Thursday, June 29, 2006

Damascus's disappearing Jewish heritage

There was a Jewish community in Syria from the time of King David, but the fact that only 14 Jews still live in Syria makes the preservation of the Jewish heritage all the more urgent.

The Jerusalem Post reports on the tortuous efforts to set up a Damascus Heritage Centre in Israel. (With thanks: Albert)

"The Syrian Jewish community is the oldest Diaspora community in the world, dating back to the time of King David, Moshe Sasson (the man behind the heritage centre project) told (President) Katsav. He added that Damascus is mentioned no less than 36 times in the Bible.

"There is a cemetery in Damascus where only great Jewish sages were buried and each year on the eve of Yom Kippur, people would come to a window erected around the graves to pray that the sages should intercede on their behalf.

"Sasson, who was born in Damascus but taken to Turkey and then to the land of Israel as an infant, worries that the cemetery may have fallen into disrepair. "If peace ever comes we must do everything we can to restore it," he said. "It is one of the most important Jewish cemeteries in the world."

"Sasson said the Damascus Heritage Center was not a "nostalgia project," but rather a project of substance designed to preserve the history of Damascus Jewry for future generations.

"The initiators of the project had hoped to interest the remnants and descendants of the equally famous Aleppo, or Halab, community, but they wanted to do their own thing, said Shemer. He said that while Damascus was known as a stronghold of Zionism, even before modern political Zionism, Aleppo was known for its affluence.

"Damascus Jews helped to populate the pioneer kibbutzim, said Kalush, citing members of Afikim and Hulata who came as early as 1920. However many of the Syrian expatriates living in Israel today were brought on foot as children in 1944.

"The Association of Damascus Jews in Israel had been founded two years earlier, primarily to rescue Syrian Jews.

"Israeli prime ministers didn't allow the organization to engage in that work until Yitzhak Shamir came to power. He gave them his blessing, but advised them not to court the assistance of Europe because the Europeans were not well disposed toward Israel.

"He advised them instead to seek the help of then-US president George Bush.

"The older Bush was indeed instrumental in getting most of the remaining Jews out of Syria.
The Syrians allowed them to leave on condition that they did not go to Israel.

"Most went to America, and a large proportion continued to Israel.

"Shemer said the Central Bureau of Statistics estimates that there are approximately 40,000 Syrian Jews in Israel, but the community says there are more.

"Jews of Syrian origin with non-Israeli passports occasionally travel to Syria, where only 14 Jews remain, to see that Jewish community property such as synagogues are still intact.

"There are approximately 20 synagogues in Syria that are being cared for by the authorities, said Eliahu Sasson, who has launched a project in which elderly Syrian-born Jews, in Israel and abroad, are interviewed so that their memories can be recorded for posterity.

"Sasson also wants to bring to Israel all the sacred and ritual objects that were taken from Syria to the wider Diaspora, and have them permanently stored in the Heritage Center once it is constructed. He is desperately keen to bring a beautifully written and illustrated 300-year old Torah scroll that is currently in New York."


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