Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Syrian Muslim 'tried to save' Jobar

 This curious story - about a Syrian named 'Mr Suleiman' who embarked on a quest to get the Jewish community to intercede with President Assad to save the Jobar synagogue - appears in the Wall St Journal (subscription required). In any case the site was bombed, one of several heritage sites vandalised, looted or destroyed in Syria. The article is published on the eve of a UNESCO conference to discuss what can be done to preserve endangered Jewish and other cultural heritage in  the Middle East.

 The Jobar synagogue was destroyed earlier this year

Maj. Avichay Adraee, an Israeli army spokesman, was taken aback when he received a message from a mysterious man writing from the heart of Syria’s bloody civil war.

The man, a Sunni Muslim who created a Facebook page called “Jobar Synagogue,” said he was on a mission to preserve his town’s crown jewel, a centuries-old religious site venerated by the three major religions. Merely contacting the Israelis was an act that could have put his life in danger.

“If we do not move fast to protect this historical heritage, it will be lost forever,” he wrote to the Israeli major, via Facebook.

The exchange last year was part of a frantic mission to rescue the synagogue, located in the battle-worn Damascus suburb of Jobar. The man behind the Facebook page, who uses the nom de guerre Abbas Abu Suleiman, got the attention of rabbis in Israel and New York, Syrian exiles in Washington and a Manhattan diamond-district salesman who visited the synagogue as a boy.

Mr. Suleiman hoped the Jewish community would intervene with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad not only to save the site, but to halt the bombardment of his hometown. Safeguarding a part of Syria’s multicultural religious heritage, he hoped, might help the country rebuild whenever the war was over.

Maj. Adraee gets as many as 18,000 Facebook messages each day, many berating him for Israel’s policies toward its neighbors. After receiving Mr. Suleiman’s plea, he didn’t know what to think. Was this man an ally? An opportunist? He replied to the Facebook message with a question mark.

Others contacted by Mr. Suleiman had a similar reaction. Jewish leaders on two continents worried about, among other things, whether intervening would endanger the tiny community of aging Jews remaining in Syria.

This account of Mr. Suleiman’s quest is based on interviews with him on Skype, transcripts of his Facebook chats and discussions with Muslim and Jewish leaders in the U.S., Syria and Israel. Mr. Suleiman asked The Wall Street Journal not to disclose his real name.

The Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Jobar has been part of Jewish life in Syria for centuries. An inscription that for years was part of the synagogue’s wall described it as the shrine of the Prophet Eliyahu Hanavi since 720 B.C. The synagogue has been rebuilt many times over the years, according to the chief rabbi of the Syrian Jews, Avraham Hamra.

Of Damascus’s 22 synagogues, the one in Jobar is the most revered because it was built atop a cave where, according to religious teachings, the prophet Eliyahu concealed himself to avoid persecution. Muslims and Christians regard Eliyahu as a prophet, making the site one of the few in Syria revered by all three religions.

Before the civil war, Jews, Muslims and Christians would visit the synagogue and take turns descending into the cave to pray. Inside was a stone chair believed to have been used by Eliyahu. Syrians of different faiths believed saying a prayer in the cave would bless a new business venture and safeguard their health, Rabbi Hamra said.

In the early 20th century, an estimated 25,000 Jews lived in Syria, split between Damascus and Aleppo, according to Abraham Marcus, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Texas at Austin. The Jews of Syria began to leave in the early 1900s. The exodus accelerated before the founding of Israel in 1948.

Today, Rabbi Hamra said, there are 17 Jews left in Damascus and probably none in Aleppo, making it Syria’s smallest known religious minority. Nine are men, one short of a minyan, the quorum of 10 Jewish male adults required for certain religious obligations. All the Jews in Damascus are 60 years old or older.

Syria’s Jews have a complex relationship with the Assad regime. Many see him as a protector, and the opposition, dominated by groups aligned with al Qaeda, as the real threat. Government agents monitor the nation’s Jews, according to rabbis and government defectors, which circumscribes what they can do or say.

When Mr. Suleiman started his quest, Jobar was under the control of opposition forces, as it still is. Groups operating there included the Western-backed Free Syrian Army as well as the Nusra Front, which has ties to al Qaeda. Jobar and other eastern Damascus suburbs are strategically significant as gateways to the capital, and have seen heavy fighting.

In the security vacuum, thieves in Jobar looted the synagogue, taking prayer books, scrolls and the ornate interior doors, local activists say. On one occasion, members of the FSA rescued some of the stolen items.

Local activists set up a special committee to protect the synagogue. Mr. Suleiman says he volunteered to take the lead.

In peaceful times, the synagogue had attracted visitors from Syria and beyond. More than just a religious site, it put Jobar on the map. For the sake of the town, residents believed they needed to save it.

Before the war, Mr. Suleiman had worked as a manager at his family’s factory. He had lived in Jobar for his whole life but had never gone inside the synagogue until the summer of 2012, when he decided to help protect it. Local Jobar leaders locked the doors and posted guards outside.

On June 10 of last year, Mr. Suleiman posted a message, using his Jobar Synagogue account, on the Arabic-language Facebook page of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He explained what leaders in Jobar were doing to secure the site and asked whom they could contact about the antiquities. He got no response.

He messaged Maj. Adraee, the Israeli Defence Force’s Arabic-language spokesman, later that month. “I tried to connect to many different entities and sources but with no luck,” he said in one message.

Mr. (Amine ) Helwani (A Jew still living in Damascus) replied in a series of Facebook messages. He said the war prevented anyone making the drive across town. He asked about an old Torah scroll and about the condition of the rugs.

Mr. Suleiman said he couldn’t find the Torah scroll, and that he had rolled up the rugs to protect them.

“May God protect you and guide you,” Mr. Helwani wrote back. He said the Jews in Damascus were in no position to help because of the constant fighting. “We can’t do anything,” he said. Mr. Helwani didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Helwani found one way to keep the effort rolling. He reached out to Henry Hamra, nephew of the Syrian chief rabbi, who lives in Brooklyn and works in Manhattan’s diamond district. Mr. Hamra had visited Jobar as a child growing up in Damascus.

“Hi. How are you? My name is Henry Hamra,” he wrote to Mr. Suleiman via Skype in July of last year. He thanked Mr. Suleiman for taking care of the synagogue. “You are doing the best thing anybody could do without getting a reward,” he wrote. He suggested that Mr. Suleiman secure the religious items away from the synagogue.

He asked Mr. Suleiman to send pictures. One showed prayer books and two Torah scrolls in boxes. Another showed the synagogue after it was cleared out. Mr. Suleiman said he needed help—trucks and other equipment to protect the perimeter.

Mr. Hamra recalls that he wasn’t sure how to proceed. He contacted his uncle, the chief Syrian rabbi, who now lives in Holon, a working-class suburb near Tel Aviv. Rabbi Hamra cautioned his nephew against intervening. The first priority was to protect the remaining Jews in Damascus.

“I don’t want one fingernail of anyone to be hurt. I don’t want that. If I will deal with the opposition, then the government won’t forgive,” Rabbi Hamra recalls advising his nephew. “I will not speak against Assad and I will not speak against the opposition. I stand by the Jews of Syria.”

Mr. Hamra kept talking to Mr. Suleiman. They exchanged pictures of their young children. Mr. Hamra hoped to one day visit the synagogue with his children. When the two men talked, usually over a Skype connection, explosions and the sound of children playing could be heard in the background.

Israeli Maj. Adraee hadn’t responded to Mr. Suleiman when he wrote again in July of last year to say that “if the people of the house don’t want to protect their homes, then I have come to a dead end and I can no longer continue protecting the synagogue.”

Maj. Adraee wrote back: “?”

Israeli Defense Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner says Maj. Adraee sometimes responds with a question mark if he wants further context or explanation. “The efforts of the residents of Jobar are honorable and we certainly hope to see the appropriate organizations and bodies act on their behalf,” Lt. Col. Lerner says.

The following month, August 2013, the Assad regime launched what the U.S. and its allies called a large chemical-weapons attack, devastating Jobar and other nearby suburbs. Mr. Suleiman says many local residents were killed, including members of his family.

When Mr. Hamra heard the news in New York, he sent frantic messages. Mr. Suleiman responded a few days later. Mr. Suleiman sent pictures of victims of the gas attack and told him to get the word out. “I didn’t know what to tell him,” Mr. Hamra recalls.

Their talks about lobbying and providing trucks and other equipment were going nowhere. Both men say their relations grew strained.

Mouaz Moustafa, an antiregime activist based in Washington, was introduced to Mr. Suleiman by a mutual acquaintance in the opposition movement. Mr. Moustafa, a Syrian of Palestinian origin, says he felt conflicted. Although his work put him in frequent contact with American officials and Jewish leaders, he didn’t want to be seen as working with the Israelis because that could hurt his relations with opposition activists.

He decided to approach Jewish leaders in New York, who he thought could help persuade Mr. Assad to ease the stranglehold on Jobar. In the back of his mind, he says, was the distant prospect of engineering a prisoner swap that would free activists, women and children imprisoned by the regime.

The first meeting was with Rabbi Elie Abadie, whose family was from Aleppo and who now runs Congregation Edmond J. Safra in Manhattan. Mr. Moustafa had met rabbis before but never one who spoke Arabic and who shared his love of Fairuz, a Lebanese singer.

Rabbi Abadie was intrigued but wasn’t sure “how much to trust the people in Jobar,” he recalls. He too believed it was more important to protect the remaining Jews in Damascus.

Rabbi Abadie looked at pictures Mr. Suleiman had sent. He estimated the prayer books were maybe two centuries old. Other pictures showed Torah scrolls, one of which was so badly damaged that Rabbi Abadie thought it was no longer usable and should be buried, per Jewish custom.

The next stop in New York for Mr. Moustafa was Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Mr. Hoenlein had visited Syria in 2010 to try to preserve Jewish sites and had met with Mr. Assad. He says he was skeptical of Mr. Suleiman’s requests for money and his ability to save the synagogue and its contents. He checked with contacts in Syria, who told him Jobar was largely impassable and in the hands of competing rebel units.

“There was a lot of suspicion and mistrust,” says Marty Kalin, a Jewish American alarmed by the humanitarian crisis in Syria who accompanied Mr. Moustafa in New York.

Mr. Hoenlein recalls that he and other Jewish leaders wanted to help but didn’t know whether Jobar residents could deliver on their promises to protect the synagogue. They reached a consensus soon after: The risk of intervening was too high.

Mr. Hoenlein says he worried that providing financial assistance to Jobar might prompt opposition forces in other parts of Syria to seek similar deals to protect other Jewish sites.

Rabbi Abadie was disappointed with the result but agreed with the decision. “I am a Jew, but I realized that plenty of churches have been destroyed, plenty of mosques have been destroyed,” he says. “So I felt, ‘With what right could I scream foul play while other houses of worship have been destroyed equally?’ ”

A few weeks later, Rabbi Abadie was invited to an exhibit in New York of “important Judaica” put together by the auction hous Sotheby’s . As he toured the exhibit, he noticed a wood carving from a Syrian synagogue with an inlaid ebony-and-bone border. The Sotheby’s catalog said: “This rare surviving artifact of the Jewish community at Jobar may be all that remains of this ancient and venerable community.”

Rabbi Abadie asked the curator to remove the item so he could examine it. He assumed Jobar’s residents were selling off looted antiquities. “Oh, my goodness. These guys really are quick!’” he recalls thinking.

The curator checked the item’s notes. It had been taken from the synagogue in the early 1900s.

In the spring of this year, a rocket hit the back of the synagogue, punching a hole in the wall. Mr. Suleiman posted another message on Mr. Netanyahu’s Facebook page: “It seems like this issue means nothing to you all.”

In May, the synagogue took a direct hit from a shell. The damage was catastrophic.

Rabbi Hamra, who was at home in Holon when he heard the news, compares it to the destruction of the ancient temple in Jerusalem. “It felt like the world was destroyed,” he says. “It had such a special place in the world. But what could I do?”

Mr. Hoenlein says he is skeptical much survived the strike.
Mr. Suleiman says local residents went through the rubble and salvaged what they could. The cave, he says, is still intact. The safe house where the religious items were stored was hit by rockets. One of the scrolls was burned but most of the prayer books and other religious items were saved.

Mr. Suleiman posted pictures of the destroyed stone building on the synagogue’s Facebook page and sent a message to Mr. Netanyahu that linked to pictures of the rubble.

He wrote: “The end of the Jobar synagogue at the hands of Bashar al-Assad.”

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