As Syria Frets Under Sanctions, Syrian Jews Help Build Ties to U.S.
Jack Avital speaks Arabic with Syrian inflections. He built his Brooklyn home like a Syrian villa, with a courtyard where he enjoys bitter Arabic coffee at sunset. He built his company offices — overlooking the bustle of Ocean Parkway — like a Syrian palace, pale pink and fronted by an ornate gate. True to his love of Syria, Avital, who is Jewish, commemorated the death in 2000 of Syria’s longtime dictator, Hafez Assad, with a black-sash event attended by the Syrian ambassador to Washington. So he readily admits that visiting the country for the first time last month was an emotional experience. “There were tears in our eyes at the airport,” said Avital, who led a 12-man delegation representing the Sephardic National Alliance, a group composed mainly of Syrian Jews. Such strong feelings for a country most of the delegation had never seen — and for a dynasty reviled, among other reasons, for keeping its Jews from emigrating until the late 1980s — is not unusual in America’s Syrian-Jewish community, which is centered in Brooklyn.
Syrian Jews here have maintained a strong, insular identity as well as quiet and friendly business ties with Syria, especially since Hafez Assad allowed the Jews who emigrated to maintain their businesses and properties, and many still collect profits and rents from clients in Syria. What is unusual is the degree to which the Syrian Jews here and the government in Damascus — neither party known for being particularly outgoing — are willing to make the relationship public. There are clear implications to the new openness: It suggests a greater Syrian willingness to reach out to the United States, and eventually Israel, at a time when Syrian officials say recent U.S. sanctions will crimp their already troubled economy. One aim of the outreach is to reverse Syria’s poor image in the United States, and to help persuade President Bush to back down from the sanctions.
The sanctions were imposed because of Syria’s failure to crack down on terrorist groups and to end programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. Syria is not the first country to seek to mend fences with the United States by courting Jewish groups, long believed in the Arab world to have inordinate influence in Washington. Avital, who owns Jackie Vital, an urban fashion design house, has established ties in New York’s Jewish community, and he is close to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Likud party. He arranged a meeting between Syria’s ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who backed the sanctions in Congress. U.S. State Department officials speak approvingly of the delegation’s visit to Syria and suggest it helps them assess whether Bashar Assad is trying to outgrow the legacy of his isolationist, totalitarian father. In fact, the officials confirm, they had a role in encouraging the Syrian regime to invite the Jewish delegation.
Leaders of the mainstream American Jewish community largely have been silent about the visit, though the Zionist Organization of America expressed its “disappointment” with the group. “It is wrong for American Jews or any Americans to help sanitize the Syrian regime by visiting Syria,” ZOA president Morton Klein said in a statement. The delegation met with U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobie during the visit, a meeting that was featured on the front pages of Syrian newspapers and on the television evening news. There are other, subtle signs of greater Syrian openness, though it’s too soon to know how wide-ranging they are. Moustapha and other Syrian officials are reaching out to other expatriate communities, and the expression of opposition viewpoints in public in Syria no longer presents the dangers it once did. One benchmark for progress will be next month’s conference of the ruling Ba’ath party. One Omani newspaper report has said the party will renounce its decades-old pledge never to negotiate with Israel.
Moustapha himself is a sign that Assad might be wresting power away from the old guard. Assad went over the head of Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa, a bulwark of Syria’s old guard, to appoint Moustapha, a computer science professor known for his Western outlook. On arriving in Washington earlier this year, Moustapha immediately sought out the Syrian Jewish community of about 30,000 people. He and Avital say they bonded over a meal at Avital’s house, cuisine that Moustapha recognized as “from home.” Avital said he immediately “clicked” with the fast-talking ambassador.
He invited Moustapha to a wedding, which is where Moustapha issued his invitation to the delegation to visit Syria. Both men insist that the visit was more a natural homecoming for an ancient Jewish community than a tool of statecraft. Yet they acknowledge the implications of the visit. “If both sides asked us to be a bridge, we would gladly do it,” Avital said. He said that one highlight of the trip was the delegation’s meeting with Assad. “The president said that when the Jews left the country, Syria became unblessed,” he said. It wasn’t the delegation’s place to bring up political issues, Avital said, and, with one exception, the group devoted its time to seeking out sites of Jewish interest.
The exception was when delegates raised a report that Assad told Pope John Paul II in 2000 that the Jews were responsible for killing Jesus. Assad denied the report, Avital said, and said his remarks had been taken out of context. Otherwise, Avital and Moustapha said, the three-day visit was dedicated to reconnecting people that Moustapha describes as “expatriates” with their homeland. What most impressed the delegation, Avital said, was the pristine condition of the Jewish sites. Avital is known for his work preserving Jewish cemeteries in North Africa and Europe, and he was impressed by the state of the ancient cemeteries in Syria, producing snapshots of rows of gleaming white tombstones. Avital and Moustapha also were impressed with the warm reception the delegation received outside the palace.
Moustapha was relieved that the visit had gone well. “In the plane, I was thinking, ‘What if I’m wrong, what if people will treat them badly?’ ” Moustapha said. “I know that the government will treat them well, officially speaking, but what about popular reaction, what if the president is nice with them but then the people are abusing them in the street? It will undermine my whole effort.” Instead, both men say, the reception was universally warm. Upon learning that the delegation was Jewish, people rushed forward to ask the group for its blessings. A Damascus restaurant went out of its way to order meat from a glatt kosher butcher. Avital singled out the mufti of Aleppo, who at a dinner for the delegation recounted tales of Jewish-Muslim cooperation and said that religious schools included in their text a legendary tale of Jewish-Muslim resistance to Persian tyranny. “‘Jews are royalty,’ the Mufti said, ‘their word is true,’ ” Avital said. “With the Arabs, you give respect, and you receive respect.”