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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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5 The Culture of Giving 167


CHAPTER FIVE The Culture of Giving For centuries, charity and welfare relief for the poor have been an in- tegral part of Jewish communities everywhere. As a religious minori- ty that enjoyed a large measure of autonomy, Jewish communities provided support for their poor, their needy, widows, orphans, and the mentally or physically disabled. The ability to maintain a charita- ble mechanism always relied upon the willingness of the well-to-do to give up part of their income to support those in need and sometimes relied upon obligatory taxes. In Judaism, charity (‘tsedaqa’) had moral, social, and religious meanings. Morally, it was an act of humane com- passion for the poor. Socially, giving tsedaqa reflected a sense of social responsibility for the disadvantaged in society. Religiously, tsedaqa was a prized value; people believed tsedaqa had the power to benefit them both in life and after death.1 Other motivations for donations included the donor’s desire to es- tablish his position in the community, to strengthen his sense of be- longing to the community, to demonstrate his wealth, and to acquire social status and prestige. However, although the religious obligation of tsedaqa and the practice of providing relief for the poor were per- manent characteristics of communal Jewish life, the welfare system did not remain static. At different periods, this system took new forms and structures, shaped by outside influences as well as internal social forces. The welfare systems that developed in the Jewish communities of medieval Egypt and, several centuries later, in...

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