Arabic-speaking Robert Tuttle spent three years in Syria. Writing this article about Syrian Jews for his master's degree at Columbia university, he found some 'almost apologetic about the restrictions placed upon them by the Syrian government'. After leaving for Israel and the US, 'even those who suffered and cut their ties with Syria long ago continue to speak fondly about the country and its leader.' Does the Jews' rosy view reflect their gratitude for 'stability and relevance'? Or are they in a state of advanced 'dhimmitude'?
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"The years proceeding Hafez al-Asad's rise to power were time of immense chaos in Syria. A succession of coup d'états resulted 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 secretive 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 predecessor 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 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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