Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Syrian Jews mark 100 years in Brooklyn

Children of Syrian Jewish immigrants at the turn of the last century

Elie Sutton concludes 28 installments of his personal history of the Syrian Jewish community, serialised in
Image magazine under the title Alien at home:

"Our Brooklyn community is about to celebrate the centennial anniversary of its first landing on the shores of the United States, the most powerful country, the most protective, the most welcoming refuge of the oppressed. There were never better hosts than the Americans for the Jews, not even Spain in its glorious periods of the 12th and 13th centuries, prior to their eventual expulsion. Almost all Jews in America are prospering.

"In this context, the Syrian Jewish community’s development has been—and is—phenomenal. It will be recorded in history as unique. (...)

"On a personal note, born a Jew growing up in Syria, I became very quickly, one of approximately a million Jews living in Arab countries stretching from Yemen across the entire Middle East all the way to Morocco; a refugee in search of a new home, a country willing to adopt me, give me comfort, and an opportunity to strive for basic human desires and possibly the audacity to dream for liberty and the pursuit of happiness. While in Syria, the best I could wish for was to be an alien at home. As such, my lot is among the luckiest. In fact, the expulsion of some 50,000 of our Jewish compatriots from Syria took over two decades with only minimal loss of life. Jews from other Arab countries did not fare as well; particularly the Iraqis who suffered the most. Essentially, our losses were primarily financial, aggregating over $1 billion, besides breaking up families with serious consequences.

These Syrian expatriates found refuge in these countries: Israel (they were smuggled out of their home base), Milan (Italy), Mexico City (Mexico), Brazil, Argentina, Canada, the US and other destinations.

None of these refugees ever became a public charge, nor relied on charity to survive. Sooner or later, they adapted very well to the community, becoming productive members of society, taxpayers and charitable contributors. Some achieved prominent positions within their new communities.

There is no doubt that great injustice was inflicted on the million refugees from all the Arab countries.

In fact, in the last decades many organizations sprung up to document their suffering and their staggering losses. These statistics should be used to counter the other side's argument and debate in settling the so-called Palestinian refugees displaced during Israel’s War of Independence.

My travels took me to Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, and Panama. I have observed the lifestyles of these very same countrymen of mine, who were victimized and became refugees after they were declared persona non grata in their own homelands. They carried themselves and followed the same pattern as their brethren who settled in the US; their beginnings were humble, they are clannish as we are, traditional as we are. Their synagogues and their yeshivahs are duplicates of ours. They adapted our Takana*, the edict of 1935 with some minor variations dictated by their local circumstances.

Their drive to the top also duplicated ours— sometimes even faster and higher—which is possible in some countries. Particularly in a small community, in a small country like Panama, they climbed to the highest level in opulence, in hesed, in charitable support of institutions in Israel and the world over. Much credit is bestowed to their Rabbi Sion Levy for over 50 years of service. He nursed, guided, and transformed the community from a totally secular state to a regimented Orthodoxy. Bankers, real estate developers and holders of international trademarks are some of their accomplishments. Their hospitality, their homes, and their unselfishness are unparalleled.

Acknowledging that Americans are made up of immigrants, many success stories are recorded, but I dare say, ours are unique.

Read final article in full

*Ban on conversion to Judaism for marriage purposes

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