Jews in Syria say life easier, but few are left
Brooke Anderson/Special to the Chronicle
Even though most of his friends and relatives have left, Albert Cameo says he will never abandon Syria.
“My family has always been here,” said Cameo, 68, a retired tailor and president of Syria’s estimated 200-member Jewish community. “It’s important for some of us to stay here to keep our traditions.”
Most Jewish Syrians left in waves after the creation of Israel in 1948 and the enactment of harsh Syrian laws barring them from owning property, withdrawing funds from bank accounts and traveling.
“If they had let Jews go back and forth, no one would have left,” said Joey Allaham, 34, who visited Syria last summer for the first time since leaving in 1992.
Like Allaham, who owns a chain of restaurants in New York, many Syrian Jews migrated to the United States. But others are scattered around the globe, residing in Europe, Israel and Latin America. Those who stayed behind say they did so because of advanced age, health issues, reluctance to move or unwillingness to face an uncertain future.
Today, a reporter must solicit permission from both the ministry of information and Syrian intelligence service to visit the lone functioning synagogue in the old Jewish Quarter in Damascus, which at its height had some 20 temples. The neighborhood is characterized by abandoned and dilapidated buildings and shuttered storefronts.
“It is very depressing to walk down the empty streets,” said Allaham.
Most Jews are elderly and many residents are Palestinians, some of whom still pay rent to expatriate Jewish landlords through the United Nations.
Ahmad Ghaneim, a Palestinian Muslim, says most of his Jewish neighbors left in 1992 after the late President Hafez Assad lifted a 45-year travel restriction on Jewish Syrians, which marked the last wave of Jewish emigration from the country.
“It was very difficult when they left because they were my good friends,” Ghaneim recalled. “When one family left, their relatives followed.”
On many Saturday mornings, a visitor can find as many as a dozen people praying at the lone synagogue under the protection of police security. And when Amin Halwani, a 53-year-old tailor, left a recent service with his skullcap still atop his head, a police officer reminded him to take it off to avoid attracting attention on the streets.
“Thirty years ago, life was difficult. If the police walked by our house, we trembled. That’s why people left,” recalled 70-year-old Rachel Cameo, Albert’s sister. “Now, they are here to protect us. Everything is easier.”
In a recent e-mail message, Imad Moustapha, Syrian ambassador to the United States, told The Chronicle that “all properties owned by Syrian Jews have been left untouched for when they choose to visit or return.”
Political motive seen
Some observers see a political motive for the police protection and comments by the ambassador.
The government of President Bashar Assad – Hafez Assad’s son – is well aware that persecution of the nation’s remaining Jews could create international pressure at a time when he is seeking rapprochement with the United States and a possible peace deal with Israel.
To date, few Syrian Jews have accepted the invitation to return home.
Allaham says returning to Syria would be impractical for him and others who have established careers and families abroad.
And Ephraim Gabbai, associate rabbi at the Syrian congregation Magen David in lower Manhattan, says many are still afraid to return no matter what the Syrian government says.
“I would be scared to reveal my faith publicly,” he said.
Stanley Urman, executive editor of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, a New York coalition of 27 Jewish organizations, says any peace agreement with Israel should include the issue of compensation for Syrian Jews who left clandestinely during the long travel ban. The World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, a group affiliated with Urman’s coalition, estimates the value of confiscated Jewish property throughout the Arab world at more than $100 billion.
“It’s a matter of principle,” said Urman. “Elements on both sides need reconciliation.”
In 2007, Urman’s group lobbied the U.S. Congress to pass House Resolution 185, which granted first-time-ever recognition to Jewish refugees from Arab countries. The resolution affirms that the U.S. government must recognize that all victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict be treated equally when negotiating peace agreements.
Meanwhile, Rachael Cameo hopes some Jews will return and help restore the Jewish Quarter to its former glory.
“In the afternoon, people would sit outside their front doors with coffee and sweets,” she recalled with sad nostalgia. “They would dress well just to visit each other.”
Most Jews arrived in Syria after being expelled from Spain in 1492 for refusing to convert to Christianity.
At its height, the Jewish community in Damascus had 20 synagogues. But life for many became intolerable with the onset of the international Zionist movement and the anti-Jewish sentiment that followed throughout the Middle East.
After the creation of Israel in 1948, some 860,000 Jews were forced to flee their native lands and properties in Arab nations in an exodus that didn’t end until around 1970.
Jews were stripped of their citizenship in Egypt, Iraq, Algeria and Libya; detained or arrested in Algeria, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq and Egypt; deprived of employment by government decrees in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Algeria, and had their property confiscated in all Arab countries except Morocco, according to Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, a New York-based alliance of 27 Jewish organizations.
Anti-Jewish riots were widespread. In Syria, pogroms in 1947 drove 7,000 of 10,000 Jewish residents of the city of Aleppo into exile. Subsequent laws barred Jews from purchasing and selling land and froze their bank accounts. Syria’s Judaic treasures were smuggled out, including a Bible written in 1260 known as the Aleppo Codex that is now in the National Library in Jerusalem.
For those who remained in Syria, the situation changed dramatically after President Hafez Assad assumed power in a bloodless coup in 1970 and lifted restrictive laws under intense U.S. pressure. The word Mossawi – Arabic for follower of Moses – was removed from Syrian Jews’ identity cards. Domestic travel restrictions were lifted, as were restrictions on Jewish businesses and the buying and selling of property.
Today, only about 200 Jews remain in Syria, mostly elderly and almost all Damascus residents.
— Brooke Anderson
Syrian Jewish history
— 1000 B.C.: Some historians believe Jews have inhabited Syria since the time of King David. According to one legend, David built the first synagogue in the city of Aleppo, now part of northern Syria.
— 300 B.C.: Dura-Europos, a Greek colony on the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, is built. Today, it is considered the site of the earliest known Jewish Diaspora synagogue. Its frescoes are in the National Museum in Damascus.
— 1492: Jews expelled from Spain begin arriving in Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world, marking the beginning of Jewish Sephardic culture in the Arab world.
— 1840: Thirteen prominent Jews are falsely accused of the ritual murder of a Franciscan monk and his servant. The “Damascus Affair” inspires international protests.
— 1947: Arsonists burn down a synagogue in Aleppo during the buildup to the first Arab-Israeli war, following a U.N. resolution calling for the creation of Arab and Jewish states in Palestine.
— 1948: The state of Israel is established, and restrictive laws against Jews are enacted across the Arab world marking a new era in mass emigration of some 800,000 Jews.
— 1949: A bomb explodes at a synagogue in Damascus, killing 12.
— 1973: Canadian Judy Feld Carr establishes a network to help Syrian Jews barred from traveling leave the country clandestinely. She uses donated funds to negotiate their release with Syrian government. Over 28 years, she is credited with helping more than 3,000 Jews leave Syria.
— 1976: President Hafez Assad lifts most restrictions on Jews.
— 1992: President Assad allows many Syrian Jews to travel abroad freely after nearly 45 years of official prohibition from leaving the country.
— 1994: Many remaining Jews leave Syria after negotiations with newly elected U.S. President Bill Clinton pave the way for exit visas.
— 2007: Syria’s Grand Mufti Ahmad Bader Hassoun publicly states that Syrian Jews are welcome to return home.
– Brooke Anderson