73 Senators Sign a Letter to Clinton Urging Pressure on Syria to Free Jews

A letter from 73 senators to President Clinton voicing concern over Syria’s withholding of travel visas from its Jews has returned the issue of Syrian Jewry to the public arena.

The May 20 letter, spearheaded by Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), urged Clinton “to press Syria to honor its commitment to allow Jews the right to travel freely.”

Syrian President Hafez Assad made that commitment more than a year ago, after years in which the 3,500 Jews of Syria were severely restricted or barred from overseas travel and emigration.

But between last October and January 1993, not a single one of the 1,400 Jews remaining in Syria were granted travel visas. In recent months, only a handful of Jews have been given exit papers each week.

“Syria’s failure to abide by its promised change in visa policy for its Jewish community, continued support for terrorist groups, as well as its failure to abide by the Taif agreement by withdrawing from Lebanon last September — present clear obstacles to closer relations, including removal from the terrorism list,” the senatorial letter said.

The letter follows months of quiet diplomacy by U.S. officials and other interlocutors, among them the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

SYRIA DENIES CHANGE IN POLICY

Syrian officials had denied that there had been any change in their policy, insisting that only bureaucratic delays were involved.

Jewish groups did not credit this explanation.

More recently, in possible tandem with the shift to allowing limited travel visas, Syrian officials have offered a different explanation.

The Canadian ambassador to Syria, Martin Collacutt, met recently with Syrian officials to discuss the issue, as has his American counterpart.

Collacutt reported being told that the reason for the delay is that those Jews who left in 1992 did so without settling their debts, according to Judy Feld Carr, chairman of the Canadian Jewish Congress’ Task Force on Syrian Jewry.

The bureaucratic process now in place was “to ensure that this does not recur,” Carr said in reporting what Collacutt told her.

She said the ambassador told the Syrians that Canadian policy continues to demand accelerated exit permits.

Since the end of the free-travel policy, Jewish groups have been reluctant to criticize Syria too loudly, fearing that an outcry might harden Assad’s position and lead him to formalize the travel ban and slowdown.

And, while they deny any specific linkage between travel — a human right issue, and the Syrian-Israeli peace talks — a political issue, Jewish groups hesitated to raise the issue too publicly until the completion of the ninth round of talks this month. This round was the first since Clinton’s inauguration.

The senatorial letter comes as Jewish groups have decided to go public once again with the issue.

“Perhaps this letter by a distinguished bipartisan group of United States senators will convince Mr. Assad that he can no longer defy our country with impunity,” said Seymour Reich, who heads a task force on Syrian Jewry convened by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

“President Clinton will now be able to make it abundantly clear that he speaks not only for his administration but for the United States Senate as well, when he presses the Syrian government,” said Alice Sardell Harary, president of the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews.

The council was formed by members of the Syrian Jewish community in the New York area.

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