Dan Brotman, executive director of the Windsor Jewish Federation & Community Centre in Windsor, Ontario, writes about his trip to Lebanon.
“I’m struggling to put into words how upset I am that as our Jewish professional in Windsor you visited an anti-Israel, antisemitic country,” a seasoned community member wrote to me after hearing that I had recently visited Lebanon.
Let’s backtrack: As a Jew who previously lived in Israel, I always told myself that I would never put myself in danger by visiting one of Israel’s sworn enemies — that is, until I visited the Islamic Republic of Iran in 2018. Having made it through Iran in one piece, and in need of another adrenaline rush after a year and a half of COVID-19 monotony, I signed up for a tour to Lebanon organized by a company that specializes in travel to unusual destinations.
It is illegal for Israeli and Lebanese citizens to visit each other’s countries, and arrivals bearing any sign of having visited Israel are sometimes refused entry to Lebanon. I held my breath as I went through passport control in Beirut, terrified that the border control officer would flag and take me away for questioning.
As my fellow travelers became acquainted with one another, it turned out that most of us had, in fact, previously visited Israel, which in public we called in hushed tones “the I word.” I was astonished to discover that one of my fellow travelers, an unassuming 60-something-year-old retired teacher, who I will call “Sally,” was the former president of her synagogue in upstate New York.
Intrepid Sally mentioned to me without a hint of irony that she plans on signing up for the company’s Syria tour next year, and I saw on Facebook that she has subsequently visited Iraqi Kurdistan. Except for Sally, I was very careful not to reveal my true identity and profession.
Experiencing Hezbollah-controlled territory in South Lebanon, near the border with Israel, took me back to my travels in Iran. The towns we drove through were alcohol-free; yellow Hezbollah and black Shia flags flapped in the wind; and posters of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini adorned the town squares.
Hezbollah is classified as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. and is believed to have carried out the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community building in Buenos Aires, which I have visited. Our tour of the movement’s museum began with a 15-minute propaganda film narrated by its leader, Hassan Nasrallah. We were then guided by an English-speaking Hezbollah member to various artistic installations displaying seized Israeli tanks entangled in metal spiderwebs, an artistic homage to Nasrallah’s famous saying, “This Israel, and I promise, is more fragile than a spider’s web.”
The artist even constructed the symbolic tombstone of an Israeli soldier, titled “The Invader’s Grave,” not far from several rocket launchers that targeted northern Israel. While Sally complimented my Oscar-worthy poker face, she simply couldn’t help herself, and at the end of our three-hour tour dedicated to destroying Israel, asked our now bewildered guide: “Do you support a two-state solution?”
On our way back to Beirut, we stopped to view Ein El Hilweh, Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp. Like the other Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, it is guarded at the entrance by the Lebanese army, who dare not enter. Despite living in the country for more than 70 years, the country’s Palestinian refugees have still not been granted Lebanese citizenship.
Our Christian guide explained that Palestinians are denied Lebanese citizenship as per the wish of the late PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, who believed that perpetual statelessness would preserve the Palestinian struggle. In addition, the government wished to preserve the demographics of Lebanon’s Christian minority, who comprise 30% of the population.
The same guide told our tour group at the ancient city of Byblos that he had previously worked with Israelis in Turkey, but that he could get into serious trouble with the authorities if he stayed in touch with them. He expressed a lifelong dream to visit Jerusalem and said that most Christians and Sunni Lebanese want Lebanon and Israel to make peace, but that the Shiite population is the main obstacle.
Around 4% of Lebanon’s population is ethnic Armenian, the descendants of refugees who fled the 1915 genocide. Through a chance encounter, I befriended a 31-year-old Lebanese graphic designer of Armenian origin. One evening he took me to Bourj Hammoud, Beirut’s Armenian neighborhood. Armenian flags and anti-Azerbaijan slogans brandished the buildings. Arabic was nowhere to be seen or heard, exuding the Caucasus much more than the Middle East.
Unlike non-haredi diaspora Jews, who for the most part did not pass on Yiddish to subsequent generations, the Armenians in Lebanon have kept their language alive for more than 100 years.
Armenians in Lebanon go to school in Armenian, speak Armenian with each other and regularly visit their ancestral homeland. Like diaspora Jews, the Armenians in Lebanon are a distinct, highly successful minority population, living both apart from and forming an inseparable part of their adoptive homeland.
On the last night of the trip, I confided to my new Lebanese friend that I am Jewish. To my astonishment, he said that his main issue with Israel is that it refuses to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Not the answer I expected.
I now respond to those critical of my travels as follows: “I travel to forbidden countries because I wish to experience firsthand the humanity of ordinary people from societies I am taught to fear.
“These ordinary citizens are the biggest victims of their own governments, which in many cases they did not have a fair say in electing. I am all the richer for having met them.”
Dan Brotman is the executive director of the Windsor Jewish Federation & Community Centre in Windsor, Ontario. He writes in his personal capacity.