The Untold Story of Syrian Jewry: Hundreds of Syrian Jews Escaped During the Decades of Oppression

On June 8, 1956, a secret meeting of Jewish groups was convened in Paris.

The topic: Syrian Jewry.

It had been five years since a massive wave of illegal emigration had been shut off, and 4,000 Jews remained trapped within the borders of Israel’s staunchest enemy.

Now, the situation seemed as dark as in late 1947 and early 1948, when Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed by rioters and synagogues were bombed.

Syria was undergoing internal turmoil, as factions and parties feuded.

“There were three or four different secret service organizations, each one watching the other,” said Don Peretz, professor emeritus of Middle Eastern studies at the State University of New York in Binghamton, in an interview this week. “The Syrian Jews were under the auspices of one that the (ruling) Ba’ath party didn’t have too good relations with.”

The meeting in Paris was convened by the Alliance Israelite Universelle, a French Jewish organization that had long maintained a school in Damascus.

Present at the meeting were representatives of the American Jewish Committee, the British Board of Jewish Deputies, the Anglo-Jewish Association, B’nai B’rith, the Jewish Labor Committee, Agudath Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The group decided to avoid publicizing the peril facing Syrian Jews. Instead, it decided to seek intervention from Western governments on behalf of the Jews, and to ask those governments to grant entry permits to Syrian refugees.

At the meeting in Paris, the Jewish groups decided to investigate “the matter of rescue, by kosher or unkosher means,” according to a summary of the proceedings.

SYRIA MADE OVERTURES ABOUT EMIGRATION

With the help of various Jewish organizations, illegal emigration took place throughout the 1950s and ’60s.

There were also various times when Syria made overtures toward legalizing emigration.

One such time came at the end of 1956 –perhaps in response to the Western governmental pressure the Jewish groups had sought.

But the terms of Syria’s announced policy of legalized departures were stiff.

Syria demanded that those wishing to leave renounce their Syrian nationality, donate their real estate to the Organization of Arab Refugees of Palestine and pay an indemnification of several hundred dollars for males who were escaping military service. By the end of that year, only about 10 families had left. Others wanted to go– but couldn’t raise the funds.

Another, more promising window of opportunity apparently opened in 1962.

The JDC “had every reason to believe that there would be a considerable movement of Jews out of Syria in the course of the foreseeable future,” wrote Charles Jordan, then executive vice chairman of the JDC on Feb. 12, turning down a request for $2,000 to build more classrooms in Syria.

But the operation started to go wrong.

Reports told of a number of young people leaving the country illegally who were caught, brought back to Damascus and tortured to terrify the rest of the community.

By the end of the year, according to the WZO, 620 Jews had reached Israel. But hundreds more were ready to leave.

The consequences of this large-scale, but clandestine, emigration were at the center of what was JDC’s first direct trip to Syria since the creation of the State of Israel.

Traveling as a tourist in 1963, the JDC’s Jordan met with Jewish communities throughout the Middle East.

On his visit, Jordan discovered that the Syrians had arrested a group who had been smuggling Jews out through Aleppo to Turkey.

As the JTA was to report on Oct. 10, 1963, based on the rare testimony of a “French Jewish tourist” returning from a three-month stay in Syria, “a number of Jews were in the Damascus central jail, awaiting trial early in 1964 on a variety of charges, including ‘attempted illegal exit’ and Zionist leanings.’ “

The illegal exodus also had ramifications in neighboring Beirut, which still had a very small, but relatively stable, Jewish community.

The JDC helped free Syrian Jews imprisoned for arriving in Lebanon without proper papers.

The organization also hired a lawyer and posted bail for Albert Elia, secretary-general of the Lebanese Jewish community, who was charged with treason and faced the death penalty for aiding the Syrian Jews. Elia was acquitted.

A new era in the relationship of American and Syrian Jews opened up after 1970, when Hafez Assad took power in a coup. In America, meanwhile, as the Soviet Jewry movement was speaking up, the decision was made to include Syrian Jewry on the American Jewish communal agenda.

ASSAD CONSIDERED BETTER THAN PREDECESSORS

“At that point we were uncertain of how to proceed, whether in public demonstrations or more covertly, under the assumption they were able to get out covertly, one by one,” recalled Phil Baum, the executive director of the American Jewish Congress who in the early 1970s chaired the subcommission on Syrian Jewry of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

“We were told there were opportunities for them to leave, to get across the mountains, and they were doing so,” he said. So street rallies were put in abeyance, only scheduled when there was a crackdown on the illegal emigration.

From early on, Syria’s Jews considered Assad an improvement over his predecessors, according to Ambassador Richard Murphy, who represented the United States in Damascus from 1974 to 1978.

“It was linked to Assad’s attitudes to minorities in the country, as a president himself from a minority,” said Murphy.

Assad is a member of Syria’s Alawite minority.

In 1974, when Assad met with a delegation of Jews including Rabbi Avraham Hamra, who would soon become the community’s chief rabbi.

Assad was “all ears,” Hamra related this week in a New York interview, before his departure to Israel on Monday.

“From that time, it got better, slowly slowly,” he said.

Assad quickly dropped restrictions on travel within Syria, quotas in universities and restrictions on commerce.

That same year, the United States and Syria restored diplomatic ties broken in 1967. And with formal channels open between Washington and Damascus, “we expressed our concern” about the Syrian Jews, recalled Murphy, who is now a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations.

In Canada, meanwhile, Judy Feld Carr had formed a committee to help Syrian Jews, after reading an account of 12 Jewish boys killed while crossing a minefield in their flight from Syrian. She sent a telegram to Hamra in Damascus, asking what the Syrian Jews wanted from Canada.

“Surprisingly enough, he answered,” recalled Carr this week.

ASSAD BEGINS PERMITTING EMIGRATION

This was the beginning of what was to become, over the years, “hundreds of thousands of dollars of religious books, talleisim and tefillin. The first box was sent in 1972, and every single box was received without exception.”

A sea change for the Syrian community took place in 1977. Rep. Stephen Solarz (D.-N.Y.) and President Jimmy Carter had both taken up the issue. And Assad began permitting travel both in and out of Syria.

For the JDC, this meant an opportunity to make direct contact with the Syrian Jews they had been indirectly aiding.

Stephen Shalom, the son of Syrian emigre to Brooklyn, traveled to Syria, surveying the need of the Jews there. In Kamichli, where 400 Jews lived near the Turkish border 10 hours away from Aleppo, Shalom was greeted with an ecstatic torchlight celebration.

“I suddenly saw the rabbi sort of drawing something out from his side, and before I knew it, he had slaughtered a lamb in my honor,” said Shalom. “Blood was running down the steps of the synagogue. They later gave me the skin.”

By 1980, Hamra was able to visit New York, a trip he would make several times. At one point in the 1980s, Hamra quietly sent two students to America to study to be kosher butchers.

And while Assad continued to forbid emigration, and ensured that complete families would not leave the country, he put in place new policies that resulted in a quiet migration of hundreds of Syrian Jews over the next decade.

Visas were given out to hundreds of young women, unable to find husbands in Syria because so many young Jewish men had left the country.

Others were given travel permits under special circumstances, such as the need for medical treatment.

And others forfeited the high bond they were required to post to guarantee their return and settled in New York.

“They used me as a test case,” said Mayer Ballas, who left Syria in December 1977.

“I had to pay a lot of money. I had to leave a $10,000 bond to come out and study,” said Ballas.

Feld Carr’s funds, supported by donors across Canada, began helping Syrian Jews take advantage of these new opportunities for emigration.

“There were payments for everybody, that’s for sure,” she said. “The payments varied; there was no consistent amount,” but they ran to the thousands of dollars.

“It was really, really sensitive, really quiet work,” she said.

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