Syrian ‘hate’ Aimed Not at Jews but at the Israeli Government

From the roof of a nondescript, four-story apartment building in downtown Aleppo — amid a jumble of water tanks, power lines and satellite dishes — one can gaze down at the last remnant of one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities.

Hebrew gravestones, partially obscured by weeds and garbage, occupy a plot of land adjacent to the historic Joab Ben Zeruiah Synagogue, whose stone archways and grand interior walls hint of a prosperous and lively Jewish past.

The shul, in continuous use for more than 1,600 years, sits deserted. The families living in nearby apartments have no clue that this ancient building once housed the most influential center of Torah learning in the Middle East.

This rooftop perch offers the only view of the synagogue’s restored interior because its front door is always locked. A sign at the entrance provides a phone number in Damascus for tourists, but the man who answers says military police must arrange all visits.

Syria is home to probably no more than 50 Jews among a total population of 18.5 million. Nearly all live in Damascus, except for perhaps two or three Jews in Aleppo.

"The Jewish community is quite elderly at this point. Nobody bothers them," said Seth Kaplan, a New York-based researcher who visited Syria recently for three weeks. "In fact, many Syrians told me they miss the Jews on some level."

Despite Syria’s official anti-Zionist policy — and the state of war that has existed between Israel and Syria since 1948 — a JTA reporter heard not a comment against Jews during his five-day visit to Aleppo last month.

Residents of Aleppo, asked for directions to the Harat al-Yahud, the former Jewish quarter, pointed the way without a hint of hostility. In fact, a sign in Arabic at the entrance to the abandoned Joab Ben Zeruiah synagogue warns against dumping trash "in front of this holy place of worship."

But the attitude changes on Israel.

"Israel is one thing, and Jews are something else, Mahmoud Sharif, an English-speaking tour guide, told JTA in Aleppo. "We respect the Jewish religion and consider it one of God’s religions, but we don’t accept Israel."

Aleppo, an ancient metropolis of 1.5 million, is Syria’s second-largest city and is renowned for its walled Citadel, which stands on a hilltop in the middle of town. From a Jewish point of view it’s also famous for the Aleppo Codex the earliest known manuscript containing the entire text of the Bible.

The Jewish presence in this city dates back some 2,500 years, to the time of King David. It peaked in the late 19th century, with Aleppo’s 10,000 Jews representing 20 percent of the Jewish population in Syria, but started to decline before World War I as young Jewish men fled to avoid serving in the Ottoman army. Thousands of Syrian Jews ended up in Mexico City, Buenos Aires and New York City.

Massive emigration continued after the war, and intensified in 1947 as Syria, having gained independence from France a year earlier, encouraged pogroms against Jewish-owned shops and synagogues. Rioters in Aleppo that year burned the city’s Jewish quarter and killed 75 people.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, Syria’s few Jews lived in fear, chafing under constant police surveillance and severe restrictions on business dealings, property ownership and overseas travel.

Those limits mostly ended in the mid-1990s, when then-President Hafez Assad under heavy U.S. pressure allowed more than 1,200 Jews to leave for new lives in the United States, Europe and, indirectly, Israel.

"There used to be a Jewish quarter in Damascus and maybe 20 synagogues," Kaplan said. "Today there’s only one functioning synagogue, and they struggled to get a minyan the Shabbat morning I was there. We actually didn’t make it. We got to eight."

JTA’s attempts to interview Syrian Jews proved fruitless no one seemed to know how to contact them. Jews here keep such a low profile that officials at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus won’t comment on the subject.

A Syrian-born rabbi who left in 1960 and now leads a prominent congregation in New! Jersey said the community is nearly nonexistent. The rabbi returned in 1977.

"It was a memorable trip," the rabbi said, "but it’s not a free country so we had to be careful."

Waddah Tabshow, owner of the Jafra House Oriental Souvenir Shop in the Souq al-Madinah marketplace here, told JTA he knew a number of Jews growing up, though he had lost contact with them over the years.

"Jewish people here had friendships with many people, but the families we know left in the early ’90s because they got permission from the Syrian government to leave," he said.

Sharif suggested that the Jews left "because Syria wasn’t a good country to live in, and because there were more opportunities in other countries."

As to Israel, the 31-year-old college graduate said the problem is not with its people but its government.

Israel uses heavy weapons against children," said Sharif, who did his army service on Syria’s border with the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the Six-Day War of 1967. "They’ve forced Palestinians from their land. The Palestinians have a miserable life, and many [refugee] families in Syria still think of their villages. If you ask them about Palestine, they will cry."

Assad has signaled that he wants to hold peace talks with Israel, but at the same time Syria has been engaged in an unprecedented upgrading of weapons’ systems and large-scale troop maneuvers. Also, the Syrians are said to be transferring long-range rockets to Hezbollah with the ability to strike targets in central Israel.

Talking about politics even when criticizing Israel is risky in Syria, where police seem to be nearly as numerous as the ubiquitous posters of President Bashar Assad and his late father.

For example, a 20-foot-high statue of Hafez Assad towers over the main highway from Damascus to Aleppo, while an enormous billboard of Bashar Assad guards the entrance to the al-Hamadiyya market in Damascus, with the Arabic text "God Protects Syria."

At the Omar Khawatmi Elementary School in a poor neighborhood here, more than 1,000 boys and girls in blue uniforms assemble on the outdoor basketball court every morning to sing patriotic songs and shout slogans in Arabic.

Asked what they are shouting, the headmaster carefully replies: "They are praising our president."

Even so, things apparently have lightened up a bit since the younger Assad took over in 2000 upon the death of his father.

"We feel we can talk more freely now and criticize things that are wrong," Sharif said. "For example, three days ago on a television program called ‘Let’s Talk,’ people were speaking frankly about Parliament, saying that politicians are only for themselves and that we want them to do something for the people. I never heard such words on TV before."

One thing Syrians talk quite a lot about is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ongoing violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip dominates TV shows, coffee-shop conversation and headlines in the newspapers all of which are state-controlled, including the English-language Syria Times.

"People here don’t like Israel," Sharif said. "They think about this situation every day. It’s our daily problem. They think Israel won’t last forever."

Asked what it would take to change people’s attitudes, Sharif thought for a moment.

"If Israel gave us back the Golan, it would be a good sign they really want peace," he suggested. "[But] whether the government makes peace with Israel or not, the people will not agree. And if they agree, it’s because they’ll be forced to agree. They hate Israel."

In the meantime, Aleppo shopkeeper Salaheddin Abbas has his own take on the situation.

"It’s obvious that America and Russia are making trouble in the region, so that Russia can sell weapons to Syria and Iran, and the U.S. can sell weapons to Israel and Saudi Arabia," said Abbas, 36, who sells antique brassware and carpets. "I believe poor people in Israel want peace, not rich people. It’s all about business."

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