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The Jews of Beirut

The Rise of a Levantine Community, 1860s-1930s


Tomer Levi

The Jews of Beirut: The Rise of a Levantine Community, 1860s-1930s is the first study to investigate the emergence of an organized and vibrant Jewish community in Beirut in the late Ottoman and French period. Viewed in the context of port city revival, the author explores how and why the Jewish community changed during this time in its social cohesion, organizational structure, and ideological affiliations. Tomer Levi defines the Jewish community as a «Levantine» creation of late-nineteenth-century port city revival, characterized by cultural and social diversity, centralized administration, efficient organization, and a merchant class engaged in commerce and philanthropy. In addition, the author shows how the position of the Jewish community in the unique multi-community structure of Lebanese society affected internal developments within the Jewish community.


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1 Jewish Communities in Levantine Port Cities 23


CHAPTER ONE Jewish Communities in Levantine Port Cities During the course of the nineteenth century, Beirut transformed from a small insignificant town into not only the most important port city on the Syrian coast but also a major commercial center in the eastern Mediterranean. A decade of enlightened Egyptian rule (1831–1841), a concentration of an increasing number of foreign consulates, an ex- pansion of commercial activity in the eastern Mediterranean, and, af- ter 1888, its position as the administrative center all contributed to Beirut’s revival.1 As a consequence, thousands of people from the eastern Mediterranean, particularly from Mount Lebanon and the Syr- ian interior, migrated to the city which offered security, economic, and educational opportunities. Among the many migrants, Beirut attracted numerous Jews from across the region. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, approx- imately one hundred Jews lived in Beirut. By 1920, their number had swelled to thirty-five hundred. As I will demonstrate in Chapter Three, the expanding community necessitated the creation and organ- ization of new institutions. Prior to the nineteenth century, Beirut had a meager Jewish population, unlike that of Izmir. The community or- ganized itself largely between 1908 and 1918. It continued to benefit from Beirut’s growth under the French Mandate, which contributed greatly to the shaping of a service-based economy in Lebanon.2 In sum, the growth and organization of Beirut’s Jewish community proved closely linked to the city’s rise during the mid-nineteenth cen- tury and until the period of the French Mandate. However,...

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