Assad Statement on Right of Jews to Leave Syria Greeted Skeptically

A statement made by Syrian President Hafez Assad that Jews are free to leave his country as long as they do not go to Israel has been greeted with skepticism by Israeli officials and American Jewish advocacy groups.

“Everybody in Syria, including Syrian Jews, enjoys the right to leave the country,” Assad was quoted Thursday as telling a Lebanese parliamentary delegation.

The remark was reported by the conservative Beirut daily Al-Anwar and billed by Western news agencies as signaling a major policy reversal by the Damascus government on Syrian Jewry.

But that is not how Israeli officials and leaders of American Jewish organizations saw it.

“In the Middle East, talk is cheap,” cautioned Ilan Mor, an Israeli representative to the United Nations who last month raised the plight of Syria’s 4,500 Jews before the world body.

“We’ve seen these ploys in the past, so we shouldn’t jump at it,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“We’re trying to corroborate the statement on the ground,” said Gilbert Kahn, executive director of the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews. “We intend to monitor Syria’s actions on this issue very closely.”

“We hope that this represents a true change in Syria’s policy,” said Seymour Reich, chairman of the National Task Force on Syrian Jewry. “But experience makes us skeptical, as similar statements in the past have proven false.

“The validity of President Assad’s declaration,” he said, “can be judged by whether Syrian Jews are permitted to leave freely, without condition, in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

In Washington, an official at the Syrian press center told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency he could “confirm that the Syrians are permitted to travel. This includes the Jews,” he said.

“This seems to be a new policy,” he added.

But he could not confirm that this means the Jews would now be allowed to emigrate freely.

PROMISES BROKEN IN THE PAST

In recent years, Syrian Jews have been allowed to travel abroad. But they are required to post hefty bonds to ensure their return, and their families are effectively held hostage.

Two Syrian Jews remain in jail for allegedly visiting Israel. Four other Syrians held in jail were released at the end of last month, as part of a general amnesty extended to over 700 prisoners in honor of Assad’s uncontested re-election to a fourth term.

In the face of public pressure, Syria has in the past made promises concerning its Jewish population that it has not kept. These include a pledge to the U.S. State Department in 1989 that it would look favorably on emigration requests from Jewish women unable to find husbands.

But according to Syrian Jewry advocates, Jewish women have not been allowed to leave.

In Washington, the Syrian delegation to the peace talks with Israel on Thursday denied that Syria persecutes its Jewish population. A similar denial was offered by Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa last month during the Middle East peace conference in Madrid.

During the Israeli-Syrian talks Thursday, Israel raised the subject of Syrian Jewry, according to Yossi Olmert, a member of the Israeli team. The Israelis complained of discrimination against the Jews, and urged that at the least, family reunification be permitted.

According to Olmert, the Syrians denied there was any discrimination against Jews. The Syrians further said it was no business of the Israelis, and told them: Don’t bring it up again, said Olmert.

(JTA correspondent David Friedman in Washington contributed to this report.)

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