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June 14, 2011 8:39 pm

Whats Happening To Syria’s Jews

avatar by Maxine Dovere

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Billboard with portrait of Assad and the text Allah protects Syria on the old city wall of Damascus. Photo: Bertil Videt.

Jack Avital believes in the future of Bashar Assad. “Everything is good,” he told the Algemeiner. “You can bet on it – Assad will be there another 20 years…He is not Mubarak, not Gaddafi- Assad is an honest guy and 95% of the population supports him and will protect him.”

Unexpected remarks, given the mainstream media’s recent coverage. Avital says, however, that the economy is “working and moving.”Further, he says that the Jewish community is doing well, and that the Syrian president is protecting the minute Jewish community still in place in Damascus. In the last several months Syria has been seen in the west as a government in crisis, one willing to do anything – even kill its own people – to retain its power. Yet, according to Avital, who is in close contact with officers of the Syrian government both in American and in Damascus, Assad is protecting the ancient community and has protection in place at the community’s historic synagogue.

In the midst of the crisis, the Syrian government invited Yehoshua Pinto, a charismatic Israeli rabbi who spends about half of his time in New York, to visit. Jack Avital, head of the Sephardic National Alliance and a leader of the Syrian-Jewish community of North America, conveyed the invitation from the Syrian ambassador to the US, Imad Moustapha. (Pinto’s has roots in Damascus where members of his family were rabbis during the first half of the 17th century.

Avital, has maintained good relations with President Bashar Assad and with Syrian officials in the US. He has led delegations of American Jews to Syria for official visits in 2004 and 2006. The initial discussion of a Pinto visit initiated well before the current political crisis. Pinto and his party have been assured that security and logistic arrangements, including the import of kosher food, would be in place.

Soon after the initial shots were fired in April, Pimm Fox of Bloomberg Television’s “Surveillance Midday spoke with Barton Biggs, co founder of the Traxis Fund, LP. Biggs had met with Assad in 2009 to discuss investment possibilities. Reforms and significant infrastructure construction – roads, power stations, etc – were discussed. Calling Assad “affable and charming,” Biggs said the Syrian president was advised by his sophisticated English Syrian father in law. Politically, Assad “didn’t take a negative or hard line view about what is going on with Israel.”

Little more than a year later he says “I’m very disappointed. Syria is a dynamic country of 22 million plus an additional 10 million of Syrian descent around the world” – an entrepreneurial people. Biggs believes the United States should maintain contact with Syria, and supports the current hands off approach. Unlike Avital, he says recent events make him feel regime change is necessary, especially in light of the long term inter tribal warfare.

While there are no sanctions preventing American investment – Syria’s 2010 financial position was strong, had little outstanding debt, and a public sector surplus. Yet, says Biggs, discussion of investment seems to have “just stopped, turned off… The government stopped responding entirely. ”

Brian Davis, former Canadian Ambassador to Syria, calls the Syrian president “cautious, conservative,” one who “has slowly acquired the knowledge and skills of a President… an apple who has not fallen far from that tree. …. a decent, intelligent man ….who wants to be a popular president.”

He mirrors Avital’s analysis, saying Assad has “achieved considerable popularity on the “Arab street” across the region. This distinguishes him from President Mubarak.” Characteristically, Assad does not”act in haste or under threat. While the dissatisfaction among some elements is clear, Avital says “95% of the people support the regime.” In Daraa, anti government actions have been strident; in Damascus, home to most of the country’s Jewish population, “there are few disruptions.”

President Assad has appealed for stability. In fact Syrians are used to accepting restraints on their freedoms in exchange for the safety and stability for decades. Assad will fight to the end to retain power for fear that his minority Alawite clan could face retaliation for the decades.

Are the Syrian people ready for an all out revolution? Assad has clearly shown that he is willing to do battle as needed – even bloody battle. He has consolidated his position and appears able to weather most storms, even overriding his own officers. Among the Sunni merchant class, a major force of stability, many support him, Regime change is seen as a threat to their positions and livelihood

Whatever is necessary, Assad’s objective is to survive. The regime has used force and survived previous attempts to oust (The crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has continued more almost thirty years.) and believes the inherent cohesiveness and his personal popularity will allow him to do so again. Achieving economic success is clearly a major factor in his ability to retain power, as is closing the significant gap between the classes, and actually putting basic reforms in place.

For now, the Syrian regime is determined to maintain power, both domestically and in keeping (Lebanon) and building its regional alliances, especially with Turkey.

For the United States, a semi-hands off policy continues, with little change in attitudes over the last thirty years. Does this approach give the Obama administration greater leverage in its demands on Israel regarding the final designation of the Golan Heights? It has, despite the lack of a peace treaty, been a quiet border until the recent crossing attempts.

For some 75,000 American Jews whose origins are in Syria – Aleppo, Damascus or Qamishli – the emotional roller coaster conducted by a government that invites its leaders to visit even as it retaliates against its own citizens in their search for freedom must give pause. The invitation offered to Rabbi Yehoshua Pinto, or the recently postponed visit planned by Rabbi Elie Abadie were not only travels, they were journeys of emotion and historical connection.

“The Jewish community in Syria is doing well,” says Avital. It supports Assad, and considers him to be the best possible leader for them. Avital shares that sentiment.

Prior to the current political crisis, Joey Allaham of the Syrian community and Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations visited Syria and toured the Franji synagogue across from the Talisman Hotel in Bab Touma, in the old city of the Syrian capital.

Amid the turmoil, the small community of Jews in Damascus has been encouraged to rebuild. Funds are coming from Syrian Jews; permission came from President Bashar al-Assad. Josh Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, says “This is an effort by the regime to show its seriousness and an olive branch to the Jewish community in America” – despite the ongoing state of war with Israel.

Albert Cameo, leader of the remnant community says he’s” trying to fulfill an obligation to his religious heritage.”At 70, he is the force behind the restoration of the Al-Raqi Synagogue in the old Jewish quarter of Damascus and says he has no desire to leave Syria. “Morally I can’t leave my country and the religious places of worship here,” Cameo said from his home in Damascus. “I have a duty to preserve our heritage.”

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