Jewish groups are crediting international pressure with bringing about the release this week of the last two Jews held in Syrian prisons.
Eli and Selim Swed, jailed since 1987, were set free on Sunday, the second day of Passover. Four other Jews had been released from prison in December, as part of a general amnesty.
News of the Sweds’ release was first reported by French and Canadian diplomats to Judy Feld Carr, chairman of the National Task Force on Syrian Jewry of the Canadian Jewish Congress, at the behest of the Syrian Jewish community, which would not telephone because of the Passover holiday.
The information was later confirmed by the U.S. State Department.
Advocacy groups for Syrian Jewry, which have brought the plight of the country’s 4,000 Jews to an increasingly high public profile over the past year, hailed the Sweds’ release and said it was the outgrowth of mounting support for the cause worldwide.
“I very clearly believe the Syrian government is responding to a growing interest and concern about the plight of Syrian Jews,” said Gilbert Kahn, executive director of the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews.
Though the main objective of the movement is to allow free emigration for Syrian Jews, the Sweds had provided a focus for Syrian Jewry advocates parallel to that of Soviet “prisoners of Zion” in the 1970s.
Eli Swed, a pharmacist in his 30s, was arrested in November 1987 at Damascus Airport while returning from abroad. His brother, Selim, in his 50s and the father of seven children, was arrested the following month.
Both were held incommunicado for almost two years. After 3 1/2 years in a secret police prison, they were tried in May 1991 with neither public charges against them nor the presence of their lawyer. They were sentenced to 6 1/2 years.
U.S. CONTINUING VISA EFFORTS
According to reports, Syrian President Hafez Assad recently reiterated that the Sweds would not be released until the end of their jail term. It is not known whether any reason was given for their release now.
In another apparent gesture to world public opinion, Assad last week met with leaders of the Syrian Jewish community. This was the first such meeting in at least a decade.
“They’re making a serious effort to show that Jewish life in Syria is fine,” said Kahn.
In Washington, Edward Djerejian, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, who was previously the U.S. ambassador to Syria, said the United States is continuing its efforts to obtain exit visas for young Jewish women living in Syria for whom there are no potential husbands.
He made the remarks in a telephone conversation with Seymour Reich, chairman of the National Task Force on Syrian Jewry of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“We cry out for the release of all the Syrian Jews and await their reunification,” said Reich.
He noted the representations on behalf of the Sweds made to Syrian officials by the American and Canadian governments, supported by such international bodies as Amnesty International and the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances in Geneva.
“The Syrians must understand that only when they abide by internationally recognized human rights norms will an improvement in relations with the United States be possible,” said Maynard Wishner, chair of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.
DESIRE TO BE IN ‘GOOD GRACES’
Daniel Pipes, an expert on Syria and the director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, said that Syria’s desire for good relations with the United States is the main reason the Sweds were released.
He speculated that the release may have been timed to balance the negative press Syria is receiving for its planned violation of the U.N. embargo imposed against Libya.
He said that would fit in with a two-track policy, in which Damascus takes steps to be seen as friendly to Washington but also keeps open its options and does not sever its alliances with radical Moslem states, such as Libya and Iran.
Assad’s goal is “to appease us and the West in general, and be in our good graces,” while at the same time being “prepared for any eventuality,” said Pipes.
Pipes said that public advocacy has been instrumental in helping Syrian Jews. That advocacy has included not only mass rallies, such as that held last week in Los Angeles, but also appeals made to Assad by major public figures, such as Secretary of State James Baker, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) and Rep. Wayne Owens (D-Utah).
Might Assad someday relent and allow the Jewish community to leave Syria?
“I wouldn’t rule it out,” said Pipes. “It’s something that doesn’t hurt him. If it wins him enough good notices, he could do it.”
“I hope so,” said Alice Harary, president of the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews. “These people have suffered long enough.”
(JTA correspondent Gil Kezwer in Toronto contributed to this report.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.