Behind the Headlines: Syrian Jews Newly Arrived in Israel Find Life Hard, but Have No Regrets

HAVE NO REGRETS Gabi Hakim has a butcher shop on Sokolov Street in downtown Holon, where he sells spicy kubbeh and other Arab Specialties, along with more standard Israeli fare.

Hakim is one of the approximately 1,260 Syrian Jews brought here from New York since April 1992, in a secret operation of the Jewish Agency for Israel. Most of the families have already bought apartments with subsidized mortgages and settled in Holon and Bat Yam, small cities near Tel Aviv.

The Israeli government recently lifted the censorship on the quiet but systematic exodus of 3,800 Jews from Syria since 1992, most of whom went to the United States. But fear and caution stubbornly persist among those who subsequently made aliyah.

In allowing Jews to leave beginning in 1992, Syrian President Hafez Assad specifically prohibited their going to Israel.

For his part, Hakim, 42, will talk to a reporter only if his real name is not used. He deeply fears reprisals in Syria, where one daughter, age 16, remains with her husband and 2-year-old child.

Nonetheless, Hakim, who sports a blood-stained apron and a black yarmulke, insisted that “life was good” in Syria. “We had good relations with the Arabs,” even though “they always talked about wanting to destroy Israel.”

He chose to leave, he said, because he was always a Zionist and believed Israel was “Gan Eden,” the Garden of Eden. And he says he hasn’t been disappointed by the reality, despite the hardships.

“I eat sand here, but there’s no other place in the world like Israel,” said Hakim, using a colloquialism in the Hebrew he learned in Syria. “If you’ve never lived outside (Israel), you can’t appreciate it.”

Hakim arrived with his family in Israel in June of last year, after leaving Damascus for New York in 1992. He bought an apartment six months ago.

“New York was nice, but we never thought of staying,” said Hakim. Nonetheless, he is dismayed by the high taxes and is carefully guarding his children against what he believes are the dangerous influences of modern Israeli culture.

He is also bitterly disappointed by what he charges is the unresponsiveness of the local Association of Syrian Jews.

For their part, members of the association, which is funded by the Jewish Agency but is independent, say they have been overwhelmed by the demands of the immigrants and are doing the best they can.

“There is a problem,” said Moshe Sasson, former Israeli ambassador to Egypt and now volunteer president of the association. He says there are now not enough resources to meet all the needs of the community.

“There is a proverb in Arabic, that you stretch your legs according to the length of your mattress, and our mattress is short,” Sasson said.

He added that he would like to see the current budget of about $60,000 increased to $500,000.

He says the organization has recently undertaken a survey of every new Syrian immigrant family to determine its problems and needs. He will use the results, expected in a few weeks, to request more funding from the Jewish Agency.

Eliyahu Atiah is a cousin of Hakim who was born in Israel of parents who escaped from Syria in the 1940s. He is an active volunteer with the immigrant organization, which he acknowledge is short-staffed.

Indeed, his storefront real estate office, also on Sokolov Street, seems to function as an unofficial clearinghouse for any problems which arise for the new immigrants.

He has sold many of them apartments and found many of them jobs. A veteran Israeli in the heating and refrigeration business has just dropped off his card along with a request for two workers he needs.

“I am a tired man,” said Atiah with a slight smile. “The state and the Jewish Agency give, but not enough. The immigrants come from a very undeveloped country. They have no idea about banks, mortgages, absorption. I have to explain the system and teach them.”

“The Jewish Agency and the Absorption Ministry have worked hard to put together `combination packages’ of assistance that meet the basic needs of every Syrian family,” said Arnon Mantver, director-general of the Jewish Agency’s Department of Aliyah and Klitah.

“The Association (of Syrian Jews) is supposed to soften the landing,” he said. But he concedes the ground is rocky. The immigrants must cope with the “immediate tension” posed by the large size of their families and the small incomes of many who have opened small businesses.

He also said the secrecy that has enveloped their aliyah until now has inhibited the full coordination of resources and agencies that could accelerate their absorption.

In fact, the immigrants from Syria receive more absorption benefits than those from the former Soviet Union, based on a policy adopted by an interministerial committee headed by Shimon Sheves, director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office.

The policy reflects a recognition of the special hardships the Syrian community underwent to get out of Syria and the restrictions placed on the money and property they could bring out, according to a spokeswoman for the Absorption Ministry.

Beyond the regular “absorption basket” of assistance to newcomers, she said, each Syrian family gets a supplemental $250 a month for a year. The Syrians also receive a 98 percent government mortgage, 85 percent of which is a grant.

Ninety percent of the families have already bought apartments, while fewer than 100 people remain in the absorption centers run by the Jewish Agency, noted Mantver.

“Their motivation to be absorbed is very strong,” said Naomi Behm, a Jewish Agency-employed social worker at the absorption center in Ra’anana. “They are not spoiled. They want to work and have their two feet on the ground. And they help each other within the community.”

Zion Zelta, 36, is newly arrived and already installed with his family in their own apartment in Holon. Zelta says he waited 12 years to come to Israel and left everything behind.

“It is hard for us here,” he admitted, “but we have to get used to it,” he said.

In Syria, Zelta crafted elaborate brass fixtures. His art, which he says was a specialty of Syrian Jews, earned him regular commissions from Arab royalty, foreign consulates and top hotels.

Here, he has found work with a manufacturer of more ordinary lighting. He says money is tight, but he has no regrets.

“I knew it was a hard life here because of the wars and because it is new. All countries have problems at the start. The most important thing is that it is a Jewish state,” he said.

At the same time Zelta bemoans the lack of religiosity in Israel. The spirit of the Jewish holidays was stronger in Syria, he says.

“I thought everyone was religious here,” he said. “But they don’t know anything, and they barbecue on Shabbat!”

His wife Simcha, 29, is sometimes nostalgic for Damascus. “There were Muslims in my building who were nice to us and cried when we left,” she recalled.

“Still, I don’t really know what they were thinking (about us) inside. God Forbid they should know we were coming to Israel,” she said.

Rozette Bagdadi, 37, also has mixed feelings. She left Damascus for New York with her husband and three children in late 1992 and arrived in Israel in August of last year.

In fluid Hebrew learned in an ulpan in Bat Yam, she says she was glad to leave Syria. Even though “it was better for the Jews in recent years,” she said, “we were afraid the bad times would return.”

At the same time, her husband, a doctor, has not worked in two years and is very frustrated, she said. She is hoping that Rabbi Avraham Hamra,, the community’s spiritual leaders in Damascus, who arrived here last month, will help them.

Meanwhile, “I believe it will be okay,” she said. “This is our country and there’s nowhere else to go.”

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