Jews in Damascus Restore Synagogues as Syria Tries to Foster Secular Image
“Assad sees the rebuilding of Jewish Damascus in the context of preserving the secularism of Syria,” said Josh Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.
Albert Cameo, leader of what remains of the Jewish community in Syria, says he’s trying to fulfill an obligation to his religious heritage.
The 70-year-old is organizing the restoration of a synagogue called Al-Raqi in the old Jewish quarter of Damascus built during the Ottoman Empire about 400 years ago. The project, which began in December, will be completed this month as part of a plan to restore 10 synagogues with the backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and funding from Syrian Jews.
“Assad sees the rebuilding of Jewish Damascus in the context of preserving the secularism of Syria,” said Josh Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. “This is an effort by the regime to show its seriousness and an olive branch to the Jewish community in America, which they have been wooing.”
While Syria is still officially at war with Israel, the country is trying to portray itself as a more tolerant state to help burnish its image internationally. Syria’s 200 Jews are mirroring the actions of their co-religionists in Lebanon, where restoration work began on Beirut’s Maghen Abraham Synagogue in July 2009.
“For Syria there is a clear dichotomy between the Arab- Israeli conflict and the Palestinian cause on one hand and her pride of her diverse cultural heritage on the other hand,” said Imad Moustapha, Syria’s ambassador to Washington.
Indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria, mediated by Turkey, broke down in December 2008 when Israel began a military offensive in the Gaza Strip that it said was aimed at stopping Islamic militants from firing rockets into southern Israel. The previous round collapsed in 2000, when the two nations failed to agree on the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1967.
The largest Syrian-Jewish community, estimated at 75,000, is centered in Brooklyn, New York and New Jersey. Emigration dates back to the Young Turk Revolution in 1908, “when Jews feared their sons would be drafted into the Ottoman Turkish army,” according to Sara Reguer, author of “The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times.”
Joey Allaham, 35, a Syrian Jew living in New York, still considers Syria his homeland.
In December, he helped set up a meeting between Assad and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella organization of Jewish groups in an effort to foster ties between Syria and the American Jewish community.
During their visit, Allaham and Hoenlein toured the Franji synagogue across from the Talisman Hotel in Bab Touma, in the old city of the Syrian capital. The synagogue, also known as Ilfrange, gets its name from the Jews who came from Spain and dates back 400 years, according to Cameo.
“President Assad was kind enough to support us,” Allaham said in an interview. “We are going to bring support financially.”
Syrian Jews, a group dating back to the Roman Empire, numbered as many as 30,000 in 1947 and were indigenous Arabs or Sephardim who fled to Syria after their expulsion from Spain in 1492, according to Reguer.
The community resided in the cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Qamishli, dwindling in size because of emigration to the U.S., western Europe and South America from the early 1900s.
The “big flight” of Syrian Jews came after the creation of Israel in 1948 when riots erupted in Aleppo, resulting in Syria prohibiting Jews from leaving the country because they were going to Israel, said Landis.
The remaining Jews were allowed to leave Syria in 1990 as relations with the U.S. thawed because Washington sought the country’s support to oust former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, Landis said.
“Syrian Jews living in Israel, Turkey, Western Europe, and the United States feel a positive affinity toward their homeland,” said Tom Dine, who used to head the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said by e-mail. “Reconciliation is long overdue.”
Unlike his three brothers who live in Mexico, Cameo says he has no desire to leave Syria.
“Morally I can’t leave my country and the religious places of worship here,” Cameo said from his home in Damascus. “I have a duty to preserve our heritage.”