NEW YORK, June 13 (JTA) — As the funeral of Hafez Assad neared, two Sephardi Jewish leaders from Brooklyn rushed to Kennedy airport, armed with private invitations to the ceremony for the late Syrian president.
Assad dealt “earnestly and honestly with the Jewish community,” said one of the men, Jack Kassin. His father, Saul Jacob Kassin, is a leading rabbi for the Syrian Jewish community in the United States.
In the end, the two men did not go because they received word that their security could not be assured.
But their support for Assad, who died Saturday at the age of 69, remained strong.
“All the Syrian Jews love Assad,” Kassin said.
To many Jews, Kassin’s words may sound unbelievable. Assad was known for his brutal human rights record, his support for international terrorism and his unwillingness to make peace with Israel.
Assad’s legacy is “wretched,” said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank. “It’s hard to find anything positive to say about his legacy.”
Pipes noted not only human rights abuses under Assad’s watch, but also the increased militarization of Syrian society and the country’s recent economic decline.
But Kassin was not the only recent Syrian Jewish emigre in Brooklyn, the largest enclave of Syrian Jews in the United States, to express some admiration for Assad.
In conversations with JTA this week, several thanked Assad for allowing them to leave. They dodged questions about Assad’s poor relations with Israel and offered support for his handpicked successor, his son Bashar.
Syrian Jews, mostly from the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, first came in significant numbers to this country in the beginning of the 20th century.
Since then, many have built successful careers in the clothing and jewelry businesses.
More than 30,000 — about 90 percent of the Syrian Jews in the United States, according to Sephardi Jewish activists — live comfortably, in red brick and stucco homes with well-manicured lawns, in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn.
They are observant — their synagogues and Jewish schools dot the wide boulevards of Ocean Parkway and Coney Island Avenue — and insular.
“They really stick to each other like glue,” said Janice Ovadiah, the executive director of Sephardic House, a New York-based organization that promotes Sephardi history and culture.
This sense of isolation was learned in the old country, said Abe Eliahou, an Iraqi-born Jew living in Brooklyn who is married to a Syrian Jewish woman.
“Some of the Syrians that are here were so grouped together, so close- knit, that they had no idea what was going on in the rest of the country,” Eliahou said. “The only news they got is what Assad told them.”
Early Tuesday morning, some 15 men, mostly from the last wave of Syrian Jewish immigration, said their daily prayers at Congregation Sheveth Achim.
Only the sporadic clinking of change — indicating the giving of tzedekah, or charity — interrupted the chanting.
After the morning minyan ended, the men, who spoke fluent Arabic but little English, agreed to talk briefly about politics. They all agreed that they felt sad when they heard of Assad’s death.
Assad “gave us freedom. He let us go out of Syria,” said one man in halting English who asked not to be identified. “In the beginning, it was tough. But it got better.”
The man was one of the roughly 4,000 Syrian Jews who emigrated in the early 1990s after Assad, under pressure from the United States, Israel and world Jewry, lifted emigration restrictions — as long as the emigres did not go to Israel and the effort was not publicized.
Most came to the United States, but eventually about 1,500 moved to Israel.
The easing of restrictions on Syrian Jews began in the mid-1980s, said Albert Ayal, founder and first vice president of the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jewry, a group that promoted the exodus of Syrian Jews in the 1990s.
Jews were allowed to travel freely within the country. They were even allowed to travel abroad for visits, but entire families were not allowed to travel together — to ensure that the travelers returned.
“You take the bird, you put her in a diamond cage. But she’s still in a cage,” said Ayal.
Some of the Jews who left during the 1990s still have family among Syria’s now-tiny Jewish community of no more than 300.
Others, like father-and-son shopkeepers Meir and Morty Chalouh, still own property there. The Chalouhs are negotiating for the return of their store in Damascus, which may partially explain their support for the Assads.
Assad was “good for the Jews so long as you didn’t go beyond the border of the law,” said the younger Chalouh, who said he may fax a message of condolence to the Syrian Embassy. “If you went beyond the border of the law, it was something else.”
The “something else” Chalouh was referring to may have been the poor human rights record of the Assad regime.
In 1974, four Jewish women who were trying to leave the country were murdered. Indeed, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, human rights groups called attention to Syrian Jews who were detained without charges.
But the Syrian Jewish emigres were right in saying that Assad left them alone — at least in comparison with some other Syrians.
In February 1982, Assad, a member of the minority Aleuwite sect, sent troops into the city of Hama to crush an uprising of Sunni Muslims. Some 10,000 people were killed.
It’s events like these that left one Syrian Jew in Brooklyn not so sad to see Assad go.
“I’m kind of happy he suffered, to tell you the truth,” said Yaffa Nachmani, the registrar at the Sephardic Community Center.
“I shed tears when the king of Jordan died, but that was different. I didn’t see him as inhuman as Assad. Hussein was different.”
Nachmani, who came to the United States with her family in 1956, said she feels “no great loss, but I fear what will happen.”
Fear may be a legacy that Syrian Jews took with them to the United States. Several refused to speak to JTA for publication. Some still have family who live in the old country, like Eliahou’s Syrian wife, who has a sister there.
“So who’s going to rock the boat?” he said, referring to their reluctance to criticize Assad. “It doesn’t make sense, but it’s good politics.”