While George H.W. Bush has been rightfully heralded for his efforts on behalf of Soviet and Ethiopian Jews, and even in some places for bringing a dozen Syrian brides to New York, his role in rescuing nearly the entire Jewish population of Syria in 1991 has gone unreported.
While president, he made a deal with his Syrian counterpart, Hafez al-Assad, to quietly permit the roughly 4,000 Jews living in Syria, most in Aleppo and Damascus, to leave, on the condition that they not go to Israel.
Shoshana Cardin and Malcolm Hoenlein, the chair and executive vice chair, respectively, of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, asked me to head up a task force on Syrian Jewry, which, together with Judy Carr of Toronto and Gilbert Kahn of New York, in a clandestine operation funded by the United Jewish Appeal, enabled every Jew living in Syria, except 50 who chose to remain, to leave. In addition, the Joint Distribution Committee had people on the ground in Syria to help them and to provide them with money and clothing quietly donated from people around the world. The Syrian Jews settled in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Panama and many in Israel via Cyprus.
It was a complicated, secret effort that saved the last remnants of Syria’s Jewish community and saved 4,000 lives. President George H.W. Bush never talked about it, and, in the large sweep of history, even the history of his term as president, it may not rank among his most significant or humanitarian achievements, but it should not go unmentioned.
The writer is a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.