“The Jews of Syria,” By Robert Tuttle

Published by Alex, 

The Jews of Syria
By Robert Tuttle
Originally Published by Syria Comment
October 24, 2005

Robert Tuttle is a freelance writer living in New York. He was a Fulbright student in Syria from 1994 to 1997 and speaks Arabic. The story on Syria's Jews was written as a master's project for Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Robert kindly agreed to let me publish his excellent article on Syria Comment. It deserves to find many other publishers. He can be reached at robert.tuttle@gmail.com

On a Sunday night in February 1975, the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes broadcast what would become one of the most controversial episodes ever aired. Titled “Israel’s Toughest Enemy,” Mike Wallace traveled to Syria just a year after the Yom Kippur War and was permitted to film interviews with members of Syria’s then roughly 4,500-strong Jewish community.

In the United States and internationally, pro-Israel groups had portrayed Syria’s Jews as persecuted minority, who lived in ghettos, whose movements were restricted and who faced constant risk of arrest. Their identity cards were stamped with the words Mossawi, a polite Arabic expression for Jew, in big red letters.

“I knew it was a deeply controversial subject,” said Wallace, “And the Israelis particularly were raising a lot of money on the plight of the Jews in Syria and I wanted to find out for myself, so we went there.”

What Wallace discovered in Syria surprised him. He found that Jews were indeed subject to special surveillance and restrictions not imposed on other Syrians. But “having said that all,” he noted in his broadcast, “It must be added that today life for Syria’s Jews is better than it was in years past.”

The broadcast included interviews with a Jewish pharmacist who claimed that assertions of mistreatment were mere “Zionist propaganda” and a Jewish school teacher who said she could never become true friends with an Israeli.

In the days and weeks following the broadcast, CBS received a barrage of letters from viewers and Jewish groups, complaining that Wallace presented an inaccurate picture of Syria and that the Jews featured could not have possibly expressed themselves freely. The American Jewish Congress called the program “inaccurate and distorted” and filed a complaint with the National News Council, a defunct organization that followed up complaints on the accuracy and fairness of news reporting.

The attention generated by the segment prompted 60 Minutes to re-air the broadcast the following June and return to Damascus to film a follow-up segment.

While filming the second segment, Wallace met Dr. Nassim Hasbani, a young, distinguished Jewish physician who ran a successful medical practice in the heart of Damascus. A member of a seven-man committee that governed Jewish affairs, Hasbani was one of just a handful of leaders who spoke publicly for the community.

Hasbani told Wallace that Jews were living well in Syria. He showed Wallace his new ID card, one without the word Mossawi stamped on it.

“The government said to us, they want to give us the card identity like all Syrian people,” he said, “Without religion. And this is for all the people.”

Then Wallace asked Hasbani a pointed and somewhat awkward question.

“Dr. Hasbani,” he said, “If all the Jews of Syria were told they could leave the country, go to the United States, or Mexico, or Israel, or wherever – how many of them would go?”

“I think,” Hasbani replied, “That not more than five percent to, to Israel. And perhaps if they want to leave to the United States, to Brazil, to other… other country, perhaps the number is 20 or 30 percent.”

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Il-Frange synagogue in Damascus 

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2000 year old jobar village synagogue (outside Damascus)

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Dura Europos (syria), 230 AD 

A decade and a half later, Syria’s Jews were granted permission to freely emigrate abroad. Within a few short years, almost the entire community had left the country, a little less than half for Israel. Out of approximately 30,000 Jews who lived in Syria in 1947, less than 50 remain today, according to community leaders in the United States. All but a handful of those live in Damascus.

Today, most Syrian Jews live in the close-knit neighborhoods of south Brooklyn, in single-family homes located in a few-square mile area around where Ocean Parkway and the thriving market street of Kings Highway intersect. The area, in no way, resembles centuries old Jewish quarters of Damascus, Aleppo and Qamishli, but Syrian Jews have recreated bustling new neighborhoods. Walk down any street in South Brooklyn and one hears neighbors chatting with one another in Arabic. Shops sell items like rolled apricot paste, lentils and fava beans, all familiar ingredients in Syrian cuisine.

This is where Hasbani now lives in a modest home he rents with his wife. Now in his sixties, Hasbani is no longer an energetic doctor he was nearly 30 years ago. After moving to the United States in the early 1990s, he stopped practicing medicine and tried unsuccessfully to open a few businesses. He lives on meager savings and suffers a heart problem that limits his movement.

Hasbani prefers to speak in Arabic and smiles wryly when recounting his brief moment of fame on American television. In a community that generally shuns publicity, Hasbani is outspoken, passionate and animated.

In the highly emotive debate over the Arab-Israeli conflict, the true story of Syrian Jewry was more complicated than either Wallace or his critics fully appreciated, Hasbani said.

On the one hand, critics of 60 Minutes were correct to doubt Hasbani’s rosy portrayal of Jewish life in Syria. In a country considered Israel’s most formidable enemy, Syrian Jews had long been subject to special restrictions, mistrust and, at times, outright persecution. In the northern city of Aleppo, Synagogues were burned and vandalized shortly after the United Nations voted to partition Palestine in 1947. In 1949, a bomb was placed in a Damascus Synagogue killing 12 people. During the 1967 Arab-Israeli War – in which Syria lost control of the Golan Heights overlooking the Galilee – armed Palestinian fighters broke into the homes of Jews and pointed guns at family members. No one was shot but the incident was a reminder to the community of its vulnerability.

For most of Syrian history after 1947, Jews could not travel outside their country except on rare occasions and travel within Syria required permission. The Jews who did leave Syria escaped covertly through Turkey or Lebanon. Most continued onto the United States or Israel. Those who were caught were imprisoned.

Hasbani said that his glowing portrayal of Syria was intended to win favors from Syrian authorities. Yet, he added, the 60 Minutes broadcast was not totally false either. Conditions were beginning to improve for Syria’s Jews and would continue to improve in the months and years after Wallace’s visit.

For a man who says he spent most of his years at Damascus University’s Medical School lying about his religion, and whose own brother was stabbed to death by a person who bragged he killed a Jew, Hasbani is surprisingly nostalgic about the land of his birth.

“I live in the past,” he said, which is evident from the reams of newspaper clips, photos and other memorabilia he saves from his time in Syria.

He carefully unfolded a wrinkled old identity card with the word Mossawi written across it. He displayed a photo of himself posing with his family next to Edward Djerijian, American Ambassador to Syria from 1988 until 1992, at the ambassador’s opulent Damascus residence.

But among the assortment of memorabilia, the Syrian doctor is particularly fond of a small stack of folded newspaper clips that show him and other Jewish leaders shaking hands with the late Syrian President Hafez al-Asad.

Asad, who rose to power in a coup in 1970 and remained in authority until his death thirty years later, is regarded by much of the world as an oppressive dictator who permitted virtually no dissent and crushed it violently when it emerged. Along with the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, he launched a daring, if largely unsuccessful, surprise attack against Israel in 1973 in an effort to wrestle back control of the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and Syrian Golan Heights. Both territories were captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. But unlike Sadat, who combined bold military action with bold peacemaking by traveling to Jerusalem four years later to address the Israeli Knesset, Asad remained wedded to the struggle against Zionism.

He opposed the 1978 Camp David Treaty between Egypt and Israel, and was cool toward the Oslo accord between Israel and the Palestinians signed 15 years later. He also criticized Jordan for signing peace treaty with Israel in 1994 and backed the Lebanese militia Hezbollah in its fight against Israeli forces in South Lebanon and a myriad of Palestinian groups opposed to the Oslo process. Although the Syrians did participate in on-and-off American-mediated negotiations with Israel, coming remarkably close to a final settlement toward the end of Asad’s life, publicly they remained decidedly stand-offish in their approach toward the negotiations. In 2000, when Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa met with then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak during negotiations in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, he refused to publicly shake hands with the Israeli leader.

Many of Syria’s Jews, however, remember Asad differently.

“For us, of course, he was like the Messiah,” Hasbani said. Before him “you could not walk for four kilometers [without permission]. You could not buy and sell [property]. Walking in the street, you were afraid to say I am a Jew. There were [Jewish] schools. But there was someone from the government sitting on your head, and capable of doing whatever he wanted.”

Asad, Hasbani said, was different from past Syrian leaders in that he was the first president to truly pay attention to the concerns of Syria’s Jews.

“When we met with him in 1976, people [the Jews] rose,” Hasbani said. “When you sit with the president, people outside would not dare to do anything to you. He who is against you can do nothing to you because he saw the president receiving you and taking pictures with you.”

Such sentiments about a man long regarded as Israel’s most formidable enemy might surprise some people who follow the pulse of the Middle East. But they are quite typical among the approximately 3,000 Syrian Jewish émigrés who left for Brooklyn and Israel more than a decade ago.

Many complain bitterly about the abuses and discrimination they suffered in Syria during the decades before they were permitted to leave. Like Jews everywhere, many also profess sympathy for the state Israel and its policies. But, in almost the same breath, many credit Asad, the man who built his public persona on upholding Arab honor in a gallant struggle against the Jewish state, as the man most responsible for granting them their freedom.

“Before Hafez al-Asad, the people were scared to say, I am Jewish,” said Jack al-Boucai, a Syrian Jewish businessman who owns a cell phone store on Kings Highway. “So when he helped in making the situation improve, I saw him as being good for us.” Boucai spoke in Arabic.

The 1976, Asad met with Jewish community leaders including Hasbani; Ibrahim Hamra, Chief Rabbi of Damascus; and the late Salim Totah, head of the Syrian Jewish community. Hasbani recalled telling Asad about the bomb that was placed in a Damascus Synagogue in 1947.

“President Asad didn’t know about it,” Hasbani said. “When I told him, he was astonished. ‘Who did it, the government?’ I told him not the government, some lowlife.”

The meeting turned was historic, Hasbani said. In the months and years that followed, most restrictions on Jews were lifted. The Mossawi stamp was eventually removed from all forms of identification, although not as quickly as Wallace may have been led to believe from his interview with Hasbani. Domestic travel restrictions on Jews were lifted. Businesses that had previously been closed to Jews, such as import-export, were opened. Jews could buy and sell property and the community began to prosper.

The only restriction that remained on Jews was a prohibition against free Jewish emigration abroad with family members, a rule that remained in effect until 1992. But there were exceptions. Following a meeting between Asad and American President Jimmy Carter in 1977, the Syrian president began to permit around two dozen Jewish women each year to join grooms-to-be in the United States to correct a gender imbalance in the community.

The Syrian president’s increasing leniency toward Jews probably stemmed, in part, from international pressure applied on his regime by the United States, other foreign governments and the international media. Indeed, Syria’s Jews became something of diplomatic bargaining chip that the Syrian government could play when it wanted better relations with the United States or an improved negotiating position with Israel.

What is more, after Asad lifted restrictions on the community, many hardships persisted. Jews caught trying to escape continued to be imprisoned. Many complain that they continued to face harassment from Syrian intelligence officers and other low-level officials.

One member of the community recalled visiting the Department of Motor Vehicles in Aleppo to renew his driver’s license, armed with a presidential order rescinding the requirement that Mossawi be stamped on all Jewish identity documents. The official behind the desk told him he could not renew the license at that moment because he did not have his Mossawi seal. When the man protested, brandishing the presidential order, he recalls the official telling him: “‘I’m not going to stamp it in red. I’m going to stamp it in purple.”

But whatever hurdles Jews continued to face, the late president’s image remains largely untarnished in the eyes of many in the Syrian Jewish community. Although Asad was known as a micromanager of his countries affairs, few Syrian Jews blame him, even indirectly, for difficulties suffered during his 30 years of power.

The story of Albert Fouerti is revealing. Fouerti came to the United States in the early 1990s, during the final wave of Syrian Jewish emigration to the United States. He is shy but becomes passionate and animated when speaking about his life. He spoke mostly in Arabic.

Fouerti once owned a factory that made children’s clothes but today manages a small thrift store along McDonald Avenue in Brooklyn. Coming to America was not joyous.

In 1949, two of his sisters were evacuated to Israel along with other Jewish children following the Damascus Synagogue bombing. Fouerti’s family planned to join the two girls, but shortly after the children were evacuated, Syria closed its doors on Jewish emigration. For the next twenty years, Fouerti’s family was unable to communicate with the girls.

In the early 1970s, Fouerti obtained permission to travel to Great Britain so that his son, who was ill, could receive medical treatment. During the visit, he secretly made arrangements, through the Israeli embassy, to fly one of his sisters to London so he could see her. The other sister was ill and could not travel.

The two siblings were reunited but the visit was fleeting.

“I must come back,” he remembers thinking. “I have no choice.”

Fouerti returned home and told his mother about the reunion. Nearly twenty years passed before the Syrian government finally allowed Jews to emigrate. As Syrian Jews began to sell their homes and businesses and leave for America, Fouerti applied for passports for his entire family so they could travel to the United States. His wish, he said, was to witness the reunion of his elderly mother with her two lost daughters.

Days later, the Syrian authorities granted the family passports. But one of Fouerti’s sons was denied for unknown reasons. Fouerti did not want to leave his son behind so, for two years, he returned to the office of the secrete police chief in charge of Jewish affairs.

“Every day, I visited him in the office,” he said. “I knew what he was doing. He was just giving me a hard time.”

Finally, in late 1994, after most Syrian Jews had already left, Fouerti’s son was finally granted a passport and the family began to make travel arrangements. Then, just days before their scheduled departure, as his sisters waited in Brooklyn, Fouerti’s mother died suddenly.

Later, on his way to the airport, Fouerti stopped at the Jewish cemetery and peered down at her grave. “I said mom, I’m sorry. I can’t help you to see your children,” he said. “The last picture I see in Syria is my mother.”

Fouerti was deeply bitter. “I feel no one can let me forget what happened to me,” he said. “Why did they do that to me? Why?”

But after an emotional recounting of his experience, he became calm.

“I miss Syria. I miss my friends. But I am scared,” he said. “Our only problem [in Syria] was with the Mukhaberat [secrete police]. We lived with Muslims, Christians. We were like one family. They loved us.”

President Asad, Fouerti said, could not possibly have known about the harassment he and some other Jews suffered. “He was good with Jewish people,” he said. “He gave us our freedom… He should put this person [head of Jewish affairs] in prison. He damaged the reputation of Syria. If he [Asad] knew, he would not have let them.”

Surprisingly, some Syrian Jews are almost apologetic about the restrictions placed upon them by the Syrian government.

“I lived with Syria,” said Hasbani. “I ate and drank, whatever they did not give me, it would be perfectly fine. In my view, I don’t ask for all my rights because [they] will not give me all my rights because I have feelings for Israel which is the enemy of Syria.”

In 1987, two Jewish brothers from the Swed family were arrested for secretly visiting family members in Israel, which was illegal for all Syrian citizens. The brothers spent the next five years in prison until they were pardoned by President Asad in 1992. The Sweds’ plight became a major focus of concern for Jewish groups around the world and a personal crusade for a Canadian activist named Judy Feld Carr.

Hasbani saw the situation of the Sweds differently. Traveling to Israel was a capital offence, he said, and had the Sweds not been Jewish, they would likely have been executed.

“What kind of heroism did the Sweds show?” he asked. “They were in Syria then went to Argentina and from there they went to Israel then went back to Syria. Israel is an enemy state. Why did they go there? Do they want Hafez al-Asad to say welcome back?” (The Sweds actually traveled to Italy, not Argentina).

Another member of the community added that the Sweds trip put the whole community in jeopardy. “If you are a lamb, you cannot play with lions,” he said.

When Asad died in 2000, three pro-Likud Jews of Syrian origin – a prominent Syrian-Jewish rabbi named Jack Kassin, Hassidic community leader Jack Avital, and another businessman named Sam Domb – placed an ad in the New York Times offering their condolences, although Domb later complained to The Jewish Week that Kassin had added his name without consent. Kassin was invited to attend the funeral but a Syrian official informed him that his security could not be guaranteed because of threats posed by Asad’s brother and rival Rifat, according to The Jewish Week.

Asad’s cult of personality did not end with his passing. His son and successor, Bashar, is not held in the quite the same esteem as his father. A British-trained optometrist, some Syrian Jews privately said they consider Bashar young and inexperienced, overly reliant on what are often unscrupulous advisors. But most also said they were confident that he would eventually be able to carry on his father’s legacy.

“It appears that he took his father’s track,” said Hamra, the former chief Rabbi of Damascus who now lives in Israel. “Thank God the stability in Syria remained. His existence in the government and the permanent stable situation in Syria are a proof of his success. It will take time to become as wise as his father.” Hamra spoke in Arabic.

Another Syrian Jew added: “Asad is the best bet for America and for everyone. If he was strong enough and could manage, he would do a lot of good things. He is the best thing for America and Israel, no matter what he talks.”

In contrast to the refined, diplomatic style of his father, Bashar has made a few remarks that have sparked sharp condemnation from world leaders. He was widely criticized for making what many perceived as an anti-Semitic comment to the Pope in 2001. “They tried to kill the principals of all religions with the same mentality in which they betrayed Jesus Christ and the same way they tried to betray and kill the Prophet Muhammad," Asad was quoted as saying.

While the remark sparked widespread outcry from Jewish groups in the United States and Israel, some Syrian Jews said they consider the whole controversy to be frivolous, the result of inexperience or poor advising.

“I don’t think he’s anti-Semitic,” said one member of the community. “He say something to please the people around him.”

Hasbani agreed. “Alak,” he said of Asad's remark, a colloquial Syrian expression meaning “nothing important.”

Such words would likely come as welcome news to Damascus’ embattled government. Not since America’s disastrous intervention in Lebanon in 1982 have relations between the United States and Syria been as strained as they are today. A member of the U.S. Department of State’s list of nations that support terrorism, Syria is currently under intense pressure to prevent insurgents from crossing its border into Iraq, stop interfering in the affairs of neighboring Lebanon, and cut all support for groups fighting Israel including Hezbollah and Hamas.

Just last year, President Bush signed into law the Syrian Accountability Act, which imposed a range of mostly symbolic sanctions on Syria. He threatened new sanctions if the Syrians did not change their behavior. In September, the United States and France won passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, demanding that Syrian troops leave Lebanon.

The recent assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a fiery explosion in downtown Beirut sent relations to yet a new low. Although Syria condemned the killing, many in Lebanon and abroad strongly suspect the involvement of Syrian intelligence agents.

His assassination prompted mass anti-Syrian protests – as well some pro-Syrian rallies – on the streets of Beirut. The United States and France, joined by Russia and a number of Arab states, renewed their calls for an immediate Syrian pullout from Lebanon in time for Lebanese Parliamentary elections in May. At the time of this writing, Syrian soldiers had begun to decamp and withdraw across the border.

In the midst of all this, Syria’s unusually outgoing Ambassador to the United States, Imad Mustapha, has been on a public relations campaign trying to smooth over some of the rougher edges of his country’s image. He has appeared on television regularly and, since assuming his post two years ago, has reached out to groups and legislators long at odds with Syria. Last January, he escorted former Democratic Presidential candidate and drafter of the Syrian Accountability Act, John Kerry, to Damascus for a meeting with Syrian President Asad.

Over the past year, Mustapha has been making rounds in South Brooklyn’s Syrian Jewish neighborhoods, introducing himself to members of the community, making friends, and encouraging Syrian Jews to visit their country of origin. Last year, he accompanied a delegation of prominent Jews of Syrian origin, some with close ties to members of Israel’s Likud government, on a visit to Syria. There, the group held a meeting with President Asad and toured prominent Jewish sites around the country.

Mustapha said he is aware of the links that some Syrian Jews have with Israel and he hopes that his recent outreach in the community might eventually help lead to the restarting of negotiations between his country and the Jewish state.

“We don’t expect [Syrian Jews] to do anything vis-à-vis the Syrian-Israeli conflict, but we are realistic,” Mustapha said, speaking under a large portrait of President Bashar al-Asad that hangs in the Syrian embassy. “We understand what’s happening. They have contacts with other Jews from Israel and at least, at least, they can tell them the true story about us. So yes, they can play a role, not a direct role, an indirect role.”

In the meantime, the ambassador has been trying to counter a rising chorus of so-called neoconservatives calling for the overthrow of regimes across the Middle East. Despite the continuing instability in Iraq, foreign policy pundits like Richard Perle, former chairman of the U.S. Defense Advisory Board and a confidant to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have said openly that Syria is an appropriate second target for regime change: part of a grand strategy to democratize the Middle East.

Many Syrian Jews prefer not to delve into serious political matters, saying they would rather leave issues of war and peace to the wisdom of kings and presidents. But those who did speak made clear that regime change, in Syria’s case, would be unwise. Some said they hold little sympathy for Syria’s policies, particularly its support for groups like Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas. But they also argue that, while the United States may need to prod and push Syria to change some of its ways, attempting to undermine Asad’s secular government would be a mistake. Bashar al-Asad, they argued, is a source of stability in a turbulent region and a potential peacemaker.

“I think that his [Hafez al-Asad’s] son wants to make the country better,” Fouerti said. “I think he likes the Jews. If there is peace, it’s good for Israel and Syria.”

Hasbani, for his part, does not hide sympathies in the Arab-Israeli dispute.

“My heart is Jewish,” he said. “I cannot say that I am not Jewish and I love the Jews, regardless of Syria. And I love Israel much more than Syria, for sure, even though I lived, ate and drank in Syria.”

But Hasbani is also remarkably understanding of Syria’s predicament. He spoke about the country’s current difficulties with the United States with the cold eye of an independent observer giving an objective analysis. “I am speaking theory,” he said repeatedly, as though the opinions he expressed were not his own but rather were grounded in common sense.

The nationalist persona that Hafez al-Asad created for his country, Hasbani said, makes complying with the wishes of United States or engaging in the kind of dramatic peacemaking that characterized the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s efforts almost impossible for Bashar.

“They make themselves out as holding up the Arab Nation,” he said. “It supports them.”

But Syria’s government is also flexible and pragmatic, Hasbani said. When faced with stark choices of bending to the will of the United States or facing isolation or worse, the Syrian government will opt for safety over posturing. The United States, he said, cannot rule out the use of force against Syria but it must be careful.

“If America wants to pressure Syria,” he said, clinching his fist. “It must put pressure, tighter and tighter and tighter, economically and politically. If [Syria] continues to help Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others, and America sees that as against its interest, [the United States] needs to strike them, but without occupying Syria: essential centers for aircraft and so forth, just to show the Syrians that the temperature has risen. Then its possible Syria will back off.”

But there is a second option, Hasbani said, leaning back in his chair.

“They can create reconciliation between Israel and Syria,” he said. “If there were reconciliation between Syria and Israel, and there was a peace agreement, that was official and guaranteed by the United Nations, in that case, Syria will no longer be able to support Hamas and Hezbollah. They will come with Syrians to the dinner table.”

How to create such reconciliation is, of course, a question that has plagued successive U.S. administrations. During the 1990s, a settlement between Syria and Israel, two of the Middle East’s most intractable enemies, seemed at imminent. Then Secretary of State Warren Christopher was shuttling between Jerusalem and Damascus on an almost weekly basis, but the negotiations consistently stumbled on the question of the strategic Golan Heights. Syria demanded a full return of the territory in exchange for a peace treaty. Israel wanted to retain control of, at least, some of the Golan for security reasons.

A few months before Hafez al-Asad’s death, U.S. President Bill Clinton met with the Syrian leader in Geneva in a last ditch effort to broker a settlement. The talks failed and Asad died. Shortly thereafter, the Camp David talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians also broke down and the second Intifada erupted.

The deterioration of the peace process was something that Rabbi Hamra had not anticipated when he made a highly publicized but surprise aliyah from Brooklyn to Israel ten years ago.

“Everything indicated that the peace was on the door,” he said, sitting in the Brooklyn home of his daughter. “We imagined that we could work in Syria and spend the weekend in Israel or visa versa.”

A solid-looking man with a bushy black beard, Hamra resembles a lumberjack. He lives in Israel but travels to the United States regularly to visit some of his children.

Hamra became head of the Syrian Jewish community in the late 1980s, after the then leader Totah passed away. Hamra said he met with Asad four times during his life and once organized a march to the Presidential Palace in support of the president’s predictable reelection. He became an international figure during his time in Syria.

“I had interviews with many countries, I mean journalists from Spain, Argentina, Brazil, America and Europe,” he says. “I received many senators and congressmen.”

By the end of the 1980s, a movement to free Syrian Jewry was actively lobbying the American government to pressure Damascus to allow Jewish citizens to emigrate. In 1992, Syrian Jewish leaders, including Hamra and Hasbani, met with Asad and the Syrian president ordered restrictions lifted on Jewish emigration, although not directly to Israel. Hamra spent the next two years traveling between the United States and Syria until 1994 when he moved to Israel.

Sitting at his daughter’s home, Hamra glimpsed at the television. Al-Jazeera – a popular source of news in many Syrian Jewish households – was reporting that Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat was dieing in a Paris hospital bed.

Hamra met Arafat once. Shortly after moving to Israel, he received a letter from then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had just been nominated to share the Nobel Prize with Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Perez.

“He felt that many people in Israel deserve the Prize and [I was] one of them,” he recalled the letter saying. “I would be very happy if you could come with me. I chose you among 30 people… As I remember I met Arafat at that time.”

When Hamra first moved to Israel, he saw himself as an emissary of peace, expecting that a final settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute was imminent. That changed five years ago when the second Intifada erupted.

“Everything returned to the old situation, like in the beginning with more hostility,” he said. “Personally, I was not influenced by the failure of the peace process. But the whole region was influenced by it. I was influenced by the fact that I am a person who calls for the peace.”

The Syrian Jewish community in Israel, he said, was shaken by the deteriorating security situation, unaccustomed to the threat of suicide bombers and violence.

Hamra remains decidedly apolitical, saying he simply dreams of the peace he expected a decade ago. He still thinks of his home and friends in Syria and the vision he had of traveling between Syria and Israel on weekends.

He heard about Syrian Ambassador Mustapha’s outreach in the Brooklyn community. “I wish I could talk to him,” he said, and paused. “But I do not know how positive he will be. I do not know if the fact that I am from Israel will put him in an embarrassing situation. And I do not wish that… Perhaps if the Intifada never took place and things remained the same, it would be normal to contact him.”

Perhaps, Mustapha said, but in the meantime communicating with Hamra would be problematic.

“An Israeli citizen is a different case,” he said. “I’m not saying I don’t meet with him. I’m saying that Syria is publicly inviting Israel to rejoin the peace process. The minute that Israel says yes, we will. We will start meeting with them and engaging with them.”

Mustapha became acquainted with Brooklyn’s Syrian Jewish community through his wife. While a student at Damascus University, she was friends with a Syrian Jewish woman named Salim al-Boucai, the daughter of the Brooklyn businessman Jack al-Boucai.

Jack al-Boucai immigrated to the United States a decade ago but said he maintains strong connections with officials in the Syrian government. Until two years ago, he said he would travel regularly to Syria to import brass and copper decorations that now adorn his small store.

Mustapha, who sought to strengthen relations between the embassy and the Syrian expatriate community, telephoned Boucai and introduced himself.

“He asked me if I needed anything,” Mustapha said. “I said yes. I would like to meet with the Syrian Jewish community. And after a little while they came back to me and said, if I would be interested in visiting with them, they would like to meet with me at their community center in Brooklyn.”

Boucai, Rabbi Kassin, Hassidic community leader Avital and others, spent a day with the ambassador, taking him on a tour of the neighborhoods. Mustapha said he had never had contacts with Syrian Jews before, including in Syria.

“They are like us,” he said, “Their food, their habits, their social customs, they are like us. We, us and them, are different from the Americans… This taught me a lesson.”

The visit ended cordially.

“For the final time, they asked, can we do anything for you,” Mustapha said. “I said yes, actually you can. Whenever you have a wedding or a barmitsfa, invite me, I want to come.”

Shortly after that meeting, the ambassador was invited to a Syrian Jewish wedding held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. There he was approached by an elderly man from a prominent Syrian Jewish family in Mexico called the Sabas.

“He says to me, ‘I’m 72 or 73 years old, I have a dream.’ I said to him, what’s your dream? He said, ‘I want to visit Aleppo. This is the birth city of my parents.’ I didn’t hesitate. I immediately said to him consider you dream come true.”

After the wedding Avital, a personal acquaintance of Israeli Prime Minister Arial Sharon, telephoned Mustapha and asked him about organizing a visit to Syria.

“He [Avital] had a curiosity about Syria,” Boucai said. “He would love to visit Syria so he requested permission to visit Syria and they welcomed him… nothing official just personal.”

A delegation of a dozen Jews of Syrian origin visited Syria in the spring of 2004, accompanied by Mustapha.

Some American Jewish leaders disapproved of the trip. "It is wrong for American Jews or any Americans to help sanitize the Syrian regime by visiting Syria," said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.

The group toured the country, visiting a Jewish cemetery near Damascus, the markets of Aleppo and meeting with members of the tiny Jewish community that still lives in the country. During the visit, the group met with President Asad and presented him with a gift: a traditional Jewish Shofar or rams horn. When the meeting was over, Hasbani said the group asked the president if he would invite them back to Syria.

“He said no,” Mustapha said. “They were surprised. He said to them, ‘I can’t invite you back. I can’t invite Syrians back to Syria. You are always welcome.’”

Mustapha recalled the men’s reaction.

“They were so amazed,” he said. “We were still inside the Presidential Palace, we had not left, and they came to me and said, ‘We are so amazed. Back in America they told us, this is an evil guy. Don’t go and meet with him. But look at the way he treated us. He was so sincere with us.”

Repeated calls to Avital for and interview went unreturned.

A few months after Avital returned home, Boucai invited the ambassador to his son’s wedding. Over 500 people attended the ceremony, the majority of them immigrants who had come to the United States a decade ago, Boucai said.

“When Dr. Mustapha came to the wedding, he said he was coming to congratulate [us],” Boucai said. “He made a small speech; he made a very beautiful speech. I sent a video of the wedding to Syria, to the people in Syria, so they could see it. And the people in the community were very happy about the reception.”

The Ambassador, Boucai said, offered his services to the community. If anyone wished to renew his or her passport or return to Syria for a visit, Mustapha was willing to help.

Few Syrian Jew have returned to Syria permanently, but many say that they would like to visit, if only to see the homes in which they once resided, the Synagogues in which they worshiped or the graves of their ancestors. A small, but growing minority are returning to do business and reestablish old ties. Boucai counts at least 10 individuals who are trading with Syria or own businesses there, up from five a few years ago.

Yousef Jajati is one such individual. Jajati replaced Hamra as head of the community in 1994 and was one of the few Jews to remain in Syria throughout the 1990s. He said he traveled frequently to Europe and the United States.

The small number of Jews who remained in Syria since all travel restrictions were lifted worship at a single Synagogue in Damascus and no longer have a full-time Rabbi. But, Jajati said, they enjoy freedoms that members of the community could not have imagined thirty years ago. In the mid-1990s, Jajati became the first Jew living in Syria to speak before the World Jewish Congress. During his trips abroad, he mingled with leading political figures in the United States and Europe including ardent critics of Syria like U.S. Representative Tom Lantos, who invited Jajati to his office.

The Jajatis owned what was widely considered the smartest clothing store in Damascus. The family sold the business but still owns a factory in the Jewish Quarter that is managed by one of Jajati’s sons: Khalil. The Jajatis transferred the retail end of the business to New York, where they sell their Syrian-made clothes wholesale to such high-end stores as Porta Bella.

Jajati met with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad shortly after he was sworn in as president in 2000.

“I hope and wait for the day that you go to Jerusalem and sign a peace treaty,” he recalled telling Asad. “Bashar said, ‘Speak with your friends in the Israeli government, with [then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Barak.’ I said you are my friend, not Barak.” Jajati spoke in Arabic.

Before the meeting was over, Jajati recalled Bashar telling him: “I really was sad that the Jewish community left and I would have preferred them to stay and I hope they return.”

One year later, Jajati moved to New York, where most of his children reside. But he says he remains proud of his Arab identity and loyal to his country of birth. If negotiations between Israel and Syria resume, he said that he is willing to play a role.

“I hope that Syria appoints me to carry out negotiations with Israel,” he said, “To represent my country.”

It is easy to dismiss Jajati’s glowing comments about Syria and its president. He, after all, continues to maintain strong business links to the country and would naturally want to remain on good terms with its government. It is much harder to explain why individuals who suffered during their time Syria and cut their ties with the country long ago, like Hasbani, Hamra, Fouerti, would continue to speak fondly about the country and its leader.

Some might argue that Asad’s cult of personality is the legacy of the regime. Syria is country where the president’s photo adorns every store front and is plastered on billboards, where deference to authority is the norm. But such a view overlooks two very real benefits Asad provided Syrian Jews: stability and relevance.

The years proceeding Hafez al-Asad's rise to power were time of immense chaos in Syria. A succession of coup d'états resulted one repressive regime after another. For Jews, instability brought some of the worst abuses and there was always the uncertainty about the future. Asad, by contrast, quickly consolidated his power, exiling or imprisoning rivals.

Ironically, the very power that made Asad feared was also the power that gave him the leverage to improve the status of those Syrians who had been most marginalized, including Jews.

Asad was himself a member of a minority group: the Alawis. Concentrated in the mountains near the Syrian coastal city of Latakia, the Alawis had been victims of a long history of persecution, said Patrick Seale, author of the leading biography of Hafez al-Asad and personal acquaintance of the late Syrian leader.

“They were very poor and downtrodden,” Seale said. “They were thought of as collaborationists with the French,” the former colonial rulers of Syria. Many Alawi men served as tenant farmers for Sunni landowners and Alawi women sometimes worked as domestic servants.

The Alawi faith is somewhat secretive but it is known to blend Shia’a Islam with aspects of Christianity. Many Muslim clergy initially questioned Asad’s own Islamic credentials.

Some Syrian Jews said they believe that Asad’s minority status may have inspired sympathy for their plight. “The Asads were a family oppressed like any Jews,” said one member of the community.

Seale is more circumspect. The late Syrian president’s policies toward Jews probably stemmed more from a general opening up that accompanied his rise to power. But, he added, “He [Asad] had a feeling for downtrodden peasantry particularly. His regime was made up of country boys, not just Alawis, but Sunnis, Druze and Ismailis.”

Asad made the struggle against Israel a central plank of his leadership, but Israel never posed a mortal threat to his regime and never were Syrian Jews ever implicated in spying for Israel. Asad’s only true threat, in fact, came from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, who staged an insurrection in the city of Hama in 1982, which Asad violently suppressed.

“The Jews in Syria never had a spy,” said Hasbani. “They also never had a problem with Israel or another country. Their only problem was that some of them wanted to leave. The President understood that.”

In a hierarchical society like Syria, where a resident of Damascus could go an entire lifetime without catching a glimpse of the president except on television, a public meeting with Asad was the highest of honors. That is why Hasbani’s newspaper clips of Asad shaking hands with Syrian Jewish leaders are significant. Those photos made Jews relevant in Syrian society, he said, and gave the community a level of respect it had never enjoyed before. In effect, Asad brought Syrian Jews into the national tent.

But all this begs a question: if life was so good under Asad, why did nearly all of Syria’s Jews leave when given the opportunity?

Most left behind successful businesses and expensive homes in order to start over all again in Brooklyn or Tel Aviv. Most Syrian Jews received housing and financial assistance from local Jewish and civic organizations for one year after their arrival, but many continued to struggle. Hasbani, once a respected doctor, has watched his life sink into anonymity in a country that he himself characterized as being impersonal and lonely.

Some Syrian Jews like Hasbani said that fear of the future prompted the mass departure. Although Asad had treated the Jews of Syria well, there was no guarantee that his predecessor would do the same.

Jajati attributed the exodus to inertia. By the time the Syrian president lifted restrictions on emigration, most Syrian Jews had already escaped Syria for Brooklyn or Israel, where they had established thriving new communities. As life slowly drained out of the ancient Jewish neighborhoods of Damascus, Aleppo and Qamishli, the remaining families saw few reasons to remain.

Then there was the Syrian government’s own dithering that might have contributed to the mass flight of Syrian Jews. Asad opened the door for Syrian Jews to leave in 1992 and then, for reasons no one entirely understands, the door was shut a year later and then reopened shortly after that. Many of those who had not left, when first given the opportunity, felt that if they did not leave immediately, the door would close again, said Hasbani.

Fouerti explained his reason for leaving with a simple metaphor. “If you have a bird and locked it in a cage and later opened the door, it will fly away,” he said. “I had one choice: to go see the outside.”

Yet living on the outside, Syria’s Jews continue to look back in. Much like Palestinian-Israelis, they straddle the very dividing line of the Arab-Israeli dispute. Although this awkward position has caused many to suffer pain and torment, it has also provided them with unique insight into a conflict that has festered for far too many years. Syrian Jews will likely never play a role in resolving who gets what part of the Golan Heights. But they may someday be able foster a warm peace.

“If there is peace between Syria and Israel, and I am sure there will be peace, we will bring them together,” Fouerti said. “We must be a bridge between Israel and Syria.”

Comments (49)


1. jo6pac said:

Thanks

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April 8th, 2008, 12:38 am

 

2. Ihsan said:

Interesting article, thanks.

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April 8th, 2008, 2:58 am

 

3. Zenobia said:

this is such an utterly fascinating article!… i forgot it from 2005, so it is great to see it again.
so poignant and a little sad really.

but mostly, i think it is great …how well it is presented with all the incredible seeming contradictions of feeling and sentiment of the Syrian jews. Reality is complex as always… and the contradictions need not be resolved and reduced down into the expected stereotypes.

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April 8th, 2008, 6:27 am

 

4. Shai said:

Alex,

Fantastic article. Thank you for posting it. The more I hear about Imad Moustapha, the more I learn what a great person he is. His work and efforts are truly a blessing, regardless of the current rise in tension in the region, and between our two nations. With people like Imad at the forefront of Syrian-Jewish and Syrian-Israeli relations, peace is that much more likely to become a reality.

I very much agree that the Syrian-Jewish community (abroad and the few left in Syria) can and will play a major role in warming the relations between Israelis and Syrians once a peace treaty is signed. They will lead us in that much anticipated initial exposure, which undoubtedly will be accompanied with mixed emotions.

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April 8th, 2008, 6:38 am

 

5. Naji said:

Thanks Alex for posting this article, and I hope Ford Prefect will forgive me for being so harsh on him in my comments to his last post. I know he meant well. I did, too.

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April 8th, 2008, 9:07 am

 

6. offended said:

Interesting article. Haven’t read it when it first appeared here. Long though very well worth reading.

I am curious as to how worshipping takes place inside a synagogue. It’s different than the way things are arranged in a mosque or a church (worshippers are either standing or setting in rows).

While in a synagogue, as the photo reveals, there seems to be a focal point in the middle or something…

Shai, can you please shed some light on this?

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April 8th, 2008, 9:19 am

 

7. Naji said:

It just occured to me that, with the Syrian movie and TV industry flourishing and thriving on all kinds of historical events and stories, it would perhaps behoove one of the Syrian directors to produce a Ramadan serial telling the story and the plight of Syrian Jews, particularly during the last century…!!? Perhaps the story of one Syrian Jewish family, following its progress from, say, mid-nineteenth century through all the turmoil of the twentieth century and exodus to Israel then NJ, to its final happy return home in the twenty-first century…!!?

The Syrian Jewish community was not the only one to suffer during the last century, all the stories are worth telling, and the Jewish one is perhaps more unique than the rest…!!?

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April 8th, 2008, 9:46 am

 

8. Shai said:

Naji,

What a wonderful idea. Talk about CBM’s – I can’t imagine that would not be very widely reported on, and well received certainly by the Israeli public, and Jewish communities worldwide.

Offended,

Though I’ve only been to services about 20-30 times in my lifetime (I am a secular Jew), I never actually encountered a synagogue that has such a focal point in the middle. Not sure if it has something to do with Oriental architecture, or with certain Sephardic traditions, or something else. As far as I know, the worshiping ritual (prayer, etc.) is very similar to what you’d find in a church (normally less the “musical instrumentation”). The focal point in synagogues is the Holy Ark, where the Torah scrolls are held, normally at the very front. I’ve only watched Muslim prayer in a Mosque on TV, so I can’t tell other similarities, but Jews normally pray sitting, or standing up. By any means, I’m not an expert though, and I’m sure others could tell you more than I can. AIG/AP, perhaps you can add some details?

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April 8th, 2008, 11:04 am

 

9. Rev Michel Nahas said:

As many of you know I´m a Brazilian who lived in the US than Canada, and now I´m back to Brazil. Jews and Syrians never really had any problem here, I myself play my bassoon in the Jewish Hospital orchestra, here in Sao Paulo. I attended university, had many, many jJewish friends. The two best hospitals in Sao Paulo are the Syrian and the Jewish ones. Yes, it is true that each of the groups keeps their political loyalties attached to Syria or Israel concerning the wars, Golan, etc, but I don~t see it how anyone cares about the other~s religion. I might also mention that, as in the US, the majority of Syrians here are Christians, but notwithstanding, I was happy to see that human decency permeates not only around here, but also in the hearts of those genuinely interested in a Shalom;Salam;Paz.

Thanks, Dr. Landis for the re-print!

God bless you all

Mike

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April 8th, 2008, 11:29 am

 

10. Naji said:

Shai,
You probably don’t know, but the Syrian movie industry has been one of Syria’s major success stories of the last decade, and Syrian TV serials have completely eclipsed the Egyptian and now totaly dominate TV programs all across the Arabic-speaking world… particularly during Ramadan. QN and HP may cringe, but turn on any Lebanese TV channel and almost all you will find, after the vitriolic news broadcast, is a Syrian sit-com or soap-opera…!! ;) Art is the easiest way to penetrate barriers.

Btw, thanks for your response to my comment on Zionism, but I found it so condescending as to be almost insulting. I know that that was not your intention, so I will try to respond to it later when I have some more time.

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April 8th, 2008, 12:04 pm

 

11. AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

It is a nice and informative article. But the bottom line is simple. The Syrian Jews were prisoners and could not freely leave Syria. This shows a basic mistrust by Syria of its Jews. According to which standard would we say that a country is treating a minority well if that minority is not allowed to travel abroad? Let’s say the Arabs in the US were not allowed to travel abroad but in all other aspects were given the same rights as other citizens. Would we say that the US Arabs were being treated well? Of course not. Why the double standard about Syrian Jews?

The Syrian Jews lived in fear and were constantly afraid. They had no rights that they knew were untoucable and protected. They knew that they were living at the whim of any bureaucrat. That is why they all left at the first opportunity. A minority that is treated well does not live in fear.

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April 8th, 2008, 12:09 pm

 

12. annie said:

In a shop in Qaymaria (Damascus) I saw a plate engraved with a magen david and I asked the shopowner if he was Jewish; he answered me he was but that his family had converted to Islam.

I met more than one Syrian regretting the departure of the Jews. One man gets occasional phone calls from a jewish neighbour who moved to Canada.

In the old town, I saw a beautiful old house, empty. When asked, a neigbour told me it belonged to Jews who had left for Israel, and no, it had not been confiscated. The comparison with what happens next door does not favor Israel.

Just outside Qasr Azem, there is an antique shop run by a Jewish family.

I believe anyone and everyone who has lived in Syria would feel nostalgic about that country.

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April 8th, 2008, 12:09 pm

 

13. MSK said:

Dear all,

It seems to be the season of peace all around:

Galilee Arabs paint mosque blue-white for Israel’s 60th

http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/972943.html

In an unusual gesture of solidarity for Israel’s 60th anniversary, villagers in one Arab-Israeli town have have painted the dome of their mosque in the national colors, blue and white.

The gesture in A-Taibeh, a village in the Galilee near the Gilboa, comes at a time when Arab-Jewish relations in the reason have been marked by tensions, and many Israeli Arabs have vowed to boycott the anniversary celebrations and commemorations.

“We are residents of Israel. Our religion encourages love and closeness among nations. Jews, Muslims, we are all cousins, right?” A-Taibeh Mayor Hisham Zuabi was quoted as telling Maariv newspaper.

“We decided to paint the mosque’s dome, the most important, dear, and holy site for us, in the national colors. We are all citizens of the state of Israel. As far as we are concerned, there is no difference here between Jews, Muslims, and Christians.”

A-Taibeh, which sits adjacent to the moshav Moledet, has a population of about 2,000. Its newly decorated mosque has been in existence for decades.

Zuabi was quoted as saying that village residents don’t fear criticism or threats because of their decision. Instead, they hope it will serve to unite Arabs and Jews. “The goal is purification, coexistence,” said Zoabi. “A Jew who enters the mosque will not feel hostility, but rather will feel at home.”

–MSK*

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April 8th, 2008, 2:10 pm

 

14. antika said:

i do not understand what is meant by this post. where ever i go the arabs including the syrians live in peace with not only the jews but all other people inside syria or outside…so what is the strange thing about this!!!!even in saudia arabia the jews are well respected and there is no problem. it is always the game of politicians who create and make use of any tensions when and where they want.

what about the new coupons for subsidized oil? is it true? is this planned or just a decsion taken after a meeting over coffee? does anyone know?

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April 8th, 2008, 2:50 pm

 

15. Alex said:

Antika,

What is obvious to you, is not obvious to some people who got on my nerves on this blog for a year now as they kept insinuating every week that Syria’s Jews ran away in panic because of the savage Syrian people and more savage Syrian regime were terrorizing them.

It puts things in perspective.

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April 8th, 2008, 3:38 pm

 

16. Akbar Palace said:

Antika states:

…where ever i go the arabs including the syrians live in peace with not only the jews but all other people…

Alex replies:

Antika,

What is obvious to you, is not obvious to some people who got on my nerves on this blog for a year now as they kept insinuating every week that Syria’s Jews…

Antika,

I am glad “where ever you go” arabs and syrians are living in peace with Jews.

So where do you go? Eygpt? Saudi Arabia? Syria? Lebanon? Iraq? Are there really any Jews there?

Alex,

I’m sorry we get on your nerves, but the fact is Jews left Arab countries becasue they were no longer protected and free. IMHO, “living in peace” with a 100 or so elderly Jewish Syrians isn’t a lot to be proud of.

Meanwhile, the ME is growing Jew and Christian-free year-after-year. It is no accident.

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April 8th, 2008, 4:04 pm

 

17. antika said:

Alex, thanks for your clarifying this. the way the minorities are protected and maitained in syria is really remarkable…i feel it is not only part of the nature of the syrians but because it is also part of the regime who might see by protecting a minority is a protection and sympathy for itself.

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April 8th, 2008, 4:16 pm

 

18. Zenobia said:

I don’t think this piece said that the Jews in Syria were living in peace during the last part of the twentieth century.
did you read the article in total?
I mean one of the main speaker’s brother was murdered for being a jew.

i think what it said was that Syrian Jews continued to love Syria and had many good feelings about their life there DESPITE a certain level of persecution and being a prisoner during the last decades of the 1900′s.
I think the other interesting part was that the Syrian jews were taken care of by the elder Assad, and that HE particularly was a protector according to them and that they respected him.
In contrast, I think they faced instances of persecution by other citizens. Not all, but by some.

Finally, the article asks very clearly WHY they left if life wasn’t so bad. and the main speakers explain that they left because they were uncertain what the future would bring and whether things might get worse .. especially if Assad was followed by another leader. And the fact that the door was opened and closed and opened again made them insecure about the continued ability to leave if they needed to.
Even non-Jewish Syrians today try to get foreign passports when they can because everybody like to know they can leave if conditions worsen, economically or with regional conflict, etc. so, for these people, i am sure their concern with freedom was much more acute.

what would be very interesting to know, or contrast, is what conditions were like before 1948. I think that is really important as an understanding of what happened. I am not clear on this, but i think certainly in Syria, and maybe all over the middle east, before the creation of Israel – Jews were not in danger or highly persecuted (beyond normal tribal competition as with many groups). It was the emergence of the Israeli State that created the level of tension and anger that brought persecution and mistrust. It is because of this new situation that Jews felt the need to protect themselves and leave the Arab world.

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April 8th, 2008, 4:55 pm

 

19. Alex said:

Akbar,

The loss of Syrian Jews was very disappointing to many. What I wanted to show you through this article is that things started to get much better in the 70′s, 80′s … If Jews lived in Syria today no one would treat them any differently than they treat the Christians. You don’t understand how seriously Syria protects religious freedoms. You might want to look at it as a minority regime that understands what it is like to be a minority .. but it is more than that. The bottom line is that Syrian Jews loved living in Syria … there were exceptions, like in 1948 when Israel was created on Palestinian lands … But Syria in the 80′s grew out of the disappointment of the creation of Israel .. there is a reason why the most hardline Arab leader, Hafez Assad, was almost a hero to Syrian Jews … Because he was sincere in protecting them and making them proud to be Syrians.

They left because of 1) momentum and 2) fearing the future … many Syrian Christians left in 1980-1982 …after the violence of the Muslim Brotherhood and after the sad events in Hama … I remember the way many families decided to leave simply because a couple of their best friends or neighbors decided to leave, not because they had any real reason to leave.

And they left because they were worried about the future … not because living in Syria was not bearable for a Christian, but because they did not know if in the future Syria will remain stable … the Israeli invasion of Labeanon next door, the Iraq/Iran war to the east and the Brotherhood’s war with the regime made Christians worry about the future… even though they had the most wonderful Muslim Syrian best friends, and even though they knew the regime is the best they can hope for in terms of respecting their religious freedoms.

And this is similar to what the Syrian Jews interviewed in this article were saying … in the late 80′s they were happy in Syria, but they left because they worried about the future and because of momentum … when many of your friends leave, then you feel tat you need to join.

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April 8th, 2008, 5:05 pm

 

20. Alex said:

Zenobia … funny we simultaneously wrote some of the same things.

As for a Jew being murdered in Syria (in the 70′s?) … People in the Middle East have lower expectations Zenobia … one out of 30,000 being murdered for his religion is not the end of the world for Syrian Jews … the same with the first Christian or Druze murdered in Lebanon in the 70′s .. it took much more killing in the civil war before minorities stared to feel targeted.

If a Christian is killed in Syria today, you think I will feel that Syria (people and regime) is not good for Christians?

When Syrian Jews left, there was no killing and much less discrimination against them.

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April 8th, 2008, 5:09 pm

 

21. Naji said:

Alex,
During the period you speak about, you will find that many more Sunni Syrians left than both Christians, Jews, or whatever… As I said before, all communities suffered in Syria during various periods and especially during that period, but Syrians seem to have survived and overcome all that, and are much stronger and more cohesive for it now…!! Although, I have to add, during the flare-ups in Lebanon and Iraq of the last couple of years, I did begin to wonder…!! What Israel/Saudi has done, and still does, in our region is to keep reviving and re-inforcing these tribal tendencies…, but enough has been said about that already…

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April 8th, 2008, 5:22 pm

 

22. Alex said:

I agree Naji.

Here in Montreal I have many more Sunni Syrian friends than Christan Syrians. Most of them immigrated around 1981.

Many are seriously thinking of going back … it is more of a dream at this point, similar to the sentiments expressed by Syrian Jews in this article. But if things improve a bit more, I think there will be reverse immigration to Syria from Europe and North America.

one more thing: I realized form one of the interviews in this article an interesting and admirable statement: one of the leading Syrian Jews said that he realized that he had stronger feelings for Israel, the enemy of Syria, even though Syria is the country he lived in, ate and drank from, and had his best friends in.

If I were in his place I would also leave … Otherwise I would feel some guilt towards my fellow Syrians.

But I hope that after a peaceful settlement, some of these Syrian Jews will feel comfortable enough to love Israel and Syria simultaneously so that they can go spend the summer in Syria with their old friends and neighbors and pray in these empty synagogues.

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April 8th, 2008, 5:34 pm

 

23. Shai said:

Alex, in’shalla!

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April 8th, 2008, 5:42 pm

 

24. Naji said:

I don’t know if any of you guys caught the documentary series that the AlJazeera ran not long ago about Jewish Arabs…?! Many Jewish Arab intellectuals, writers, and artists were interviewed at length, with occasional insight and commentary by Azmi Bishara… dealt quite intelligently with issues of identity, history, and the complexities that surrounded the events of the twentieth century… Truly excellent and highly recommended…

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April 8th, 2008, 5:50 pm

 

25. Shai said:

Naji,

First, thank you for the info regarding Syrian movie industry – I had no idea, and it just shows how talented your people must be (few nations in this world have truly good actors – Israel, unfortunately, has very few… to my mind…)

Second, I re-read my response to you regarding Zionism, and I now see how it could have easily been taken for condescending tone, especially in the second paragraph. I’m sorry for that, I truly did not intend to be patronizing in any way shape or form. Truth is, it is completely irrelevant whether I would ever convince anyone that certain parts of Zionism are good (while others were certainly bad), because you are going to be making peace with Israel, not with Zionism. When Israel stops occupying and controlling the Palestinians, withdrawing to the 1967 borders, and putting an end to their ongoing suffering, much of what you view to be horrific crimes committed for the purpose of achieving certain Zionist goals, will be gone forever. At that point, it will be up to Historians to discuss whether Zionism had any legitimacy in this world, or not. You and I will be focusing on the future, rather than recollecting and analyzing the past (I think).

Whenever an Arab brings up the word “Zionism”, I often have a knee-jerk reaction which is to insinuate my belief that it has certain legitimacy, but by all means not complete, with the various means it has adopted in attempt to achieve its goals. As I mentioned to Mazen, most Israelis that are vehemently against the crimes committed against the Palestinians, and that have preached for decades against all the governments that committed them, still call themselves Zionists. A tiny minority have “renounced” their Zionism, or called for its end.

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April 8th, 2008, 6:09 pm

 

26. Alex said:

Shai,

The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria was considering forming a new political party with another name, mostly because their name was associated with many undesirable events in Syrian history.

Do you think you can have a new name for the new and improved post-peace “Zionism”? : )

Which reminded me of stories we heard in 2005 that the Baath party’s super conference that summer was going to consider renaming hte party to something like Baath liberal party (or some other modified version of that name, I can’t remember).

A friend of mine told me that this reminded him of an old joke:

A man called Mustapha el-khara (Mustapha shit) applied for a name change. he was very unhappy with his stupid name. When he appeared in court, the judge told him that he has a valid reason for requesting permission for a name change.

Judge: What is te new name you picked?
Mustapha: Your honor I would like my name to become Mahmoud el-khara.

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April 8th, 2008, 7:06 pm

 

27. norman said:

البدء في توزيع قسائم المازوت المدعوم على الأسر اعتباراً من 12 الجاري ولمدة 15 يوما الاخبار المحلية

يحق للشخص إستلام القسائم من أي مركز بغض النظر عن مكان قيده

دعت وزارة الداخلية المواطنين من أرباب الأسر إلى “مراجعة مراكز توزيع قسائم مادة المازوت المدعوم والموزعة في المحافظات كافة مصطحبين معهم البطاقة العائلية والبطاقة الشخصية الحديثة” ، وذلك في خطوة تقع ضمن خطة للحكومة لـ “ترشيد” استخدام المازوت في سوريا.

وبحسب قرار وزارة الداخلية الذي حصلت سيريانيوز على نسخة منه فإنه “يحق لرب الأسرة الحصول على قسائم مادة المازوت من أي مركز كان بغض النظر عن مكان قيده بدءاً “من 12 نيسان الجاري ولمدة خمسة عشر يوماً”.

وترى الحكومة في تخصيص قسائم خاصة تمكن الاسرة السورية من الحصول على احتياجاتها من مادة المازوت بسعر مخفض بالتزامن مع رفع سعره في السوق المحلية حلاً “لتوجيه الدعم لمستحقيه” وتخفيض فاتورة الدعم الذي تتحمل عبئه الحكومة في نفس الوقت.

وتشير إحصائيات الحكومة إلى أن الدولة تتكلف 1.2 مليار ليرة سورية يومياً، أي 400 مليار ليرة سورية سنويا، بسبب الارتفاع العالمي في أسعار المحروقات.

وتشير المعلومات المتوفرة إلى أن القسائم ستخصص كمية ألف ليتر من المازوت لكل أسرة سنوياً مهما بلغ عدد أفراد الأسرة تعطى على قسمين بأسعار مدعومة، فيما لم يعرف السعر النهائي الذي سيطرح لمادة المازوت في السوق.

وقال وزير النفط سفيان العلاو في وقت سابق إن “77% من الأسر السورية تستهلك أقل من ألف ليتر من المازوت سنوياً .”

ويحق استلام قسائم المازوت المدعوم “للزوج الذي يحمل بطاقة عائلية وللأرملة التي لها أولاد وتحمل بطاقة عائلية” ، ويحق للشخص إستلام القسائم لمرة واحدة فقط وفقا لبطاقته العائلية وبطاقته الشخصية الحديثة تحت طائلة المسؤولية القانونية.

وبحسب القرار وفي حال كان الزوج والزوجة متوفيين ولهما أولاد عازبون يحق للولد الأكبر العازب وبموجب البطاقة العائلية لوالديه المتوفيين أن يحصل على القسائم وذلك بعد ابراز البطاقة العائلية وبيان عائلي يثبت أن الأولاد عازبون.

وكان المهندس محمد ناجي عطري رئيس الوزراء كشف في وقت سابق عن “عزم الحكومة زيادة الأجور والرواتب بشكل مجز وإصدار عدد كبير من التشريعات لضبط الأسعار بالإضافة إلى توزيع ألف لتر مازوت على العائلات سنويا بأسعار مدعومة.”

وتتوقع الحكومة أن تؤدي هذه الإجراءات إلى “ترشيد استخدام الوقود من قبل المواطنين، إضافة إلى الحد من تهريب المازوت إلى دول الجوار حيث سيصبح سعر الليتر مساوياً تقريباً لسعره في دول الجوار ما عدا تركيا التي يصل سعره فيها إلى حوالي 70 ليرة سورية.

وتتوزع مراكز قسائم المازوت على مباني البريد ومركز الوحدة الإدارية أو البلدية ، المراكز الثقافية أو أية مبانٍ عائدة للجهات العامة والتي يمكن استخدامها لهذا الغرض بالتنسيق مع هذه الجهات .

ورفعت الحكومة مؤخراً أسعار البنزين إلى أربعين ليرة سورية بعد ان رفعته في وقت سابق الى 36 ليرة للتر الواحد بعد أن كان سعر اللتر 30 ليرة في خطوة اعتبرت أنها بداية لتنفيذ الحكومة لخطتها التدرجية في رفع أسعار المشتقات النفطية بهدف الوصول في النهاية أسعار قريبة من الأسعار العالمية.

وتسعى سورية من خلال الخطة الخمسية العاشرة (2006 – 2010) إلى الانتقال من الاقتصاد المخطط الذي تنتهجه الدول الاشتراكية إلى “اقتصاد السوق الاجتماعي” النهج الذي تم اعتماده في المؤتمر القطري العاشر لحزب البعث الحاكم في العام 2005.

تميم أبوحمود – سيريانيوز

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April 8th, 2008, 7:14 pm

 

28. Shai said:

Alex,

LOL. I’ll remember that one… (btw, “khara” means the same in Hebrew…, see how much we Semites have in common?) Well, as for Zionism, it’s not like I wake up every morning, pick up my Zionist Gazette, turn on WZIN-FM on the radio, or go to the weekly meetings of Maccabi Zion. To me, Zionism is something that’s almost intangible, which has much more to do with the past and our forefathers, than the present, or future. I don’t think Israelis will need to find another name, once there’s peace, because I doubt it’ll be mentioned often, certainly not amongst Arabs and Israelis. But, who knows, maybe it will be “modernized”, to “The Zionaath Liberal Party”, or something else… :-) Btw, you’ve got mail…

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April 8th, 2008, 7:18 pm

 

29. Alex said:

Fine… so its an old joke.

I bet you did not see this one:

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April 8th, 2008, 7:24 pm

 

30. Naji said:

Alex,
You do do surprise sometimes…! Great joke, but I am not sure you really understood it or meant it…! Especially in the context of your comment above, it is a much crueler and cruder jab at both Zionism and Baathism than I thought you capable of making… :D Perhaps there is hope for you after all… :D

Great joke… :D

I think I’ll turn in early tonight… Bon nuit…

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April 8th, 2008, 7:25 pm

 

31. Alex said:

Naji,

I said above: “a friend of mine” made the association with that joke …

I am more politically correct as you know.

: )

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April 8th, 2008, 7:32 pm

 

32. Qifa Nabki said:

Shai, check your email.

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April 8th, 2008, 7:47 pm

 

33. Shai said:

Alex,

I did like the joke. But this (youtube clip) was hilarious. It’s the Arab version of Evel Knievel, but without the motorcycle – fantastic!

Naji – be good!… :-)

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April 8th, 2008, 7:49 pm

 

34. Qifa Nabki said:

Thank you Alex for that beautiful clip.

I have never been more proud to be an Arab in my life.

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April 8th, 2008, 8:10 pm

 

35. bondo said:

i will read the article later. no time. curious though, whatever hardships syrian jews experienced before or after zionism? egyptian jews, i think, were ok until ’48 and the lavon affair in ’54 and israel’s attacking egypt in ’56. i think same for iraq. jews suffered there from both zionist mischief and british blaack ops. blame, if blame is to be givem, the zionists/jews.

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April 8th, 2008, 8:11 pm

 

36. Naji said:

Alex, our resident computer/internet guru, do you know if anyone has made sure that the Palestinian refugee camps in Israel/Palestine and Lebanon are included in this project… or there some sort of a veto “for security reasons”…??!
_______________
Google maps give close-up view of U.N. refugee camps
Tue Apr 8, 2008 10:15am EDT
By Laura MacInnis

GENEVA (Reuters) – Google technology first envisaged as a video game backdrop has been adapted to raise awareness — and potentially financial support — for the plight of refugees and vulnerable people once far from the public eye.

The search engine’s Google Earth platform, a mapping service that allows users to move through three-dimensional satellite images of city streets and countryside, now offers a close-up view of U.N. refugee camps and aid projects.

Rebecca Moore, head of Earth Outreach for Google, said the browsable, high-definition pictures of humanitarian crisis zones stood to captivate a mass audience that may not otherwise see them.

Many of the 350 million people who have downloaded Google Earth use it to scan for holiday destinations or to see what other corners of the world look like from above. The sharp satellite images are updated about every month, though in some places they are older and in others no public shots exist.

Moore told a packed audience of aid experts at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) headquarters that they could add video interviews of refugees, photographs of displacement crises and educational text to the satellite backdrop to educate even casual users about unfolding crises.

“Use Google Earth to tell your story,” she urged.

While zooming through images of refugee camps in Chad, Iraq and Colombia — showing various levels of detail, from broad topography to shots of tents — she said developers first made the tool as a backdrop of “the ultimate video game.”

“We realized that Google Earth had the potential to be a much more significant and meaningful tool,” she said.

CRISES

Former Irish President Mary Robinson, who also served as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the technology could help the public better understand displacement crises.

“We need all the communications possible to change the dynamic, to make this something very personal,” she told the UNHCR audience by videolink.

Geneva is home to the U.N.’s European headquarters, U.N. agencies such as the World Health Organisation, international health financiers including the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and major humanitarian aid providers including the Red Cross.

All are engaged in continuous and active fundraising efforts to draw in money for their operations.

Karl Steinacker, head of the UNHCR’s field information and coordination support section, said the U.N. agency was seeking to “systematically map” all its approximately 150 refugee camps.

“This is the first time we are using these maps for public information,” he said, noting UNHCR officials could also use the data to ensure that camps are well-designed and working well.

The images — which are not live transmissions — also offer a bird’s eye view of troublesome areas, such as those where rapes are occurring or where people are falling ill from malaria, Steinacker said.

Some U.N. experts said the satellite images could help aid providers see where communities of displaced people have moved to, and where aid ought to be dispatched to. But others said the technology appeared to have less value as a tool for workers in the field who lack access to high-speed computers and Internet.

(Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Charles Dick)

© Reuters 2007.
_____

Now, I really must go to bed. Bon nuit again…

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April 8th, 2008, 8:14 pm

 

37. Naji said:

What was AP/AIG’s favorite saying…”you can keep saying that the sky is green, but that will not make so”… indeed…
_____________________________________

Israel to bar UN official for comparing Israelis to Nazis
By The Associated Press

The Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that it will not allow the UN official appointed to investigate Israeli-Palestinian human rights to enter the country, after he stood by comments comparing Israelis to Nazis

Richard Falk is scheduled to take up his post with the UN Human Rights Council in May, but the Foreign Ministry said it will deny Falk a visa to enter Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, at least until a September meeting of the council.

At that meeting, Israel intends to ask the council to expand the envoy’s mission to include investigating Palestinian human rights abuses against Israelis. The mandate currently allows him to monitor only human rights violations by Israel in the Palestinian territories.

Israel will also express its displeasure with the council’s choice of Falk as investigator. “If he already believes Israel is like the Nazis, how fair will he be?” said a Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Israel has objected for years to what it perceives as anti-Israel bias by many UN bodies.

According to a Tuesday posting on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Web site, Falk defended statements he made last summer equating Israel’s treatment of Palestinians with Nazi treatment of Jews during the Holocaust. He told BBC News that Israel has been unfairly shielded from international criticism.

About 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis during World War II in an effort to liquidate all of Europe’s Jews. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson called Falk’s comments “unacceptable and, in fact, a little strange.”

“To compare Israel to the Nazis is not just a total falsehood, it’s also a personal insult to everybody,” he said, adding that the choice of Falk is indicative of the Human Rights Council’s negative attitude toward Israel. “Of all the people to be able to appoint, to find somebody who compares Israel to the Nazis is very bizarre and outrageous,” he said.

The council’s previous investigator, John Dugard from South Africa, compared Israeli treatment of Palestinians to apartheid, the discriminatory policy of the previous white regime in South Africa toward blacks.

Falk, a professor emeritus at Princeton University, could not be reached for comment.

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April 8th, 2008, 8:22 pm

 

38. Shai said:

Naji,

If I wanted to apply for a visa to some country I wanted to visit, or work in, I probably wouldn’t equate her with the Nazis… I don’t know, call me crazy… :-)

QN, “… you’ve got mail…”

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April 8th, 2008, 8:29 pm

 

39. SimoHurtta said:

The “funny” thing is that Robert Falk is a Jew (member of the nation and has the “God” given birthright because his religion under Israeli law to move to Israel and became citizen).

But the Israel’s constructive peace making efforts do not stop with professor Falk.

Israel will not work with ‘unfair’ UN fence watchdog

Vladimir Goryayev is probably no Jew, only a rude European gentile.

Israel and the United States objected to the creation of the Register of Damage, established two years ago. Why on earth is USA objecting that? Israel’s objection is understandable because they have to hide their crimes.

Seems that Israel is getting completely paranoid. What is there to hide in that perfect Zionist democracy?

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April 8th, 2008, 9:42 pm

 

40. Akbar Palace said:

what would be very interesting to know, or contrast, is what conditions were like before 1948.

Alex, Zenobia,

My ex-father-in-law is a Syrian-Jewish Israeli. Both his father and mother were born in Syria. (My ex-mother-in-law’s family is Yemenite). They came to Israel in the 30′s because his father wanted to participate in creating a Jewish Homeland. He was not forced to leave as I recall.

My ex-father-in-law enjoys speaking Arabic, loves his Israeli/Jewish identity, but has no burning desire to learn about his Syrian background. He does enjoy Arabic culture. When we visited Turkey, he was able to speak to many people there in Arabic including Syrian-Turks.

That said, he is quite proud of his country (Israel) and has no desire to move anywhere.

Alex said:

The bottom line is that Syrian Jews loved living in Syria …

Yes, perhaps at one time they did.

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April 8th, 2008, 9:53 pm

 

41. Akbar Palace said:

Sim said:

The “funny” thing is that Robert Falk is a Jew…

So is Norman Finklestein.

Vladimir Goryayev is probably no Jew, only a rude European gentile…

Sim,

It is pleasing to know we have a participant here who makes it a priority informing us as to everyone’s religious beliefs.

I’ve never encountered such a bigot.

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April 8th, 2008, 10:03 pm

 

42. Alex said:

Akbar,

That “one time” was the most recent time they were there … the best years were the last decade before they left.

And those who visited recently also loved it and they plan to go back there more often.

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April 8th, 2008, 10:48 pm

 

43. trustquest said:

Not only Hasbani is nostalgic about his birth country, there are a lot of people from all religions and walk of life like him, they even can not dream of visiting their birth place, where the Ambassador is giving away visas to one group only, I wonder why?.

Mr. Hasbani, if he can remember, he could know the guy, around that time 1968, me and other friends used to sit together in the Cafeteria of Damascus UN, the guy was very cheerful guy, active and can fill the room with laughter. We knew that he was a Jew. We did not question that or have problem with that, not only us but most educated people in college were like this. Till one day, a Baathist, from government, wrote the word: JEW, on the back of this guy white robe, and the poor guy wore his robe without noticing what was written on it. Then this guy never showed up again in the Cafeteria after that incident. We all were sad and missed him; the cheerful guy was not there any more. This story is from Damascus UN.

To play on the goodness part of the Late Assad towards Jew is not a complement, the Jews should reach to their fellow Syrian in the Diaspora not tot the officials. Syrians people were not given the first letter of Freedom. Syrians when lat Assad gave them some of the freedom. The Jews, Muslims, Christians and others Sects and religions, have more in common between them than the ambassador and Syrian Officials. We all should recognize this fact.

The sliced hint that Mr. Assad junior should give better preference to Jews over other sects, or ask him to do such thing like what his father did, is a bad advice. The whole country with all its sects and parties are waiting for reform which should include everyone.

Alex I think your effort is wonderful in looking at the bright side but you should give it a rest, the authority, the Baathist and regime propaganda and the regime, were are and never will be intelligent enough to accept tolerance, otherwise they would have turned Democratic long time ago.

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April 9th, 2008, 1:22 am

 

44. bondo said:

skim reading this long article, i found a couple of statements that bothered me. the general concern by the ex-syrian jews for israel, the entity that has created many problems for all. these jews are worried about hezbollah and hamas. why? israel is the monster. hezbollah and hamas are defending themselves.

no mention of the great hardships and suffering caused to all syrians by israel and its influence on the west, especially the usa. econonomic sanctions anyone? bombings anyone? land theft anyone?

the posted pictures of the synagogues seem to indicate some amount of wealth. i doubt that the jews of pre-zionist any-arab country suffered any greater hardships than any other group. in fact i would guess they experienced greater advantages.

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April 9th, 2008, 7:07 pm

 

45. kingcrane jr said:

Identity issues are tricky.
You are what you choose to be, either sticking to your origins (Syrian, Lebanese, Levantine, Palestinian, Southern Syrian, etc) or what you have chosen to become (French, American, Canadian, etc). You may also be a “combo” such as Syrian-American or Israeli-American of Syrian origin.

But the most important is culture: I know Jewish individuals from the Levant (Syria and Lebanon) who are culturally Syrian, and others who have little nostalgia, and have become fully Israeli.

But, at the end, your capacity to be a decent human being is elsewhere. The great Andre Malraux said “la culture, c’est ce qui reste quand on a tout oublie” (culture is what is left in you when you have forgotten everything), placing true culture closer to the heart and away from the mind. Between the heart and the mind is the spirit, a legendary item that religious clerics have appropriated within each and every one of us, and that they manipulate, with the assistance of unscrupulous politicians, to foment wars based on the interest of the few and the ignorance of the masses.

I can live with any Jewish individual, whether Ashkenazi or Sephardic, whether Syrian or Lebanese, provided that the Levant is a State (or several states) where religion, gender and skin color do not matter. This means total separation of State and Religion. In the interim, the existense of one particular artificial entity flies against all the possible chances of a modern and prosperous Levant.

I did like the article and I have two comments:
1- When Fouerti was trying to get his son a permit so the whole family could get out of Syria, the Party apparatchik that was toying with him (a little bit like a cat and a mouse, it seems) could have been fired or put in jail. The Assad family could have dealt very harshly with this. In a similar case that is very close to me, a non-Jewish Syrian filed a complaint, and an investigation showed that the Party apparatchik (and middle level Ministerial employee) had decided that he REALLY disliked the individual asking for the permit, and that no bribe amount that the individual could muster to put together would ever be sufficient for the needed permit to be granted; this produced a “cat and mouse in a dead end” situation whereby many visits and small gifts produced absolutely nothing, until a person at an upper echelon got involved and appropriate threats produced the needed permit.
2-One reason that pushed many Syrian Jews to get out of Syria was the fear that, once Hafez Assad dies, a civil war could erupt and that Syrian Jews would become innocent bystanders. I was at a Syrian Jewish wedding in NYC about 18 years ago, and a particular individual, mistaken by my last name which happens to be also one of many Levantine Jewish last names that are also found in other religious denominations, and thinking that I was Jewish, recommended to me to “tell all my cousins, uncles and aunts” to get out of Syria. I was told, later on, that the man was an extremist Zionist who had a habit of bad-mouthing Syria as a sponsor of terrorism while praising the Golan occupiers as people of peace. In other terms, the usual fear tactics, even in the heart of the Syrian Jewish community in the middle of NYC.

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April 11th, 2008, 4:00 pm

 

46. Naji said:

Very eloquently put, kingcrane, even if I disagree about the appropriation of that legendary item “within each and EVERY one of us.” Some of us think they have managed to keep their free spirit, against all odds, and guard it meticulously against appropriation by anybody… not easy work, but well worth the effort.

Enjoyed reading your comment and I’ll have to look for more. Thanks…!

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April 11th, 2008, 4:40 pm

 

47. Naji said:

An eyewitness report…!! Does not deny some discrimination, but puts it in some perspective… I post it for balance and completion of the narative…
________________________________

Syrian Jews .. comment on Robert Tuttle
Dr. Sadek Pharaon : ( All4Syria ) 23/4/2008
Dear Sir
I read Mr Robert Tuttle’s “Syria Comment” in All4Syria ( 8.4.2008 ). I must reveal the very many inaccuracies , distortions and lies in it. In his three- part report, he does his utmost to show that the Syrian Jews were living in most gruesome conditions. This is all fake, not true and turning the facts upside down. He states that Jews had their IDs stamped with “Mossawi” equal to “Moses-follower”. Also Mr. Mike Wallace discovers that ” Jews were indeed subject to special surveillance and restrictions not imposed on other Syrians”. This was truly practiced after 1948 war and expulsion of aborigine Palestinians, in hundred thousands and millions, into surrounding Arab countries. The Syrian authorities took this preventive measure assuming that Jews might act as spies for Israel. Why do you consider such a step as abnormal or unacceptable? Haven’t US Americans have done the same during the 2nd world war vis-à-vis Americans of German and Japanese roots? Why don’t you accept such protective measures? Even so Syrian Jews were always living in Syria in peace, dignity and safety. Just remember how Palestinians were and are living under the ruthless Israeli yoke, now and since 1948! Mr. Wallace, however, was more objective and nearer to the truth. He mentions Dr. Nassim Hasbani, a well known Syrian Jewish physician who was practicing medicine in Damascus and who ended as an incognito and jobless refugee in South Brooklyn. Being myself a doctor and former professor of obstetrics and gynecology in Damascus Medical School, let me narrate to you and to all readers my recollections of Dr. Hasbani and of other Jewish physicians.
In the sixties and later, Dr. Hasbani used to phone me in my clinic and give me a complete report about one of his Jewish patients, and tells me he’s going to send her to see me because he trusts me and he wants me to take extra care of her etc… and I used to affirm to him that a physician would take care of all his patients in the very same quality and quantity of care, irrespective of any differences in language, creed or colour etc… But he used to reiterate and reaffirm that his own patients deserve extra care! He was asking me, on the phone, whether all my instruments are pretty sterile as they should be, and I used to assure and re-assure him that they are. Well, when his patient arrives at my clinic, with a cortege of her family and neighbours, they start making noise and telling the nurse that Dr. Hasbani’s patient is there and should be speedily seen by the doctor. She tells them that she’ll soon be seen but there is one or two patients before she’s due to be examined… But the noise increases in crescendo and I find it necessary to go out into the waiting room and ascertain Dr. Hasbani’s patient and her accompanying choir that they wont wait for long, with only short-lived calming effect. As the special patient comes in, they all repeat the same questions inquiring about the sterility and cleanliness of my instruments etc.. and I re-assured them about that. As I start examining her, the phone rings and Dr. Hasbani’s voice asking what I found wrong in her and what I’m going to do for her and what are the details of the prescribed medicines.. etc and etc… In short and not going into any further details, I confess that examining one Jewish Syrian patient would need manifold time, effort and worry than any other non-Jewish patient! In spite of all, and a doctor, I used to convince myself that their peculiar behaviour is only due to some fear that they might not received sufficient care because of their Jewishness. How could I convince all Western readers that Jews were living happily and peacefully in Syria during all the decades that I remember of? Well. I remember having had some four or five Jewish students in the fourth year of medicine. They were living, studying and working in hospital exactly as any one else. At times, one of them used to come to me and protest that one of his (gentile) classmates shouted at him for being Jew! And wanted me to reproach him, which I sometime did smoothly. Next day or after, I see while entering into the hospital all students running and playing together around and see the Jewish student jumping of that same Gentile’s back and riding on him! After the session I ask the Jewish student come near and ask him: Weren’t you riding on that same classmate who had shouted at you a few days back? – Yes Sir, well it was all over… This small incident is meant to show you how Syrian Jews were living and learning in Syria exactly like any other citizen, not less and probably more. Well, Dr Hasbani and his folk were given the opportunity to meet President Hafez Al Assad. Only few other Syrian Gentiles were given a similar privilege. Many ill-minded people might explain such a gesture as being a mere political coup de theatre to show that Jews in Syria are well cared for, whereas the truth is that Arabs in general and Syrians in special do believe and do practice equality amongst all humans irrespective of their religious affiliations. To speak of “outright persecution” is wholly false and malicious. If a synagogue was burnt in 1947 in Aleppo or a bomb was inserted in the same year in a Jobar synagogue as a masses- reaction to the UN resolution of dividing Palestine into two states is just a sporadic incident and was an end result of an accumulated , mounting and perpetuated anger against the invading Israelis, but misdirected towards Syrian Jews. It is ridiculous to mention that “In 1967 Palestinian fighters broke into the homes of Jews and pointed guns at family members. NO ONE WAS SHOT BUT THE INCIDENT WAS A REMINDER TO THE COMMUNITY…!” Just imagine the opposite: How Israelis are shooting little girls and boys at checkpoints just because they feel bored doing nothing or fearing that these little children might be terrorists!!! It is time that America’s and Europe’s conscience be awaken and admit of the tragic human cataclysm that the tortured Palestinian people are suffering for six decades. All what is said that Jews were afraid to say they were Jews is utterly false and fake. All Jews were proud to be known as Jews and bragged this. I used to buy my meat from Youssef Mrad and Abu Haroon, the Jewish butchers near Zahrawi Hospital, where I was working, and both of us joked with each other. When Mrad was merry he used to tell me that he gave me, as a favour, Kosher meat and not Tref because there was none of it left, and I used to thank him for it! That was in the seventies and that was not an exceptional incident but was an instance of how life was going among people living in the same city with differing religious backgrounds….About business all what was mentioned is pure lie. Jews were always free to do business. The majority of them were wealthy and owned big shops and houses. Fouerti is the misspelling of Freyway. Albert is probably the father and his son is Dr. Victor Freyway, a physician who studied medicine in Damascus Medical School, among many others of his co-religionists…I might have the chance to narrate later one of his paranoiac protests of being treated in a different way because of his religion later on.
Let me seize this opportunity to greet Dr. Nassim Hasbani in South Brooklyn ( and all his Damascene Jewish classmates ) and wish him (them) good health and assure him (them) that my personal sentiments, as surely as that of all those who knew him (them) or were given care by him, haven’t at all changed nor deteriorated, whereas the conflict between the Ashkenazi Israelis and uprooted Palestinians and other Arabs is another dilemma that should be dealt with and solved in a humane and just way. Power, subjugation, mass killing, mass cleansing of the aborigine Palestinians and Syrians of the Golan Heights, and tyranny will never result in peace. It will only generate further and longer suffering for the invaders as well as for the uprooted and dehumanized! What is the solution? This, I’ll tell at the end of my writing.

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April 24th, 2008, 12:43 am

 

48. wizart said:

Many Jewish organized presence prefer and sometimes go out of their way to remain invisible.

Are Jews more or less likely to assimilate into a new culture?

Did they have more difficulties assimilating within Germany and elsewhere than people from other religions?

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May 2nd, 2008, 2:49 pm

 

49. Moshe Shemer said:

Dear Sir / madam
I am Editor Of a(non profitable)magazin about The History, Culture and Heritage of the Syian Jewry “mikan U Misam”
After I read This article and sow the remkable photos – I, as a siryan- born I was very exited.

Will you be so kind as to permit me to use quatation from the article and reproce the photos of the synagogues
I hope your reply will be positive – and so can you send to me the photos by Email screened in high resoloution

Thanking you in advance, God bless you
Yours Sincerely -anticiating
Moshe Shemer
Email: moshemer@gmail.com
10 Bar ilan st.
58447 HOLON
ISRAEL
Phone No +972 3 6515752 cell No + 972 50 7733077

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July 14th, 2008, 12:05 pm

 

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