish communities of the modern Eastern Mediterranean, that of Beirut is probably the least known and researched. The Jews of Beirut: The Rise of a Levantine Community, 1860s–1930s by Tomer Levi takes on the challenge of filling this gap, investigating the emergence of what he defines as a Levantine Jewish community in the period from the 1860s to the 1930s.

The first chapter gives a historical overview of the Levant and of the Jews of Alexandria, Izmir, and Beirut in the late Ottoman era. Levi clarifies that starting from the mid-nineteenth century these three cities shared a phenomenal economic expansion, which in turn prompted the migration of Jews—and of many other people, too—from neighboring areas, leading to the formation of cosmopolitan and largely middle class Jewish communities.

In the second chapter, the author focuses on the communal organization of Beirut Jews, noting that until 1908 a small and unorganized Jewish community lived in the city. It was only in the aftermath of the Young Turk Revolution, with the development of the port of Beirut, that the Jewish community increased in size and underwent a significant restructuring. With the advent of the French mandate over Lebanon in 1920, the Jewish leadership further consolidated its position, entering a period of prosperity and socio-political stability that continued into the late 1940s.

As explained in the third chapter, during the French mandate the Jews of Beirut encountered three different ideologies: the French model of assimilation proposed by the Alliance Israélite Universelle, Zionism, and the reformism of the B’nai B’rith, the American-based Jewish fraternal organization, that managed to become the most attractive one to Beirut Jews, thanks to its ideals of community progress and social activism.

In the fourth chapter, Levi analyzes the scarce success of the Alliance and the attempts to merge its schools with the communal Talmud-Torah in the 1920s. The Alliance did not gain the favor of Beirut Jews for many reasons, in particular because of its hostility to Zionism. The local Jews tended to support Zionism and the yishuv even as Zionism adapted with some difficulty to an environment such as Lebanon in which the Jews lived as full citizens and as one among many different religious minorities.

The final chapter investigates forms of charity and poor relief. Levi analyzes the financing of the Talmud-Torah school and the influence of the B’nai B’rith on the communal welfare system. He argues that in the period under study, the Jews of Beirut elaborated a secular model of philanthropy that substituted the older, religious-driven charity. However, the author aptly underlines that Eastern Mediterranean Jewish philanthropy retained both religious and secular components and eventually became a crucial factor in the socio-political evolution of the Jewish community of Beirut.

While The Jews of Beirut makes a welcome addition to the field of Middle Eastern Jewish Studies through significant research on an understudied topic, the work contains several weak spots. First, in the introductory pages the author understands Levantine Jewry and that of Beirut in particular as a distinct kind of community, characterized by its middle class identity, influenced by European colonialism and the socio-economic dynamics of Eastern Mediterranean port cities and by a history that was, by and large, “different and unique.” (xii) But is this really the case? What about the many similarities that Beirut Jews had with fellow Jews not living in Eastern Mediterranean port cities, like Tunis, Cairo, or even Baghdad? And what about the interconnections with the non-Jewish middle class of, for example, Aleppo or Istanbul?

When addressing his object of study, the author seems to ignore the most recent advancements of Mediterranean and late Ottoman historiography. I am thinking in particular of seminal studies by Lois Dubin and David Cesarani on the notion of port Jews; by Keith Watenpaugh on the Arab middle class; by Toufoul Abou-Hodeib on taste and class in late Ottoman Beirut; by Mine Ener on hospitals and the management of the poor in khedival Egypt. A discussion of at least some of these works would have proved deeply beneficial to this book—its bibliography is in fact...

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