AIU School at Beirut, Lebanon

Batia and Moise Shems reminisce about their experiences as students at the Alliance Israelite Universelle school in Beirut, Lebanon, between the late 1940s and early 1950s. The first AIU schools in the city opened in 1878 (girls) and 1888 (boys). By way of the Shems' describing the layout of their school (divided between girls' and boys' wings), some of their activities, and the personalities of a couple staff members, an intimate portrait emerges of a strict but enjoyable educational environment. Moise mentions how “boys and girls were completely separated, there was no communication,” only to be jokingly reproved by Batia: “there was communication!” Studies at school revolved around all things French, but events closer to home increasingly demanded their attention. While the school was non-Zionist and attended by Arab as well as Jewish faculty and students, in one case the Lebanese Army had to prevent a mob from reaching Wadi Abu-Jamil (the Jewish Quarter) in which the school resided. Threatened and actual bombings of Jewish homes and vehicles by this time were becoming ubiquitous. Mosie recalls that “[f]rom time to time, there was dynamite placed by our home. "Three times I returned home, once I had just walked through the entrance door and just then an explosion went off. Dynamite was placed under our cars… Whenever we got wind that a home would be bombed we would hide and wait until the explosion. And after all this everyone would forget about it, and life returned to normal."” But life ceased being “normal” in 1950, when the school itself was bombed, resulting in the murder of the principle, Madame Penso, and the janitor. Though “set to go off at 8am, when all the students would be there” the bomb exploded two hours early. If not for the mistaken timing, Moise, Batia, and hundreds of classmates would have been injured or killed. Watch the video to learn what Moise does to this day as a result of the bombing [1].


Jews have lived in Beirut since as early as the sixth century CE, but truly began to gather after the opening of the Suez Canal (1869) and the Ottoman bankruptcy (1875) made Beirut a large trade center. In the early 1900s, Jews moved into a Jewish quarter known as Wadi Abu Jamil and their community continued to grow after the First World War. The Alliance Israelite Universelle in Beirut, during 1926, contained 492 students, 20 teachers, 14 classes, and 13 subjects. Other opportunities for Jewish education in Beirut besides the AIU schools included a boarding school named Tiferet Yisrael, which was founded in 1875 by Rabbi Zaki Cohen; the Talmud-Torah Selim Tarrab, founded by Michel and Raphael Tarrab in 1926; and the Mission Laïque. Following World War I, the French mandate recognized the Jewish community as one of Lebanon's religious communities, but Jews were still largely excluded from Beirut's politics, and instead focused on internally strengthening their own community. Today, only a few dozen Jews remain in Beirut [2].


    AIU Beirut

Beirut, Lebanon

© Mapbox, © OpenStreetMap