A Lesson in Tolerance

Lebanon shows admirable tolerance for religious minorities

Let’s consider the following scenarios. A religious community in a first-world country wants to build a worship and cultural center in one of the country’s largest cities. Another religious minority in a third-world country wants to renovate its temple of worship in said country’s capital. Which group is more likely to have their plan seen to fruition? Now, if I told you that the second scenario refers to Lebanon’s Jewish community, which has dwindled from 28,000 to about 300, you would certainly go with option number one. And you would be greatly mistaken. Recently, with regard to accommodating religious minorities, this Middle Eastern country has proven to be formidably tolerable, even more so than the U.S.

The United States is held to be the land of opportunity, equality, and freedom. Personal freedoms are an important aspect of American culture, especially when it comes to freedom of religion, a right protected by the First Amendment. But in the discourse surrounding the 2010 midterm elections, some Congress hopefuls seem to have forgotten that such a freedom exists in this country. Moreover, when the Park 51 project—questionably nicknamed the “Ground Zero Mosque”—was announced, Americans were divided on the issue. Many people opposed the project because it would be “insensitive” toward the victims of 9/11 and their families. Even though America’s Muslim population numbers around a couple million, some Americans have yet to learn to distinguish between Islam and Al-Qaeda.

Lebanon, on the other hand, is a sectarian country, where politics and religion go hand-in-hand. Lebanon has been torn by civil wars for most of the last 40 years—mostly dictated by religious affiliation—and regional disputes. Starting in 1975, a civil war broke out, and neighboring countries joined in the fighting later on. Beirut, then, was divided between west and east, Muslims and Christians respectively, with snipers guarding both sides of the dividing line. Jewish-majority Israel was a major player in that era and still is. It has been at war with Lebanon since 1948, has invaded Beirut in 1982, and was even in control of the South of Lebanon until 2000. More recently, a war broke between the two countries in 2006. Almost 3,000 Lebanese citizens were killed in 33 violent summer days. Yet, when Lebanon’s remaining Jewish community decided to renovate their synagogue in downtown Beirut, the Lebanese community and government support their cause wholeheartedly.

The Jews of Lebanon have been through a great deal, and their situation worsened as the conflict between Israel and Lebanon intensified. Most of them have since emigrated, some to Israel. Of the remaining, few demonstrate their Jewish identity, and some have destroyed any documentation that refers to their religious belief, in fear of any backlash from a then disgruntled population. So when they proposed a plan to restore the Maghen Abraham Synagogue to the government in 2008, the broader Lebanese community was skeptical that their project will ever come to fruition, especially with Hezbollah in the government. However, Hezbollah, believed by the U.S. to be a terrorist organization, has supported the project, explaining that it “respects all divine religions, including Judaism.” An official from the militant group made clear that their “problem was not with the Jews, but with Israel.” Now, the synagogue is receiving the final touches before being opened.  Although the Lebanese have a long way to go before they restore their Jewish community, the renovation on the synagogue is an important step in the right direction.

Regardless of the political conflict that Israel has with Lebanon, in this case, the Lebanese made a clear distinction between faith and national loyalty. Such a distinction is lacking in the U.S. Americans need to understand that Al-Qaeda’s crimes cannot be attributed to Muslims in general. In brief, it seems as if tolerance is one area where the Lebanese have the Americans beat.

Elias A. Shaaya ’12, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a molecular and cellular biology concentrator in Eliot House. He is a Lebanese citizen.