The Jews of Syria[*]
On a Sunday night in February 1975, the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes broadcast what would become one of the most controversial episodes ever aired. Titled “Israel’s Toughest Enemy,” Mike Wallace traveled to Syria just a year after the Yom Kippur War and was permitted to film interviews with members of Syria’s then roughly 4,500-strong Jewish community.
In the United States and internationally, pro-Israel groups had portrayed Syria’s Jews as persecuted minority, who lived in ghettos, whose movements were restricted and who faced constant risk of arrest. Their identity cards were stamped with the word Mossawi, a polite Arabic expression for Jew, in big red letters.
“I knew it was a deeply controversial subject,” said Wallace. “And the Israelis particularly were raising a lot of money on the plight of the Jews in Syria and I wanted to find out for myself. So we went there.”
What Wallace discovered in Syria surprised him. He found that Jews were indeed subject to special surveillance and restrictions not imposed on other Syrians. But “Having said that all,” he noted in his broadcast, “It must be added that today life for Syria’s Jews is better than it was in years past.”
The broadcast included interviews with a Jewish pharmacist who claimed that assertions of mistreatment were mere “Zionist propaganda” and a Jewish school teacher who said she could never become true friends with an Israeli.
In the days and weeks following the broadcast, CBS received a barrage of letters from viewers and Jewish groups, complaining that Wallace presented an inaccurate picture of Syria and that the Jews featured could not have possibly expressed themselves freely. The American Jewish Congress called the program “inaccurate and distorted” and filed a complaint with the National News Council, a defunct organization that followed up complaints on the accuracy and fairness of news reporting.
The attention generated by the segment prompted 60 Minutes to re-air the broadcast the following June and return to Damascus to film a follow-up segment.
While filming the second segment, Wallace met Dr. Nassim Hasbani, a young, distinguished Jewish physician who ran a successful medical practice in the heart of Damascus. A member of a seven-man committee that governed Jewish affairs, Hasbani was one of just a handful of leaders who spoke publicly for the community.
Hasbani told Wallace that Jews were living well in Syria. He showed Wallace his new ID card, one without the word Mossawi stamped on it.
“The government said to us, they want to give us the card identity like all Syrian people,” he said, “Without religion. And this is for all the people.”
Then Wallace asked Hasbani a pointed and somewhat awkward question: “Dr. Hasbani,” he said, “If all the Jews of Syria were told they could leave the country, go to the United States, or Mexico, or Israel, or wherever—how many of them would go?”
“I think,” Hasbani replied, “That not more than five percent to, to Israel. And perhaps if they want to leave to the United States, to Brazil, to other… other country, perhaps the number is 20 or 30 percent.”
A decade and a half later, Syria’s Jews were granted permission to freely emigrate abroad. Within a few short years, almost the entire community had left the country, a little less than half for Israel. Out of approximately 30,000 Jews who lived in Syria in 1947, less than 50 remain today, according to community leaders in the United States. All but a handful of those live in Damascus.
Today, most Syrian Jews live in the close-knit neighborhoods of south Brooklyn, in single-family homes located in a few-square mile area around where Ocean Parkway and the thriving market street of Kings Highway intersect. The area, in no way, resembles centuries old Jewish quarters of Damascus, Aleppo and Qamishli, but Syrian Jews have recreated bustling new neighborhoods. Walk down any street in South Brooklyn and one hears neighbors chatting with one another in Arabic. Shops sell items like rolled apricot paste, lentils and fava beans, all familiar ingredients in Syrian cuisine.
This is where Hasbani now lives in a modest home he rents with his wife. Now in his sixties, Hasbani is no longer the energetic doctor he was nearly 30 years ago. After moving to the United States in the early 1990s, he stopped practicing medicine and tried unsuccessfully to open a few businesses. He lives on meager savings and suffers a heart problem that limits his movement.
Hasbani prefers to speak in Arabic and smiles wryly when recounting his brief moment of fame on American television. In a community that generally shuns publicity, Hasbani is outspoken, passionate and animated.
In the highly emotive debate over the Arab-Israeli conflict, the true story of Syrian Jewry was more complicated than either Wallace or his critics fully appreciated, Hasbani said.
On the one hand, critics of 60 Minutes were correct to doubt Hasbani’s rosy portrayal of Jewish life in Syria. In a country considered Israel’s most formidable enemy, Syrian Jews had long been subject to special restrictions, mistrust and, at times, outright persecution. In the northern city of Aleppo, Synagogues were burned and vandalized shortly after the United Nations voted to partition Palestine in 1947. In 1949, a bomb was placed in a Damascus Synagogue, killing 12 people. During the 1967 Arab-Israeli War—in which Syria lost control of the Golan Heights overlooking the Galilee—armed Palestinian fighters broke into the homes of Jews and pointed guns at family members. No one was shot but the incident was a reminder to the community of its vulnerability.
For most of Syrian history after 1947, Jews could not travel outside their country except on rare occasions and travel within Syria required permission. The Jews who did leave Syria escaped covertly through Turkey or Lebanon. Most continued onto the United States or Israel. Those who were caught were imprisoned.
Hasbani said that his glowing portrayal of Syria was intended to win favors from Syrian authorities. Yet, he added, the 60 Minutes broadcast was not totally false either. Conditions were beginning to improve for Syria’s Jews and would continue to improve in the months and years after Wallace’s visit.
For a man who says he spent most of his years at Damascus University’s Medical School lying about his religion, and whose own brother was stabbed to death by a person who bragged he killed a Jew, Hasbani is surprisingly nostalgic about the land of his birth.
“I live in the past,” he said, which is evident from the reams of newspaper clips, photos and other memorabilia he saves from his time in Syria.
He carefully unfolded a wrinkled old identity card with the word Mossawi written across it. He displayed a photo of himself posing with his family next to Edward Djerijian, American Ambassador to Syria from 1988 until 1992, at the ambassador’s opulent Damascus residence.
But among the assortment of memorabilia, the Syrian doctor is particularly fond of a small stack of folded newspaper clips that show him and other Jewish leaders shaking hands with the late Syrian President Hafez al-Asad.
Asad, who rose to power in a coup in 1970 and remained in authority until his death thirty years later, is regarded by much of the world as an oppressive dictator who permitted virtually no dissent and crushed it violently when it emerged. Along with the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, he launched a daring, if largely unsuccessful, surprise attack against Israel in 1973 in an effort to wrestle back control of the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and Syrian Golan Heights. Both territories were captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. But unlike Sadat, who combined bold military action with bold peacemaking by traveling to Jerusalem four years later to address the Israeli Knesset, Asad remained wedded to the struggle against Zionism.
He opposed the 1978 Camp David Treaty between Egypt and Israel and was cool toward the Oslo accord between Israel and the Palestinians signed 15 years later. He also criticized Jordan for signing peace treaty with Israel in 1994 and backed the Lebanese militia Hezbollah in its fight against Israeli forces in South Lebanon and a myriad of Palestinian groups opposed to the Oslo process. Although the Syrians did participate in on-and-off American-mediated negotiations with Israel, coming remarkably close to a final settlement toward the end of Asad’s life, publicly they remained decidedly stand-offish in their approach toward the negotiations. In 2000, when Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara‘ met with then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak during negotiations in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, he refused to publicly shake hands with the Israeli leader.
Many of Syria’s Jews, however, remember Asad differently.
“For us, of course, he was like the Messiah,” Hasbani said. Before him “you could not walk for four kilometers [without permission]. You could not buy and sell [property]. Walking in the street, you were afraid to say I am a Jew. There were [Jewish] schools. But there was someone from the government sitting on your head, and capable of doing whatever he wanted.”
Asad, Hasbani said, was different from past Syrian leaders in that he was the first president to truly pay attention to the concerns of Syria’s Jews.
“When we met with him in 1976, people [the Jews] rose,” Hasbani said. “When you sit with the president, people outside would not dare to do anything to you. He who is against you can do nothing to you because he saw the president receiving you and taking pictures with you.”
Such sentiments about a man long regarded as Israel’s most formidable enemy might surprise some people who follow the pulse of the Middle East. But they are quite typical among the approximately 3,000 Syrian Jewish émigrés who left for Brooklyn and Israel more than a decade ago.
Many complain bitterly about the abuses and discrimination they suffered in Syria during the decades before they were permitted to leave. Like Jews everywhere, many also profess sympathy for the state of Israel and its policies. But, in almost the same breath, many credit Asad, the man who built his public persona on upholding Arab honor in a gallant struggle against the Jewish state, as the man most responsible for granting them their freedom.
“Before Hafez al-Asad, the people were scared to say, I am Jewish,” said Jack al-Boucai, a Syrian Jewish businessman who owns a cell phone store on Kings Highway. “So when he helped in making the situation improve, I saw him as being good for us.” Boucai spoke in Arabic.
The 1976, Asad met with Jewish community leaders including Hasbani, Ibrahim Hamra, Chief Rabbi of Damascus, and the late Salim Totah, head of the Syrian Jewish community. Hasbani recalled telling Asad about the bomb that was placed in a Damascus Synagogue in 1947.
“President Asad didn’t know about it,” Hasbani said. “When I told him, he was astonished. ‘Who did it, the government?’ I told him not the government, some lowlife.”
The meeting was historic, Hasbani said. In the months and years that followed, most restrictions on Jews were lifted. The Mossawi stamp was eventually removed from all forms of identification, although not as quickly as Wallace may have been led to believe from his interview with Hasbani. Domestic travel restrictions on Jews were lifted. Businesses that had previously been closed to Jews, such as import-export, were opened. Jews could buy and sell property and the community began to prosper.
The only restriction that remained on Jews was a prohibition against free Jewish emigration abroad with family members, a rule that remained in effect until 1992. But there were exceptions. Following a meeting between Asad and American President Jimmy Carter in 1977, the Syrian president began to permit around two dozen Jewish women each year to join grooms-to-be in the United States to correct a gender imbalance in the community.
The Syrian president’s increasing leniency toward Jews probably stemmed, in part, from international pressure applied on his regime by the United States, other foreign governments and the international media. Indeed, Syria’s Jews became something of diplomatic bargaining chip that the Syrian government could play when it wanted better relations with the United States or an improved negotiating position with Israel.
What is more, after Asad lifted restrictions on the community, many hardships persisted. Jews caught trying to escape continued to be imprisoned. Many complain that they continued to face harassment from Syrian intelligence officers and other low-level officials.
One member of the community recalled visiting the Department of Motor Vehicles in Aleppo to renew his driver’s license, armed with a presidential order rescinding the requirement that Mossawi be stamped on all Jewish identity documents. The official behind the desk told him he could not renew the license at that moment because he did not have his Mossawi seal. When the man protested, brandishing the presidential order, he recalls the official telling him: “I’m not going to stamp it in red. I’m going to stamp it in purple.”
But whatever hurdles Jews continued to face, the late president’s image remains largely untarnished in the eyes of many in the Syrian Jewish community. Although Asad was known as a micromanager of his countrie’s affairs, few Syrian Jews blame him, even indirectly, for difficulties suffered during his 30 years of power.
The story of Albert Fouerti is revealing. Fouerti came to the United States in the early 1990s, during the final wave of Syrian Jewish emigration to the United States. He is shy but becomes passionate and animated when speaking about his life. He spoke mostly in Arabic.
Fouerti once owned a factory that made children’s clothes but today manages a small thrift store along McDonald Avenue in Brooklyn. Coming to America was not joyous.
In 1949, two of his sisters were evacuated to Israel along with other Jewish children following the Damascus Synagogue bombing. Fouerti’s family planned to join the two girls, but shortly after the children were evacuated, Syria closed its doors on Jewish emigration. For the next twenty years, Fouerti’s family was unable to communicate with the girls.
In the early 1970s, Fouerti obtained permission to travel to Great Britain so that his son, who was ill, could receive medical treatment. During the visit, he secretly made arrangements, through the Israeli embassy, to fly one of his sisters to London so he could see her. The other sister was ill and could not travel. The two siblings were reunited but the visit was fleeting.
“I must come back,” he remembers thinking. “I have no choice.”
Fouerti returned home and told his mother about the reunion. Nearly twenty years passed before the Syrian government finally allowed Jews to emigrate. As Syrian Jews began to sell their homes and businesses and leave for America, Fouerti applied for passports for his entire family so they could travel to the United States. His wish, he said, was to witness the reunion of his elderly mother with her two lost daughters.
Days later, the Syrian authorities granted the family passports. But one of Fouerti’s sons was denied for unknown reasons. Fouerti did not want to leave his son behind so, for two years, he returned to the office of the secret police chief in charge of Jewish affairs.
“Every day, I visited him in the office,” he said. “I knew what he was doing. He was just giving me a hard time.”
Finally, in late 1994, after most Syrian Jews had already left, Fouerti’s son was finally granted a passport and the family began to make travel arrangements. Then, just days before their scheduled departure, as his sisters waited in Brooklyn, Fouerti’s mother died suddenly.
Later, on his way to the airport, Fouerti stopped at the Jewish cemetery and peered down at her grave. “I said, mom, I’m sorry. I can’t help you to see your children,” he said. “The last picture I see in Syria is my mother.”
Fouerti was deeply bitter. “I feel no one can let me forget what happened to me,” he said. “Why did they do that to me? Why?”
But after an emotional recounting of his experience, he became calm.
“I miss Syria. I miss my friends. But I am scared,” he said. “Our only problem [in Syria] was with the Mukhabarat [secrete police]. We lived with Muslims, Christians. We were like one family. They loved us.”
President Asad, Fouerti said, could not possibly have known about the harassment he and some other Jews suffered. “He was good with Jewish people,” he said. “He gave us our freedom… He should put this person [head of Jewish affairs] in prison. He damaged the reputation of Syria. If he [Asad] knew, he would not have let them.”
Surprisingly, some Syrian Jews are almost apologetic about the restrictions placed upon them by the Syrian government.
“I lived with Syrians,” said Hasbani. “I ate and drank, whatever they did not give me, it would be perfectly fine. In my view, I don’t ask for all my rights because [they] will not give me all my rights because I have feelings for Israel which is the enemy of Syria.”
In 1987, two Jewish brothers from the Swed family were arrested for secretly visiting family members in Israel, which was illegal for all Syrian citizens. The brothers spent the next five years in prison until they were pardoned by President Asad in 1992. The Sweds’ plight became a major focus of concern for Jewish groups around the world and a personal crusade for a Canadian activist named Judy Feld Carr.
Hasbani saw the situation of the Sweds differently. Traveling to Israel was a capital offence, he said, and had the Sweds not been Jewish, they would likely have been executed.
“What kind of heroism did the Sweds show?” he asked. “They were in Syria then went to Argentina and from there they went to Israel then went back to Syria. Israel is an enemy state. Why did they go there? Do they want Hafez al-Asad to say welcome back?” (The Sweds actually traveled to Italy, not Argentina.)
Another member of the community added that the Sweds trip put the whole community in jeopardy. “If you are a lamb, you cannot play with lions,” he said.
When Asad died in 2000, three pro-Likud Jews of Syrian origin—a prominent Syrian-Jewish rabbi named Jack Kassin, Hassidic community leader Jack Avital, and another businessman named Sam Domb—placed an ad in the New York Times offering their condolences, although Domb later complained to The Jewish Week that Kassin had added his name without consent. Kassin was invited to attend the funeral but a Syrian official informed him that his security could not be guaranteed because of threats posed by Asad’s brother and rival Rif‘at, according to The Jewish Week.
Asad’s cult of personality did not end with his passing. His son and successor, Bashar, is not held in the quite the same esteem as his father. A British-trained optometrist, some Syrian Jews privately said they consider Bashar young and inexperienced, overly reliant on what are often unscrupulous advisors. But most also said they were confident that he would eventually be able to carry on his father’s legacy.
“It appears that he took his father’s track,” said Hamra, the former chief Rabbi of Damascus who now lives in Israel. “Thank God, the stability in Syria remained. His existence in the government and the permanent stable situation in Syria are a proof of his success. It will take time to become as wise as his father.” Hamra spoke in Arabic.
Another Syrian Jew added: “Asad is the best bet for America and for everyone. If he was strong enough and could manage, he would do a lot of good things. He is the best thing for America and Israel, no matter what he talks.”
In contrast to the refined, diplomatic style of his father, Bashar has made a few remarks that have sparked sharp condemnation from world leaders. He was widely criticized for making what many perceived as an anti-Semitic comment to the Pope in 2001. “They tried to kill the principals of all religions with the same mentality in which they betrayed Jesus Christ and the same way they tried to betray and kill the Prophet Muhammad,” Asad was quoted as saying.
While the remark sparked widespread outcry from Jewish groups in the United States and Israel, some Syrian Jews said they consider the whole controversy to be frivolous, the result of inexperience or poor advising.
“I don’t think he’s anti-Semitic,” said one member of the community. “He says something to please the people around him.”
Hasbani agreed. “Alak,” he said of Asad’s remark, a colloquial Syrian expression meaning “nothing important.”
Such words would likely come as welcome news to Damascus’ embattled government. Not since America’s disastrous intervention in Lebanon in 1982 have relations between the United States and Syria been as strained as they are today. A member of the U.S. Department of State’s list of nations that support terrorism, Syria is currently under intense pressure to prevent insurgents from crossing its border into Iraq, stop interfering in the affairs of neighboring Lebanon, and cut all support for groups fighting Israel, including Hezbollah and Hamas.
In 2004, President Bush signed into law the Syrian Accountability Act, which imposed a range of mostly symbolic sanctions on Syria. He threatened new sanctions if the Syrians did not change their behavior. In September, the United States and France won passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559, demanding that Syrian troops leave Lebanon.
The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a fiery explosion in downtown Beirut sent relations to yet a new low. Although Syria condemned the killing, many in Lebanon and abroad strongly suspect the involvement of Syrian intelligence agents.
His assassination prompted mass anti-Syrian protests—as well as some pro-Syrian rallies—on the streets of Beirut. The United States and France, joined by Russia and a number of Arab states, renewed their calls for an immediate Syrian pullout from Lebanon in time for Lebanese Parliamentary elections in May. At the time of this writing, Syrian soldiers had begun to decamp and withdraw across the border.
In the midst of all this, Syria’s unusually outgoing Ambassador to the United States, ‘Imad Mustapha, has been on a public relations campaign trying to smooth over some of the rougher edges of his country’s image. He has appeared on television regularly and, since assuming his post two years ago, has reached out to groups and legislators long at odds with Syria. Last January, he escorted former Democratic Presidential candidate and drafter of the Syrian Accountability Act, John Kerry, to Damascus for a meeting with Syrian President Asad.
Over the past year, Mustapha has been making rounds in South Brooklyn’s Syrian Jewish neighborhoods, introducing himself to members of the community, making friends, and encouraging Syrian Jews to visit their country of origin. Last year, he accompanied a delegation of prominent Jews of Syrian origin, some with close ties to members of Israel’s Likud government, on a visit to Syria. There, the group held a meeting with President Asad and toured prominent Jewish sites around the country.
Mustapha said he is aware of the links that some Syrian Jews have with Israel and he hopes that his recent outreach in the community might eventually help lead to the restarting of negotiations between his country and the Jewish state.
“We don’t expect [Syrian Jews] to do anything vis-à-vis the Syrian-Israeli conflict, but we are realistic,” Mustapha said, speaking under a large portrait of President Bashar al-Asad that hangs in the Syrian embassy. “We understand what’s happening. They have contacts with other Jews from Israel and at least, at least, they can tell them the true story about us. So yes, they can play a role, not a direct role, an indirect role.”
In the meantime, the ambassador has been trying to counter a rising chorus of so-called neoconservatives calling for the overthrow of regimes across the Middle East. Despite the continuing instability in Iraq, foreign policy pundits like Richard Perle, former chairman of the U.S. Defense Advisory Board and a confidant to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have said openly that Syria is an appropriate second target for regime change: part of a grand strategy to democratize the Middle East.
Many Syrian Jews prefer not to delve into serious political matters, saying they would rather leave issues of war and peace to the wisdom of kings and presidents. But those who did speak made clear that regime change, in Syria’s case, would be unwise. Some said they hold little sympathy for Syria’s policies, particularly its support for groups like Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas. But they also argue that, while the United States may need to prod and push Syria to change some of its ways, attempting to undermine Asad’s secular government would be a mistake. Bashar al-Asad, they argued, is a source of stability in a turbulent region and a potential peacemaker.
“I think that his [Hafez al-Asad’s] son wants to make the country better,” Fouerti said. “I think he likes the Jews. If there is peace, it’s good for Israel and Syria.”
Hasbani, for his part, does not hide sympathies in the Arab-Israeli dispute.
“My heart is Jewish,” he said. “I cannot say that I am not Jewish and I love the Jews, regardless of Syria. And I love Israel much more than Syria, for sure, even though I lived, ate and drank in Syria.”
But Hasbani is also remarkably understanding of Syria’s predicament. He spoke about the country’s current difficulties with the United States with the cold eye of an independent observer giving an objective analysis. “I am speaking theory,” he said repeatedly, as though the opinions he expressed were not his own but rather were grounded in common sense.
The nationalist persona that Hafez al-Asad created for his country, Hasbani said, makes complying with the wishes of United States or engaging in the kind of dramatic peacemaking that characterized the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s efforts almost impossible for Bashar. “They make themselves out as holding up the Arab Nation,” he said. “It supports them.”
But Syria’s government is also flexible and pragmatic, Hasbani said. When faced with stark choices of bending to the will of the United States or facing isolation or worse, the Syrian government will opt for safety over posturing. The United States, he said, cannot rule out the use of force against Syria but it must be careful.
“If America wants to pressure Syria,” he said, clinching his fist. “It must put pressure, tighter and tighter and tighter, economically and politically. If [Syria] continues to help Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others, and America sees that as against its interest, [the United States] needs to strike them, but without occupying Syria: essential centers for aircraft and so forth, just to show the Syrians that the temperature has risen. Then it’s possible Syria will back off.”
But there is a second option, Hasbani said, leaning back in his chair.
“They can create reconciliation between Israel and Syria,” he said. “If there were reconciliation between Syria and Israel, and there was a peace agreement, that was official and guaranteed by the United Nations, in that case, Syria will no longer be able to support Hamas and Hezbollah. They will come with Syrians to the dinner table.”
How to create such reconciliation is, of course, a question that has plagued successive U.S. administrations. During the 1990s, a settlement between Syria and Israel, two of the Middle East’s most intractable enemies, seemed imminent. Then Secretary of State Warren Christopher was shuttling between Jerusalem and Damascus on an almost weekly basis, but the negotiations consistently stumbled on the question of the strategic Golan Heights. Syria demanded a full return of the territory in exchange for a peace treaty. Israel wanted to retain control of, at least, some of the Golan for security reasons.
A few months before Hafez al-Asad’s death, U.S. President Bill Clinton met with the Syrian leader in Geneva in a last ditch effort to broker a settlement. The talks failed and Asad died. Shortly thereafter, the Camp David talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians also broke down and the second Intifada erupted.
The deterioration of the peace process was something that Rabbi Hamra had not anticipated when he made a highly publicized but surprise aliyah from Brooklyn to Israel ten years ago.
“Everything indicated that the peace was on the door,” he said, sitting in the Brooklyn home of his daughter. “We imagined that we could work in Syria and spend the weekend in Israel or visa versa.”
A solid-looking man with a bushy black beard, Hamra resembles a lumberjack. He lives in Israel but travels to the United States regularly to visit some of his children.
Hamra became head of the Syrian Jewish community in the late 1980s, after the then leader Totah passed away. Hamra said he met with Asad four times during his life and once organized a march to the Presidential Palace in support of the president’s predictable reelection. He became an international figure during his time in Syria.
“I had interviews with many countries, I mean journalists from Spain, Argentina, Brazil, America and Europe,” he says. “I received many senators and congressmen.”
By the end of the 1980s, a movement to free Syrian Jewry was actively lobbying the American government to pressure Damascus to allow Jewish citizens to emigrate. In 1992, Syrian Jewish leaders, including Hamra and Hasbani, met with Asad and the Syrian president ordered restrictions lifted on Jewish emigration, although not directly to Israel. Hamra spent the next two years traveling between the United States and Syria until 1994 when he moved to Israel.
Sitting at his daughter’s home, Hamra glimpsed at the television. Al-Jazeera—a popular source of news in many Syrian Jewish households—was reporting that Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat was dieing in a Paris hospital bed.
Hamra met Arafat once. Shortly after moving to Israel, he received a letter from then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had just been nominated to share the Nobel Prize with Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Perez.
“He felt that many people in Israel deserve the Prize and [I was] one of them,” he recalled the letter saying. “I would be very happy if you could come with me. I chose you among 30 people… As I remember I met Arafat at that time.”
When Hamra first moved to Israel, he saw himself as an emissary of peace, expecting that a final settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute was imminent. That changed five years ago when the second Intifada erupted.
“Everything returned to the old situation, like in the beginning with more hostility,” he said. “Personally, I was not influenced by the failure of the peace process. But the whole region was influenced by it. I was influenced by the fact that I am a person who calls for the peace.”
The Syrian Jewish community in Israel, he said, was shaken by the deteriorating security situation, unaccustomed to the threat of suicide bombers and violence.
Hamra remains decidedly apolitical, saying he simply dreams of the peace he expected a decade ago. He still thinks of his home and friends in Syria and the vision he had of traveling between Syria and Israel on weekends.
He heard about Syrian Ambassador Mustapha’s outreach in the Brooklyn community. “I wish I could talk to him,” he said, and paused. “But I do not know how positive he will be. I do not know if the fact that I am from Israel will put him in an embarrassing situation. And I do not wish that… Perhaps if the Intifada never took place and things remained the same, it would be normal to contact him.”
Perhaps, Mustapha said, but in the meantime communicating with Hamra would be problematic.
“An Israeli citizen is a different case,” he said. “I’m not saying I don’t meet with him. I’m saying that Syria is publicly inviting Israel to rejoin the peace process. The minute that Israel says yes, we will. We will start meeting with them and engaging with them.”
Mustapha became acquainted with Brooklyn’s Syrian Jewish community through his wife. While a student at Damascus University, she was friends with a Syrian Jewish woman named Salima al-Boucai, the daughter of the Brooklyn businessman Jack al-Boucai.
Jack al-Boucai immigrated to the United States a decade ago but said he maintains strong connections with officials in the Syrian government. Until two years ago, he said he would travel regularly to Syria to import brass and copper decorations that now adorn his small store.
Mustapha, who sought to strengthen relations between the embassy and the Syrian expatriate community, telephoned Boucai and introduced himself.
“He asked me if I needed anything,” Mustapha said. “I said yes. I would like to meet with the Syrian Jewish community. And after a little while they came back to me and said, if I would be interested in visiting with them, they would like to meet with me at their community center in Brooklyn.”
Boucai, Rabbi Kassin, Hassidic community leader Avital and others, spent a day with the ambassador, taking him on a tour of the neighborhoods. Mustapha said he had never had contacts with Syrian Jews before, including in Syria.
“They are like us,” he said, “Their food, their habits, their social customs, they are like us. We, us and them, are different from the Americans… This taught me a lesson.”
The visit ended cordially.
“For the final time, they asked, can we do anything for you,” Mustapha said. “I said yes, actually you can. Whenever you have a wedding or a barmitsvah, invite me, I want to come.”
Shortly after that meeting, the ambassador was invited to a Syrian Jewish wedding held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. There he was approached by an elderly man from a prominent Syrian Jewish family in Mexico called the Sabas.
“He says to me, ‘I’m 72 or 73 years old, I have a dream.’ I said to him, what’s your dream? He said, ‘I want to visit Aleppo. This is the birth city of my parents.’ I didn’t hesitate. I immediately said to him consider you dream come true.”
After the wedding Avital, a personal acquaintance of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, telephoned Mustapha and asked him about organizing a visit to Syria.
“He [Avital] had a curiosity about Syria,” Boucai said. “He would love to visit Syria so he requested permission to visit Syria and they welcomed him… nothing official just personal.”
A delegation of a dozen Jews of Syrian origin visited Syria in the spring of 2004, accompanied by Mustapha.
Some American Jewish leaders disapproved of the trip. “It is wrong for American Jews or any Americans to help sanitize the Syrian regime by visiting Syria,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.
The group toured the country, visiting a Jewish cemetery near Damascus, the markets of Aleppo and meeting with members of the tiny Jewish community that still lives in the country. During the visit, the group met with President Asad and presented him with a gift: a traditional Jewish Shofar or rams horn. When the meeting was over, Hasbani said, the group asked the president if he would invite them back to Syria.
“He said no,” Mustapha said. “They were surprised. He said to them, ‘I can’t invite you back. I can’t invite Syrians back to Syria. You are always welcome.’”
Mustapha recalled the men’s reaction.
“They were so amazed,” he said. “We were still inside the Presidential Palace, we had not left, and they came to me and said, ‘We are so amazed. Back in America they told us, this is an evil guy. Don’t go and meet with him. But look at the way he treated us. He was so sincere with us.’”
Repeated calls to Avital for an interview went unreturned.
A few months after Avital returned home, Boucai invited the ambassador to his son’s wedding. Over 500 people attended the ceremony, the majority of them immigrants who had come to the United States a decade ago, Boucai said.
“When Dr. Mustapha came to the wedding, he said he was coming to congratulate [us],” Boucai said. “He made a small speech; he made a very beautiful speech. I sent a video of the wedding to Syria, to the people in Syria, so they could see it. And the people in the community were very happy about the reception.”
The Ambassador, Boucai said, offered his services to the community. If anyone wished to renew his or her passport or return to Syria for a visit, Mustapha was willing to help.
Few Syrian Jews have returned to Syria permanently, but many say that they would like to visit, if only to see the homes in which they once resided, the Synagogues in which they worshiped or the graves of their ancestors. A small, but growing minority are returning to do business and reestablish old ties. Boucai counts at least 10 individuals who are trading with Syria or own businesses there, up from five a few years ago.
Yousef Jajati is one such individual. Jajati replaced Hamra as head of the community in 1994 and was one of the few Jews to remain in Syria throughout the 1990s. He said he traveled frequently to Europe and the United States.
The small number of Jews who remained in Syria since all travel restrictions were lifted worship at a single Synagogue in Damascus and no longer have a full-time Rabbi. But, Jajati said, they enjoy freedoms that members of the community could not have imagined thirty years ago. In the mid-1990s, Jajati became the first Jew living in Syria to speak before the World Jewish Congress. During his trips abroad, he mingled with leading political figures in the United States and Europe, including ardent critics of Syria like U.S. Representative Tom Lantos, who invited Jajati to his office.
The Jajatis owned what was widely considered the smartest clothing store in Damascus. The family sold the business but still owns a factory in the Jewish Quarter that is managed by one of Jajati’s sons: Khalil. The Jajatis transferred the retail end of the business to New York, where they sell their Syrian-made clothes wholesale to such high-end stores as Porta Bella.
Jajati met with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad shortly after he was sworn in as president in 2000.
“I hope and wait for the day that you go to Jerusalem and sign a peace treaty,” he recalled telling Asad. “Bashar said, ‘Speak with your friends in the Israeli government, with [then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Barak.’ I said you are my friend, not Barak.” Jajati spoke in Arabic.
Before the meeting was over, Jajati recalled Bashar telling him: “I really was sad that the Jewish community left and I would have preferred them to stay and I hope they return.”
One year later, Jajati moved to New York, where most of his children reside. But he says he remains proud of his Arab identity and loyal to his country of birth. If negotiations between Israel and Syria resume, he said that he is willing to play a role.
“I hope that Syria appoints me to carry out negotiations with Israel,” he said. “To represent my country.”
It is easy to dismiss Jajati’s glowing comments about Syria and its president. He, after all, continues to maintain strong business links to the country and would naturally want to remain on good terms with its government. It is much harder to explain why individuals who suffered during their time Syria and cut their ties with the country long ago, like Hasbani, Hamra, Fouerti, would continue to speak fondly about the country and its leader.
Some might argue that Asad’s cult of personality is the legacy of the regime. Syria is a country where the president’s photo adorns every store front and is plastered on billboards, where deference to authority is the norm. But such a view overlooks two very real benefits Asad provided Syrian Jews: stability and relevance.
The years proceeding Hafez al-Asad’s rise to power were time of immense chaos in Syria. A succession of coup d’états resulted in one repressive regime after another. For Jews, instability brought some of the worst abuses and there was always the uncertainty about the future. Asad, by contrast, quickly consolidated his power, exiling or imprisoning rivals.
Ironically, the very power that made Asad feared was also the power that gave him the leverage to improve the status of those Syrians who had been most marginalized, including Jews.
Asad was himself a member of a minority group: the Alawis. Concentrated in the mountains near the Syrian coastal city of Latakia, the Alawis had been victims of a long history of persecution, said Patrick Seale, author of the leading biography of Hafez al-Asad and personal acquaintance of the late Syrian leader.
“They were very poor and downtrodden,” Seale said. “They were thought of as collaborationists with the French,” the former colonial rulers of Syria. Many Alawi men served as tenant farmers for Sunni landowners and Alawi women sometimes worked as domestic servants.
The Alawi faith is somewhat esoteric but it is known to blend Shia‘a Islam with aspects of Christianity. Many Muslim clergy initially questioned Asad’s own Islamic credentials.
Some Syrian Jews said they believe that Asad’s minority status may have inspired sympathy for their plight. “The Asads were a family oppressed like any Jews,” said one member of the community.
Seale is more circumspect. The late Syrian president’s policies toward Jews probably stemmed more from a general opening up that accompanied his rise to power. But, he added, “He [Asad] had a feeling for downtrodden peasantry particularly. His regime was made up of country boys, not just Alawis, but Sunnis, Druze and Ismailis.”
Asad made the struggle against Israel a central plank of his leadership, but Israel never posed a mortal threat to his regime and never were Syrian Jews ever implicated in spying for Israel. Asad’s only true threat, in fact, came from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, who staged an insurrection in the city of Hama in 1982, which Asad violently suppressed.
“The Jews in Syria never had a spy,” said Hasbani. “They also never had a problem with Israel or another country. Their only problem was that some of them wanted to leave. The President understood that.”
In a hierarchical society like Syria, where a resident of Damascus could go an entire lifetime without catching a glimpse of the president except on television, a public meeting with Asad was the highest of honors. That is why Hasbani’s newspaper clips of Asad shaking hands with Syrian Jewish leaders are significant. Those photos made Jews relevant in Syrian society, he said, and gave the community a level of respect it had never enjoyed before. In effect, Asad brought Syrian Jews into the national tent.
But all this begs a question: if life was so good under Asad, why did nearly all of Syria’s Jews leave when given the opportunity?
Most left behind successful businesses and expensive homes in order to start over all again in Brooklyn or Tel Aviv. Most Syrian Jews received housing and financial assistance from local Jewish and civic organizations for one year after their arrival, but many continued to struggle. Hasbani, once a respected doctor, has watched his life sink into anonymity in a country that he himself characterized as being impersonal and lonely.
Some Syrian Jews like Hasbani said that fear of the future prompted the mass departure. Although Asad had treated the Jews of Syria well, there was no guarantee that his successor would do the same.
Jajati attributed the exodus to inertia. By the time the Syrian president lifted restrictions on emigration, most Syrian Jews had already escaped Syria for Brooklyn or Israel, where they had established thriving new communities. As life slowly drained out of the ancient Jewish neighborhoods of Damascus, Aleppo and Qamishli, the remaining families saw few reasons to remain.
Then there was the Syrian government’s own dithering that might have contributed to the mass flight of Syrian Jews. Asad opened the door for Syrian Jews to leave in 1992 and then, for reasons no one entirely understands, the door was shut a year later and then reopened shortly after that. Many of those who had not left, when first given the opportunity, felt that if they did not leave immediately, the door would close again, said Hasbani.
Fouerti explained his reason for leaving with a simple metaphor. “If you have a bird and locked it in a cage and later opened the door, it will fly away,” he said. “I had one choice: to go see the outside.”
Yet living on the outside, Syria’s Jews continue to look back in. Much like Palestinian-Israelis, they straddle the very dividing line of the Arab-Israeli dispute. Although this awkward position has caused many to suffer pain and torment, it has also provided them with unique insight into a conflict that has festered for far too many years. Syrian Jews will likely never play a role in resolving who gets what part of the Golan Heights. But they may someday be able to foster a warm peace.
“If there is peace between Syria and Israel—and I am sure there will be peace—we will bring them together,” Fouerti said. “We must be a bridge between Israel and Syria.”
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[*] Published by Syria Comment, October 24, 2005.
[†] Robert Tuttle is a freelance writer living in New York. He was a Fulbright student in Syria from 1994 to 1997 and speaks Arabic. The story on Syria’s Jews was written as a master’s project for Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Robert kindly agreed to let his excellent article be published on Syria Comment. It deserves to find many other publishers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.