Update: Point of No Return has learned that a local source has denied this report. Syrian officials say they have no knowledge of this initiative.
Syria is to restore Jewish synagogues, with some funding from Syrian Jews, Bloomberg reports. Colour me cynical, but what do a group of dhimmi Syrian Jews think they are doing - helping to finance President Assad's new secular image? His despicable regime has ethnically cleansed all but a handful of Syria's 40,000 Jews, none of whom will ever worship in these restored synagogues.
Albert Cameo, leader of what remains of the Jewish community in Syria, says he’s trying to fulfill an obligation to his religious heritage.
The 70-year-old is organizing the restoration of a synagogue called Al-Raqi in the old Jewish quarter of Damascus built during the Ottoman Empire about 400 years ago. The project, which began in December, will be completed this month as part of a plan to restore 10 synagogues with the backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and funding from Syrian Jews.
“Assad sees the rebuilding of Jewish Damascus in the context of preserving the secularism of Syria,” said Josh Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. “This is an effort by the regime to show its seriousness and an olive branch to the Jewish community in America, which they have been wooing.”
While Syria is still officially at war with Israel, the country is trying to portray itself as a more tolerant state to help burnish its image internationally. Syria’s 200 Jews are mirroring the actions of their co-religionists in Lebanon, where restoration work began on Beirut’s Maghen Abraham Synagogue in July 2009.
“For Syria there is a clear dichotomy between the Arab- Israeli conflict and the Palestinian cause on one hand and her pride of her diverse cultural heritage on the other hand,” said Imad Moustapha, Syria’s ambassador to Washington.
Indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria, mediated by Turkey, broke down in December 2008 when Israel began a military offensive in the Gaza Strip that it said was aimed at stopping Islamic militants from firing rockets into southern Israel. The previous round collapsed in 2000, when the two nations failed to agree on the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1967.
The largest Syrian-Jewish community, estimated at 75,000, is centered in Brooklyn, New York and New Jersey. Emigration dates back to the Young Turk Revolution in 1908, “when Jews feared their sons would be drafted into the Ottoman Turkish army,” according to Sara Reguer, author of “The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times.”
Joey Allaham, 35, a Syrian Jew living in New York, still considers Syria his homeland.
In December, he helped set up a meeting between Assad and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella organization of Jewish groups in an effort to foster ties between Syria and the American Jewish community.
During their visit, Allaham and Hoenlein toured the Franji synagogue across from the Talisman Hotel in Bab Touma, in the old city of the Syrian capital. The synagogue, also known as Ilfrange, gets its name from the Jews who came from Spain and dates back 400 years, according to Cameo.
“President Assad was kind enough to support us,” Allaham said in an interview. “We are going to bring support financially.”