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Syria Confirms Lifting Travel Ban but Jews Still Not Free to Leave

April 29, 1992
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The Syrian government has confirmed that it has lifted travel restrictions on its 4,500-member Jewish community. But according to reports reaching North America, the first Jews to apply have been rejected.

“Apparently no one was given an exit permit today,” Seymour Reich reported Tuesday, a day after the U.S. State Department announced the change in Syrian policy. Reich chairs the Task Force on Syrian Jewry of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council sent a telegram Tuesday to Secretary of State James Baker expressing concern over the reports that the new travel policy in Syria was not being implemented.

The Syrian policy shift was first conveyed privately to leaders of the Syrian Jewish community by government officials before Passover, and the news quickly spread to excited friends and relatives in North America and Israel.

On Monday, the State Department and White House reported that Syria had informed U.S. officials that travel restrictions against Jews had been lifted.

But Reich said Jews were denied exit visas this week in Damascus and Aleppo, two centers of the country’s Jewish community.

In some instances, applicants were told by officials that new instructions had not yet been issued,; other Jews were told to come back in three weeks; and some were told that the permission to leave would be granted only for cases of family reunification.


Nevertheless, activists for Syrian Jewry remain cautiously optimistic. Some say that Syria could not be expected to move faster, given the bureaucratic realities of the Middle East.

“We believe we have to wait to see how the policy is implemented, and how people come out, and give the lifting of regulation a chance to work,” said Gilbert Kahn, executive director of the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews.

The activists have not forgotten that Syria has not delivered on past promises.

At the same time, both Secretary of State Baker and his Syrian counterpart, Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, emphasized that Syria has announced free travel, not free emigration.

In Damascus, the Syrian news agency Sana quoted Sharaa as saying: “The matter deals with the freedom of travel for Syrian citizens and not emigration.”

But he also said that Syrian President Hafez Assad had “directed the concerned authorities to facilitate the travel of all citizens regardless of their religion and to remove the existing routine procedures.”

These procedures included leaving a family member behind to serve in effect as a hostage, and posting a bond officially quoted at $1,000 but in reality many times that amount.

In Washington, during a photo opportunity with Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, Baker was asked whether there was reason to believe Syrian Jews would be given the right to emigrate freely from Syria.

“No, and I don’t think that’s what the announcement contemplated,” Baker replied. “But I do think that if implemented, the decision will mean that Syrian Jews will be entitled to all of the rights and privileges that other Syrians citizens have; that is, the freedom to travel.”

In their meeting, Levy thanked Baker for American efforts on behalf of Syrian Jews.

According to U.S. government sources, President Bush has written a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir explaining that while the Syrians have not changed their formal position on emigration, the door is now open for Jews to leave the country.

Syrian Foreign Minister Sharaa said that Syrian Jews do not want to emigrate, a statement echoed to the foreign press by the community’s chief rabbi, Ibrahim Hamra.

But Syrian Jewry activists say the majority of the community would emigrate, given the chance, and the elimination of travel restrictions would in practice, permit such emigration.

Reich said the White House had promised to monitor the situation through the American Embassy in Damascus.

In Toronto, Judy Feld Carr, chair of the Task Force on Syrian Jewry of the Canadian Jewish Congress, recalled that in 1989 the State Department announced that Syria had agreed to allow unmarried Jewish women unable to find husbands in Syria to emigrate.

“They didn’t leave. It didn’t materialize,” she said. “I have seen so many false hopes dashed that I’d rather not raise them,” she said.

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