WASHINGTON (Apr. 27)
Syria’s decision to lift travel restrictions on its 4,500-member Jewish community is being hailed by U.S. and Israeli government officials, who are hopeful that it will enable Syrian Jews to emigrate and reunite with family members abroad.
Israeli Deputy Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the announced change of policy as a “positive development” and thanked world governments and Jewish activists for pressing Syria to treat its Jewish population favorably.
News of the Syrian policy change was first reported over the weekend by Syrian emigres in the United States and Israel who had spoken to family members in Damascus. It was confirmed Monday by Bush administration officials.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the administration had “obtained official confirmation from the Syrian government on Saturday of the lifting of restrictions on travel and disposition of property for the Syrian Jewish community.”
That was corroborated by State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler, who added: “We have been told by the Syrian government that these measures have already been put into effect.”
But Syria’s chief negotiator at the Arab-Israeli peace talks here told reporters Monday he knew nothing about the policy change.
“We do not have the so-called problem of the Jewish community in Syria,” said Muwaffak Allaf. “We do not classify our citizens on the basis of their religion.”
Until now, Syrian Jews have been 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.
STILL NO TRAVEL TO ISRAEL
The new policy will allow Syrian Jews to “travel abroad as a family, on business and for vacation,” Tutwiler said. In that respect, “all members of the Syrian Jewish community will now be accorded the same rights as those afforded to all other Syrian citizens.”
But Tutwiler pointed out that “Syrian law continues to prohibit travel to Israel” and emigration is still officially barred.
Israel Radio quoted Syria’s chief rabbi Monday as saying that the Jewish community expected to receive written confirmation of the policy changes within four to five days.
In an interview from Paris, Rabbi Alber Ibrahim Hamara said several Syrian Jewish families had already applied to leave the country.
What is not clear is what will happen if those permitted to leave decide not to return.
Some observers suggest that Syrian President Hafez Assad is purposely leaving the travel law ambiguous, knowing full well that Jews who take advantage of it will emigrate.
Others say he may be laying a trap and could later reimpose the travel restrictions if Jews violate the official ban on emigration.
Tutwiler said the United States “would like to see free emigration” for all residents of Syria.
But Syrian Jewry activists will likely be satisfied if Assad allows Jews to emigrate, regardless of whether he alters Syrian law to officially allow it.
Gilbert Kahn, executive director of the New York-based Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews, praised the Syrian policy change. He said the notion that “Jews will be treated like other Syrian citizens” in a non-discriminatory manner is especially significant.
“This is a wonderful development and a goal for which we have labored mightily,” B’nai B’rith International President Kent Schiner said in a statement.
The fate of Syrian Jews, in fact, has been the leading cause of groups concerned with oppressed Jewry since the Soviet Union began allowing hundreds of thousands of Jews to emigrate and in the aftermath of the Operation Moses and Operation Solomon rescues of Ethiopian Jews.
The next focus of attention could well be the Jews left in Yemen.
U.S. DIPLOMACY CREDITED
Syria’s decision to ease travel restrictions against its Jewish population is being seen as part of an overall effort to improve its image in the West and particularly the United States, following the disintegration of its former benefactor, the Soviet Union.
Other recent attempts to improve its image are support for the U.S.-led effort to oust Iraq from Kuwait and its decision to meet face to face with Israel in comprehensive peace talks.
More recently, Syria has received negative publicity from reports that it, and not Libya, may have masterminded the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Tutwiler tied Syria’s policy change to an April 13 meeting Assad had in Damascus with Chief Rabbi Hamara. She said it was the first meeting between the Syrian president and Jewish community leaders since 1976 and that it led to the April 19 release of the last two Jews held in Syrian prisons, Eli and Selim Swed.
Tutwiler and Fitzwater credited U.S. diplomacy with helping produce the change in Syrian policy. They cited a November 1990 meeting President Bush had in Geneva with Assad and Secretary of State James Baker’s eight visits to Syria last year. On one of those visits, Baker and Assad discussed Syrian Jewry for more than an hour, Tutwiler said.
Baker’s meeting “focused on the release of the Swed brothers, granting exit visas for unmarried Jewish women and reunited divided families,” she said.
In a statement Monday, the American Jewish Congress thanked Bush and Baker for “their persistent efforts in moving ever closer to making this decades-long dream of freedom for Syria’s Jews a reality.”
Members of the U.S. Congress have also sent numerous letters to Syrian leaders and raised the emigration issue on visits to Damascus. In March, 69 senators led by Sen. Edward’ Kennedy (D-Mass.) wrote Assad urging him to ease emigration restrictions, among other policy changes.