NEW YORK (Apr. 26)
Syria may soon permit its 4,500 Jews to emigrate, according to reports circulating among Syrian Jewish emigres here and in Israel.
Syrian Jews, long denied permission to emigrate, reportedly were given word on April 23 that they are now free to leave.
Radio Damascus later reported that their release was imminent.
Israel Radio reported Sunday that three Jewish families left Syria for the United States last week.
There was no confirmation, and the radio admitted it was too early to say if that was the start of an exodus.
The anticipation and excitement in emigre circles here and in Israel is tinged with fear, as Syrian Jewry activists caution that only seeing is believing.
There has so far been no official confirmation from Syrian government sources.
In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir confirmed that there are “indications” that the Syrian government is prepared to permit Jews to travel freely abroad or emigrate if they wish.
Shamir spoke at the weekly Cabinet meeting, where the issue was raised after the morning’s newspapers ran the reported Syrian policy change on their front pages.
The reports made their way to Israel from Brooklyn’s large Syrian Jewish community.
Damascus Jews had telephoned relatives in Brooklyn with the news that senior police officials have informed them that henceforth Jews would have the same travel rights as all Syrian citizens.
According to those who received the calls, the Damascus Jews sounded free of fear and inhibitions over the telephone, which in itself suggests that a major policy change is under way.
‘TEST IS SEEING PEOPLE COME OUT’
“We’re hoping it’s true,” said Seymour Reich, chairman of the Task Force on Syrian Jewry of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
But he added: “We have not had any confirmation from Damascus or our State Department.”
Reich said the indication of a real policy shift would be if whole families are permitted to leave, without being required to leave a family member behind.
Currently, Syrian Jews are permitted to travel abroad, but only if they leave behind both a deposit of several thousand dollars and a family member who can serve in effect as a hostage for their return.
In addition, the process of applying for the required passport and visa can take years.
“At this point, the litmus test is seeing the people come out in numbers,” said Alice Harary, president of the Council for Rescue of Syrian Jews.
“The Jewish community in Brooklyn is ready for them,” she said.
Observers in Israel said that if Syria does indeed show that its Jews can leave, that could have a favorable effect on the bilateral talks between Israel and Syria, which resume Monday in Washington.
Israel is also meeting with Lebanese, Jordanian and Palestinian negotiating teams.
There has also been speculation that Syrian President Hafez Assad may be making gestures to the Jewish community and Western public opinion to balance his overtures to Libya and threatened defiance of the American-led sanctions against the North African country.
The reports that Syrian Jews have been given the right to leave followed by a week the release on Passover eve of the last two Syrian Jews held in prison, Eli and Selim Swed, brothers who had been jailed since 1987.
Jewish groups credited international pressure for their freedom. Four other imprisoned Syrian Jews were released in December as part of a general amnesty.
In Canada, longtime activist Judy Feld Carr refused to be caught up in euphoria.
“The only worthwhile news story respecting the emigration of Syrian Jewry is when they’re actually leaving. Until that exodus, everything is sheer speculation,” said Carr, who has been involved in the Syrian Jewry movement for 21 years.
(Contributing to this report were JTA correspondents David Landau in Jerusalem and Gil Kezwer in Toronto.)