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Lebanon's Jews: they fled Hitler only to be betrayed by the Israelis

They came to buy cedarwood 2,300 years ago: in the Forties they were 10,000-strong, now there are 80 left.
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Through the wreckage of the old frontline cemetery, between minefields and ruptured sandbags, lie the graves of Lebanon's forgotten community.

Many headstones were long ago spattered with bullets, their careful Hebrew inscriptions torn away by shrapnel, their Stars of David chipped, but the names are still visible: Goldenthal, Weinberg, Abramovitch, Braun, Penso, Mandel, Deutsch and Rosenbek.

Throughout the entire 16 years of Lebanon's civil war, the frontline between Christians and Muslims ran across Beirut's Jewish cemetery, the Christian militiamen behind their concrete-filled barrels at the north end, the Muslim gunmen below the southern entrance. That the cemetery survived the 1975-90 war is almost as surprising as the continued existence - a tenuous one but real nonetheless - of Lebanon's Jewish community, all 80 members of it.

That Jews were ever citizens of Lebanon comes as a surprise to many Lebanese, although the evidence lies all around them. More than 2,000 years ago, Moroccan Jewish traders set up home in the Chouf mountain village of Deir al-Qamar and in the south-eastern town of Hasbaya, where they purchased cedarwood for the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. They moved to Sidon, where their cemetery and abandoned synagogue still exist - I saw the Torah in the synagogue there at the height of the war, cared for by a Shia Muslim refugee family - and to Beirut. By the Forties more than 10,000 lived in the capital, many of them from Poland, Russia and Germany. Though they could not have known it when they arrived, they just escaped doom in the Holocaust.

Joe Mizrahi, the 57-year-old leader of the Jewish community here, has not forgotten how carefully Lebanon protected his people. "After Israel was created in 1948, we were always scared of outbursts. Yet in the Jewish sector of Wadi abu Jamil, there were always policemen or soldiers outside the schools to look after the children. The synagogue there was desecrated in the war but the government is spending a lot of money to restore it. And now our cemetery is being cleaned."

Alone among the Arab states, Lebanon continued after 1958 to let its Jews serve in the country's institutions, including the civil service.

It was Israel's bloody invasion of the country in 1982 that put paid to the last substantial community of Jews. "There were 700 still here when Israel invaded," Mr Mizrahi says. "They had stayed during the war up to then - if they had wanted to leave, they would have left in 1975. But by 1985, there were only 200 left." He shrugs his shoulders in a helpless way. When Israeli gunboats repeatedly fired into the civilian areas during the siege of Beirut in 1982, their shells blew a quarter of the roof off the Wadi abu Jamil synagogue and broke the Star of David on the roof.

In Israel - and without any regard for the safety or well-being of Lebanese Jews - voices were heard claiming that southern Lebanon itself was holy to Jews. The Israeli army demanded to know from Muslim villagers if any Jewish historical remains lay in the area of their homes. Lebanese newspapers reminded their readers that in 1922, Jewish demands for a state in Palestine included a frontier that stretched as far north as the Awali river, putting Sidon and Tyre and more than a third of Lebanon inside the putative state of Israel.

So hated was Israel after its invasion that when its forces began to withdraw, no Jew was safe. Accused of being Israeli spies, the old and the helpless were at the mercy of Beirut's Muslim gunmen who kidnapped and killed 12 of them. One was Joe Mizrahi's 52-year-old brother Raoul. "They just came into his office in Hamra street and took him away at gunpoint," he says. "I went everywhere to find him, to the Hizbollah, to the Amal militia. I was planning to meet Mustapha Dirani [who later kidnapped two Americans and was himself abducted by the Israelis].

"Eleven days later, my wife read in L'Orient Le Jour about a body being discovered, and she went to the mortuary and found Raoul. We think his body had been thrown from a car. It was found in a jute bag. He may have had a heart attack after being kidnapped."

Mr Mizrahi himself was kidnapped and held for 48 hours, but was released after he convinced a Shia "prisoner" - in reality a stool-pigeon - that he was not a spy. "He said he was getting married, so I offered to give him my wedding ring as a gesture. He accepted it. I think he got married. I heard later he was killed in the war." But Mr Mizrahi had seen other men talking to the stool-pigeon and suspects the Hizbollah may have been trying to buy him: if they had, he might no longer be alive.

The Jews who lie in the Beirut cemetery came from all over eastern Europe as well as South America, and Lebanon became a sanctuary from the Nazis. "Some managed to come in 1933 - Poles, Russians, Germans and Greek Jews from Salonika - and they were all saved because they came here. Many came before: they came to the Ottoman empire to buy horses for Poland and Russia, or were planning to go to Palestine and liked Lebanon and settled here."

Mr Mizrahi has stayed on, aware that peace could easily turn to war and place the Jews of Lebanon in jeopardy again. But he seems determined to maintain his home in the mountains. "Nobody left Lebanon and didn't regret it," he says. "I wouldn't like these 2,300 years of history to end with us."