Monday, June 29, 2009

'I would be scared to reveal my faith' - Syrian Jew*

Fuad Halwani prays at the last working synagogue in Damascus

The San Francisco Chronicle has this important feature by Brooke Anderson on the pitiful remnant of Syria's Jews. The Syrian government needs to show it is treating its Jews well to gain favour with the US government, but few would publically flaunt their faith:

"Even though most of his friends and relatives have left, Albert Cameo says he will never abandon Syria.

"My family has always been here," said Cameo, 68, a retired tailor and president of Syria's estimated 200-member Jewish community. "It's important for some of us to stay here to keep our traditions."

Most Jewish Syrians left in waves after the creation of Israel in 1948 and the enactment of harsh Syrian laws barring them from owning property, withdrawing funds from bank accounts and traveling.

"If they had let Jews go back and forth, no one would have left," said Joey Allaham, 34, who visited Syria last summer for the first time since leaving in 1992.

Like Allaham, who owns a chain of restaurants in New York, many Syrian Jews migrated to the United States. But others are scattered around the globe, residing in Europe, Israel and Latin America. Those who stayed behind say they did so because of advanced age, health issues, reluctance to move or unwillingness to face an uncertain future.

Today, a reporter must solicit permission from both the ministry of information and Syrian intelligence service to visit the lone functioning synagogue in the old Jewish Quarter in Damascus, which at its height had some 20 temples. The neighborhood is characterized by abandoned and dilapidated buildings and shuttered storefronts.

"It is very depressing to walk down the empty streets," said Allaham.

Most Jews are elderly and many residents are Palestinians, some of whom still pay rent to expatriate Jewish landlords through the United Nations.

Ahmad Ghaneim, a Palestinian Muslim, says most of his Jewish neighbors left in 1992 after the late President Hafez Assad lifted a 45-year travel restriction on Jewish Syrians, which marked the last wave of Jewish emigration from the country.

"It was very difficult when they left because they were my good friends," Ghaneim recalled. "When one family left, their relatives followed."

On many Saturday mornings, a visitor can find as many as a dozen people praying at the lone synagogue under the protection of police security. And when Amin Halwani, a 53-year-old tailor, left a recent service with his skullcap still atop his head, a police officer reminded him to take it off to avoid attracting attention on the streets.

"Thirty years ago, life was difficult. If the police walked by our house, we trembled. That's why people left," recalled 70-year-old Rachel Cameo, Albert's sister. "Now, they are here to protect us. Everything is easier."

In a recent e-mail message, Imad Moustapha, Syrian ambassador to the United States, told The Chronicle that "all properties owned by Syrian Jews have been left untouched for when they choose to visit or return."

Some observers see a political motive for the police protection and comments by the ambassador.

The government of President Bashar Assad - Hafez Assad's son - is well aware that persecution of the nation's remaining Jews could create international pressure at a time when he is seeking rapprochement with the United States and a possible peace deal with Israel.

To date, few Syrian Jews have accepted the invitation to return home.

Allaham says returning to Syria would be impractical for him and others who have established careers and families abroad.

And Ephraim Gabbai, associate rabbi at the Syrian congregation Magen David in lower Manhattan, says many are still afraid to return no matter what the Syrian government says.

"I would be scared to reveal my faith publicly," he said.

Stanley Urman, executive editor of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, a New York coalition of 27 Jewish organizations, says any peace agreement with Israel should include the issue of compensation for Syrian Jews who left clandestinely during the long travel ban. The World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, a group affiliated with Urman's coalition, estimates the value of confiscated Jewish property throughout the Arab world at more than $100 billion.

"It's a matter of principle," said Urman. "Elements on both sides need reconciliation."

In 2007, Urman's group lobbied the U.S. Congress to pass House Resolution 185, which granted first-time-ever recognition to Jewish refugees from Arab countries. The resolution affirms that the U.S. government must recognize that all victims of the Arab-Israeli conflict be treated equally when negotiating peace agreements.

Meanwhile, Rachael Cameo hopes some Jews will return and help restore the Jewish Quarter to its former glory.

"In the afternoon, people would sit outside their front doors with coffee and sweets," she recalled with sad nostalgia. "They would dress well just to visit each other."

Read article in full

*Associate rabbi Ephraim Gabbai, although himself of Egyptian and Iraqi parents, speaks for his US Syrian congregation


Anonymous said...

from the Yemen Times


Victor said...

Bataween, I'm so glad you saw this article. I was about to email it to you this morning in case you had missed it. I sent an email myself to the writer and expressed thanks for publishing it. The San Francisco Chronicle is quite ahead of the game in publishing articles about Jews from Arab lands. As you recall, they did a huge article a couple of months ago about the current plight of the Jews of Yemen.

bataween said...

Victor, thanks!
Yes, the importance of making California liberals aware of the plight of Jews from Arab lands cannot be underestimated. What I liked about this piece is that the reporter not only brought in some interesting insights, but put the Jews of Syria in their wider context.

Anonymous said...

Hi. Thank you for posting my article. I thought I should make one small correction to your photo caption. Ephraim Gabbai, the associate rabbi at a Syrian congregation in New York, is not a Syrian Jew. His parents are from Egypt and Iraq. But he is close to the Syrian Jewish community because they all speak Arabic.
-- Brooke

Shlomo said...

Thank you for publishing this article here.

I think your blog is a wonderful achievement and I commend you for continued efforts! I try to visit as often as I can, and although the subject matter saddens me, it gladdens my heart that so many people, Jews and non-Jews, are taking an interest in the Oriental Jewish cultural legacy.

Myself, I have lived in the NME for a long time, mainly in Egypt and Lebanon, but I did spend a year or so in the Yemen, where I was able to hook up with numerous ex-pat Yemenite Jews (coming from the States) and even meet a few locals.

In regards to this particular article, have you heard of an actor called Dan Hedaya? To cut a long story short, I was intrigued, while seeing my umpteenth film featuring him as a hardboiled cop, by his name. I thought 'oh, that's Arabic for gift or guidance', so I decided to check him out. Sure enough, his parents were Syrian Jews who emigrated to New York where he was born and raised...just thought you might like to know that...

Anyway, thank you once again for providing such an invaluable resource and I shall endeavour to do my bit by promoting you far and wide!

Best wishes and G-d bless,


bataween said...

Thank you, Brooke for writing this great piece.
Thanks Shlomo for your kind words. Interesting about Dan Hedaya.

Unknown said...

I like your blog as well as the aritcale, I'm a Syrian but I live outside Syria.

I think there is a little mistake about how the jews were treated in Syria, I have lived all my childhohod there, I had many Syrian Jew friends in college and I knew many merchants in different locations and markets across Damascus, all Syrians are acustomed to deal with jews, infact many prefer to do business with them as they have a good reputation as merchants.
I hated your sentence"'I would be scared to reveal my faith' becuase it was not the case in Syria at all till now, I admit some mistakes have been done (spacially the travel ban) by the government which is not the case now.
I'm very proud to be a Syrian and proud of the fact that my country and people respect all relegions (don't look for minor incidents) and I'm sure all the SYs know that they are always welocomed in their country which is the land of all religions.
One fact any Syrian I would meet will be my countryman whatever his religion was and even if he was from a the 3rd or 4th generation of a Syrian immigrant.

Thank you again


bataween said...

Thanks very much for your comment. If the restrictions for Syrian Jews have been lifted, as you say, I'm afraid it is much too late. There are barely fifty of them left in the whole country.

The mere fact that the synagogue in Damascus is hard to locate and guarded must mean that a Jewish place of worship is still the target of hostility. Show me a mosque that is similarly guarded.

Unknown said...


You made the same mistake of everyone, you took instantly me as a muslim which I may not be, anyway this is the least of my cnncern.

As an asnswer all mosques are guarded with secret service, so don't worry about that.

I don't give concern for the government, I was talking about the Syrian socity which is known for diversity and religious pularism, I hope you can have a Syrian jew here to tell us the real life stories of dealing with people in Syria, not the government.

Nice to meet you.

bataween said...

Hi Ziad
You right, I was wrong to assume that you were a Muslim. I apologise!
You are right too that people in society of different religions can and do get on well. I know this from my own family's experience in an Arab country.
There is no doubt,however,that the Jews suffered in Syria - and that is why they left when they had the chance.