NEW YORK (Feb. 21)
Syria’s halt in granting travel visas to its Jewish community was expected to have been discussed in the high-level U.S.-Syrian meetings held in Damascus over the weekend, advocates for Syrian Jewry say.
The activists say that both U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Edward Djerejian, a former ambassador to Syria who is now the assistant secretary of state responsible for the Middle East, had been approached on the matter.
Since Oct. 20, Syria has almost entirely stopped allowing Jews to leave the country, reversing a 6-month-old policy of permitting free travel abroad for Jews.
“About three a week come out, sporadically, but they’re up to the old trick of keeping family members behind,” said Seymour Reich, president of the American Zionist Movement and head of the Task Force on Syrian Jewry of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Reich and others say that behind Syrian President Hafez. Assad’s election-eve reversal of the free travel policy was a desire to renegotiate the terms of the deal he had achieved with then-President Bush. The free travel policy was first announced through the White House last April.
On the campaign trail, Bill Clinton took a tougher line against Syria than did the Bush administration. Christopher’s Middle East visit is the first chance for the new administration and Assad to size each other up. It is a pivotal moment, therefore, for the 1,450 Jews remaining in Syria, of whom 1,000 seek travel visas.
Activists are deliberately keeping a low profile on the issue, “to give Christopher an opportunity,” said Reich.
They also want to avoid being seen as “bashing” Syria.
In addition to the expected representations from the State Department, the campaign is being fought through Congress, where lawmakers are being asked to make one-minute statements from the floor of the House of Representatives on behalf of Syrian Jews and convey their concerns to the Syrian ambassador.
“We want to be clear to Assad that we will not forget what he promised,” said Abraham Bayer, a member of the task force and director of international concerns for the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.