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November 29, 2011 2:28 pm

Syria at a Crisis Crossroads: Are Syrian Jews Safe?

avatar by Maxine Dovere

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Photo of Pupils in the (Jewish) Maimonides school taken shortly before the exodus of most of the remaining Syrian Jewish community in 1992. Photo: Diaspora Museum.

Sixty five years after gaining its modern independence from France, Syria is in turmoil. Since 1963, the country has been ruled by the minority Alawite-controlled pan-Arab Baath (Renaissance) party under the authoritarian rule of President Hafez al-Assad and currently by his son, Bashar. Until the “Arab Spring” instigated a growing “popular rebellion” against the regime, the country’s politics had remained fairly stable, albeit with strong military presence loyal to the Baath party, for decades.

In recent the months Syria has become more and more isolated, first by Western sanctions and, during the last weeks, by increasing pressure from the Arab League. The regime has become more and more isolated because of its brutal crackdown on domestic protest. Both the European Union and now the Arab League have cited the regime crimes against humanity, echoed by a United Nations commission of inquiry stating that the Syrian military and security forces have “committed crimes against humanity including murder, torture and rape.” The Arab League has imposed sanctions and demanded an end to the Assad government’s attacks against its own population.”

The UN commission based in Geneva interviewed 223 victims and witnesses, and reported “patterns of summary execution, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, torture, including sexual violence, as well as violations of children’s rights.” The commissions called on Syria to halt the “gross human rights violations, release prisoners rounded up in mass arrests and allow media, aid workers and rights monitors’ access to the country.” The protestors have been centered in several major cities, and continue to be categorized by the regime as led by “terrorists” and “armed gangs.” Foreign Minister Moallem, in a televised news conference, said “Syria rejected any assertions that its military was responsible for civilian bloodshed saying “the country has been the target of armed gangs” financed from abroad.

The Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, called the Arab League’s decision to sanction the country by stopping dealings with the Syrian Central Bank was a “declaration of economic war.” “Syria cannot be treated like this,” said Moualem at a news conference broadcast live around the region. His apparent disbelief about the imposition of sanctions was apparent. The foreign Minister threatened strong countermeasures, saying “Sanctions can cut both ways,” he said. “We should study well Syria’s geographic location as a transit point for commercial traffic.”

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He stated that Syria had already withdrawn 95 percent of funds targeted by the League’s decision that Arab states freeze Syrian government bank assets. “I am not warning here,” he said,”but we will defend the interests of our people… We have to defend the interests of our people.” He pointed out the essential geographic position of Syria and its importance in regional air and ground transport. If the country’s immediate neighbors do not fully participate in the sanctions, their effect may remain limited. However, should the business community, a key ally of Bashar Al Assad choose to not support the government, the government could face increased opposition.

Reports say that day to day life in Damascus continues to be “normal” as of Monday. The only demonstrators Monday were in support of the government with massive Syrian flags and portraits of Assad carried through the streets. According to reports from Syrian state media, Assad continues to have support, evident in his regimes ability to rally massive numbers of Syrians against the Arab sanctions.

Some analysts are predicting imminent change. Speaking to Agence France, Ayham Kamel, a Middle East analyst with the Eurasia Group, said “The Syria we know will no longer exist.”

“At this point, we’re just looking at armed confrontation,” Monday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said the Assad regime’s “days are numbered.” That growing international certitude has started echoing domestically as well, as more Syrians say the situation inside the country is untenable.

Responding to Mr. Juppé’s end-is-near prediction, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said: “I say to Juppé, if he thinks that, let him live and see.”

In the midst of this turmoil, a tiny Jewish community remains in Syria. It is an historic community which tradition says has been in Syria since the time of King David. Once known as Musta’arabim (Arabized Jews) or Moriscos the community was distinctly changed by the arrival of “Sephardim” who came to Syria following the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492. The Sephardim took leading positions in the community until the early twentieth century when the community was reduced by massive immigration to the United States, Israel, and Latin America. Still, until 1992, it was an active community, centered in Dyria and in Damascus, it maintained schools and synagogues.

By the end of 1992, only about 4000 remained. The remnants of the once thriving community was given the opportunity to immigrate – other than to Israel -by Hafez al Assad, father of the current, internationally besieged president of Syria, and the majority left Damascus, Aleppo and Qamishli within a few months joining vibrant communities of Syrian Jews in the United Sates, especially in Brooklyn, New York, France and Turkey. About 100 remained. Today even that number is reduced to a few tens of elderly residents.

What happens to the few remaining Jews living in Damascus must remain a concern of the wider Jewish community.

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  • someone with firsthand info

    as someone who visited the community in the “better times” there now minus a few the same few 30 jews who were there before, the unrest were mainly out of damascus, & even when they were in dam’ they were not in the jewish quarter area. i keep ties & call every while.

  • There are 24 elderly Syrian Jews left in Damascus who chose to stay.

    • Hana Levi Julian

      Any further info on those left in Damascus? Contact info, or contact info for someone in touch with them? I am a journalist and clinical social worker with contacts that may be able to help…

  • josef

    An interesting commentary, but I would like to make a comment on the following

    “Once known as Musta’arabim (Arabized Jews) or Moriscos the community was distinctly changed by the arrival of “Sephardim” who came to Syria following the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492.”

    It has always been my understanding that the term “marisco” (Spanish for “shellfish” and a play on the word “moro” Spanish for Moor) was used to refer contemptously to those Muslims who converted to Catholocism pro forma to escape the expulsions. The term for these insincere and/or forced converts among the Jews was, and to an extent still used, is “marrano” or pig. These terms were used in reference to the dietary prohibitions of these two religious groups.

    I have never heard the term “marisco” applied to these Jews either in English, Spanish or Ladino. The term Anusim is the less loaded term.

    I make this point because for many of the Sephardim who were able to resume their lives living as openly practicing Jews in the Ottoman Empire, Holland and the American South with the founding of the Carolina Colony, these terms were quickly dropped.

  • Ivan Lyons

    What a shame that this article is rehashed very old news that is at least 19 years out of date!
    What we want to know is how the Jewish community is fairing now!

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