Gunmen inside the shell of Aleppo's Great Synagogue
How should the past in Arab states be maintained once the Jews have gone? asks Adam Blitz in Haaretz. It's a good question. Before the Syrian civil war broke out and Jewish sites became a propaganda football tossed between the regime and the rebels, the Damascus Jewish quarter and synagogues were part of a restoration programme. Forgive my cynicism, dear reader, but the government's main motive was not 'cooperation' or the preservation of Jewish memory, but lucrative western tourism.
before the onset of the Syrian civil war two years ago, there were only
a handful of Jews left in Damascus. But many synagogues – over a dozen –
were still standing, a testament to a once-diverse community composed
of Syrian Jews of ancient local lineage, as well as 'recent' Jews who
immigrated from Iberia and Italy from the 16th century onwards. The
Al-Raqay synagogue (Iraqi) and the Franji synagogue (Senores Francos, a
reference to Italian Jews of the 16th century) were familiar fixtures in
the communal landscape.
traditional Jewish Quarter, Harat Al Yahud, in the south-east of the
Old City, remained derelict and largely abandoned for many years after
its Jewish inhabitants left, especially after Syrian independence and
the UN partition of Palestine vote in 1947, which triggered pogroms
against Jews in Aleppo and Damascus.
Al Yahud's demise should be seen in the broader context of a city
experiencing mass Jewish emigration, negative population growth, and a
lack of social policy to address urban decay. In a country where nearly
90% of the housing is owner-occupied, the task of reviving any of the
residential quarters of the Old City on a private basis remained a
challenge. Assad's regime attempted to re-house Palestinian refugees in
and amongst the remaining Jewish population, and offered the refugees
subsidized rents, but it was not until a decade ago that Harat-Al Yahud
would be regenerated.
came in 2004 when the Syrian sculptor Mustafa Ali bought the Bukhais
ancestral home. The family of silk traders had left more than fifteen
years prior. By 2005 their residence had been restored to its former
glory and transformed into an art gallery. In the course of time, forty
additional artists followed Ali’s lead and pitched camp in the Jewish
with the rise of an artists’ colony was a government-sponsored program
to restore the Old City’s synagogues. This interest in minority affairs
was spurred by the secularist ideology of the Assad regime which,
somewhat instrumentally, voiced frequent affirmations of a multi-ethnic
this gesture, there still remained no scientific attempt to survey the
synagogues (before the rapid restoration program) or to catalog their
holdings. The last attempt to grapple seriously with the Jewish record
in Damascus was in 1995, when the photo-journalist Robert Lyons produced
a survey for the World Monument Fund’s Jewish Heritage Program, which managed to cover 75% of the extant sites.
the question persists: How should the past be maintained once the Jews
have gone? There have been examples of cooperation between Middle East
authorities and their expatriate Jewish communities: The Beiruti
community in France engaged with the Lebanese government and secured the
eventual restoration of the Magen Avraham Synagogue.
There are other examples of Iraqi Jewish artifacts, once illegally
confiscated by the Iraqi authorities, that are now on loan to
institutions in the U.S. (The expatriate Iraqi-Jewish community is NOT cooperating in this case. These artifacts ended up in the US for restoration by happenstance - if they had not been saved by an American Jew, the authorities would certainly have allowed them to rot in Iraq - ed)
Then there are examples of where cooperation has soured. The Iraqis are now demanding the return of the Jewish archive. In Egypt, the remaining Jews have voiced criticism of
the state’s involvement in the handling of their heritage sites – while
this tiny community’s monuments have received state protection from
potential Islamist violence.
myself have pleaded that Jewish artifacts in Damascus’ synagogues
should fall under the control of Syria's Directorate General of
Antiquities and Museums. I have stressed the diligence of Dr.
Abdulkarim, its director, and this has triggered discussions about the
future of Jewish sites in both the free press as well as – surprisingly -
Hezbollah's Al Manar, which accused the
"Zionist intelligence agency", in coordination with al-Qaida, of
stealing treasures from the Jobar synagogue via a commando unit to made
up of combatants "of Arab origins: Iraqi, Moroccan and Lebanese, and
were dressed in Islamist jihadists’ uniforms."
Syria's synagogues are now a battlefield for misinformation and half-truths by both the Assad regime and its opponents, with YouTube videos purporting
to show plundered synagogues and blame thrown at both sides. I simply
do not believe that in the case of the Jobar synagogue the destruction
has been as total as that put forward by these heavily edited and
politically-engaged 'reports'. It is clear that several weeks ago the
synagogue’s exterior was shelled, but it seems equally clear that the
resulting press coverage has not differentiated between the exterior and
the prayer hall across the courtyard.
What I do know is that the most recent videos in this media onslaught are composite pieces
of propaganda. At a time when coverage of Syria’s war is mediated by
soldiers, outsiders and the protégés of various warring factions, the
free press should not be so quick to respond to online claims made by
virtual world often consists of hearsay and at other times
mere subterfuge; the Syrian reciprocal blame game operates for every
site that is reported damaged, and terms like "burned" or "destroyed"
are standard phrases on both sides. To the long list of the casualties
of this most brutal war, it's clear that the first victim, as always, is
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Adam Blitz will be giving a talk in London on Syria's Jewish heritage for Harif on 11 June