London rabbi is first to travel to Tripoli, Lebanon for more than 40 years

Rabbi Alex Goldberg, a veteran of interfaith initiatives, met Mufti Sheikh Malek Shaar, who later talked positively about a meeting with 'Jews'


It is not every day the Grand Mufti of Tripoli, Lebanon - where security forces have clashed with Islamist militants in recent years - meets with a rabbi from London.

It is not every day he admits to doing so on social media.

But, after meeting Rabbi Alex Goldberg - the first rabbi to travel to the city since the 1970s - Mufti Sheikh Malek Shaar went on Facebook to speak positively about his meeting with “Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jews and Baha’is”.

As well as the risk Rabbi Goldberg faced in travelling to a city the Foreign Office warns against visiting, there is also a risk for Muslim leaders to admit publicly to meeting someone Jewish.

The visit, which took place earlier this month, was an opportunity for Rabbi Goldberg, a Surrey University Chaplain and chief executive of the Carob Tree Project, to find out more about how Catholic, Orthodox, Druze, Sunni and Alawite leaders are working together in the city.

Rabbi Goldberg regularly visits the Middle East to meet with Arab and Jewish leaders as part of interfaith initiatives.

Flanked by soldiers during his visit, Rabbi Goldberg's visit was organised by interfaith group the Lokahi Foundation.

He was given “a tonne of safety advice" was told at the airport to remove the barcode from his passport that showed he had travelled to Israel, which would have barred his entry to Lebanon.

But this did not deter Rabbi Goldberg, who went there to “make friends and not history”.

Religious leaders from across the world met with leaders in Lebanon to encourage a dialogue, after years of conflict.

“Fighting still erupts between militants from the Alawite Shia and Sunni communities,” Rabbi Goldberg said. “In Beirut and Tripoli, people openly speak about their experiences during the 15-year civil war.”

He saw Hezbollah flags flying in south Beirut. He was told to conceal his kippah, which he did with a “trendy hat from Urban Outfitters”.

While most people he met were "lovely to me... welcoming and interested", the constant presence of soldiers reminded him of the danger.

“At one point I heard one pointing out that I was Jewish. Another soldier said something like ‘that doesn’t matter he is in our care now and we will protect him'.”

He added: “At one point walking through the city I had four soldiers around me... their quest was far riskier than mine.”

He visited a 17th-century synagogue in the mountain town of Deir el Qamar and thought about the Jewish community that once lived there peacefully.

 “A community that today is somewhere between 20 or 40, was once 10,000. When Jews were being expelled by Arab states in 1948 many went to Lebanon. It was considered cosmopolitan. But that changed dramatically after the Six-Day War.

“And yet there I was standing where Jews have prayed for 300 years. In that moment, I felt I could live here.”

The rabbi likes to draw pictures of the people he meets as a way of “putting a human face” on them.

“It is good to doodle people with different narratives. You see the deep humanity in all of them, that we are created in the same image... the Archbishop loved that.”

He said he hoped people could “rebuild” a Jewish community there one day.

“I was the first rabbi many people met,” he said. “The community there today keeps quiet for obvious reasons. It must be very difficult for them."

Rabbi Goldberg said it was important for people of other faiths to talk to Jews, especially in areas of conflict or antisemitism.

“Unless you meet a Jew, a Jew becomes a mythical creature,” he said. He described how one of the Lebanese Catholic leaders said, before he met the Sunni imams, that he was scared of them.

"Now they are in each other’s lives,” Rabbi Goldberg said. “It was fascinating.”

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