Sidon's Jewish cemetery is being renovated by a anonymous Jewish benefactor of Lebanese origin who lives in New York, according to a report on Al Jazeera.
The rundown cemetery holds roughly 310 tombs scattered over some 20,000 square meters.
The project of renovating the cemetery, which is located next to a large dump and a slaughterhouse, is being overseen by Nagi Zeidan, a Christian Lebanese historian writing a book on the Jews of Lebanon.
For the first time in decades, writes the Arab website, “the cemetery actually has a gate – and it is now attached to a wall that, after two years of work, finally runs all the way around the site.”
"This is not being done by the municipality," explained Zeidan. "This is paid for by one man from the Jewish community here, and I have been sent to oversee it."
Zeidan did not know how much money the man had spent or was planning to spend on the renovations, and the donor declined Al Jazeera's request for comment on the project.
Zeidan said, however, that he and the donor were committed to cleaning up the cemetery, and have already completed the process of numbering and documenting each grave. The donor “wants to fix all the stones on the tombs,” he added. “And he wants to clean up the ground to make it like a garden."
According to Zeidan's research, the cemetery first fell into disrepair during the early years of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). It was renovated to some extent by the Israeli army when it occupied parts of Lebanon in 1982, but was heavily vandalized by locals after the IDF retreated in 1985, with many of the engraved gravestones completely removed.
Zeidan told Al Jazeera that the Montefiore Census – a survey of the Jewish inhabitants of the region compiled by Sir Moses Montefiore – found 150 families residing in Sidon in 1839, and 171 in 1866. Lebanon's national census, conducted in 1932, found just under 400 Jews in Sidon, but by the beginning of the civil war, there were just 40 Jewish families remaining in the city, and all of them left it during the war. The last burial at the cemetery was conducted in 1985, the year the IDF pulled back.
Mohammad Seoudi, Sidon's Muslim mayor, said he had no problem in giving permission for the renovations. "It is a request from the Jewish community to make the cemetery look better,” he said. "It is their property and I have to respect their demand."
"Nobody opposed this permission," Seoudi said.
Despite the official permission, Zeidan and his team took down a plaque in Hebrew that previously marked the entrance to the cemetery, because the donor deemed it provocative. It had been put up by the IDF when it carried out renovations in the early 1980s.
"We have had no problems so far," explained Zeidan, "but we have also been very discreet. This is how we work."
The head of the Jewish community in Lebanon, Isaac Arazi, told Asharq Al-Awsat last year that efforts are being made to revive the community’s public presence in Lebanon, including renovating and reopening the Magen Avraham Synagogue, the only existing synagogue in the capital. About 200 Jews live in Beirut.