The Jews of Syria
By Mitchell Bard
1948 Jewish population: 30,000
2003: Fewer than 10010
In 1944, after Syria gained independence
from France, the new government prohibited Jewish immigration to Palestine,
and severely restricted the teaching of Hebrew in Jewish schools. Attacks
against Jews escalated, and boycotts were called against their businesses.
was declared in 1947, Arab mobs in Aleppo devastated the 2,500-year-old
Jewish community. Scores of Jews were killed and more than 200 homes,
shops and synagogues were destroyed. Thousands of Jews illegally fled
Syria to go to Israel.1
Shortly after, the Syrian government intensified its persecution of
the Jewish population. Freedom of movement was severely restricted.
Jews who attempted to flee faced either the death penalty or imprisonment
at hard labor. Jews were not allowed to work for the government or banks,
could not acquire telephones or driver's licenses, and were barred from
buying property. Jewish bank accounts were frozen. An airport road was
paved over the Jewish cemetery in Damascus; Jewish schools were closed
and handed over to Muslims.
Syria's attitude toward Jews was reflected in its
sheltering of Alois Brunner, one of the most notorious Nazi war criminals.
Brunner, a chief aide to Adolf
Eichmann, served as an adviser to the Assad regime.2
In 1987-88, the Syrian secret police seized 10 Jews
on suspicion of violating travel and emigration laws, planning to escape
and having taken unauthorized trips abroad. Several who were released
reported being tortured while in custody.3
In November 1989, the Syrian government promised to
facilitate the emigration of more than 500 single Jewish women, who
greatly outnumbered eligible men in the Jewish community and could not
find suitable husbands. Twenty-four were allowed to emigrate in the
fall of 1989 and another 20 in 1991.4
For years, the Jews in Syria lived in extreme fear. The Jewish Quarter
in Damascus was under the constant surveillance of the secret police,
who were present at synagogue services, weddings, bar-mitzvahs and other
Jewish gatherings. Contact with foreigners was closely monitored. Travel
abroad was permitted in exceptional cases, but only if a bond of $300-$1,000
was left behind, along with family members who served as hostages. U.S.
pressure applied during peace negotiations helped convince President
Hafez Assad to lift these restrictions, and those prohibiting Jews from
buying and selling property, in the early 1990's.
In an undercover operation in late 1994, 1,262 Syrian
Jews were brought to Israel. The spiritual leader of the Syrian Jewish
community for 25 years, Rabbi Avraham Hamra, was among those who left
Syria and went to New York (he now lives in Israel). Syria had granted
exit visas on condition that the Jews not go to Israel.5
The decision to finally free the Jews came about largely as a result
of pressure from the United States following the 1991 Madrid
By the end of 1994, the Joab Ben Zeruiah Synagogue
in Aleppo, in continuous use for more than 1,600 years, was deserted.
A year later, approximately 250 Jews remained in Damascus, all apparently
staying by choice.6 By the middle of 2001,
Rabbi Huder Shahada Kabariti estimated that 150 Jews were living in
Damascus, 30 in Haleb and 20 in Kamashili. Every two or three months,
a rabbi visits from Istanbul, Turkey, to oversee preparation of kosher
meat, which residents freeze and use until his next visit. Two synagogues
remain open in Damascus.7
Although Jews are occasionally subjected to violence
by Palestinian protesters in Syria, the government has taken strict
protective measures, including arresting assailants and guarding the
According to the State Department, Jews still have
a separate primary school for religious instruction on Judaism and are
allowed to teach Hebrew in some schools. About a dozen students still
attend the Jewish school, which had 500 students as recently as 1992.
Jews and Kurds are the only minorities not allowed to participate in
the political system. In addition, "the few remaining Jews are
generally barred from government employment and do not have military
service obligations. They are the only minority whose passports and
identity cards note their religion."9
1Howard Sachar, A
History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time., (NY:
Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p. 400; Maurice Roumani, The Case of the
Jews from Arab Countries: A Neglected Issue, (Tel Aviv: World Organization
of Jews from Arab Countries, 1977), p. 31; Norman Stillman, The
Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times, (NY: Jewish Publication
Society, 1991), p. 146.
2Newsday, (November 1, 1987); information
provided by Rep. Michael McNulty.
3. Middle East Watch, Human Rights in Syria,
(NY: Middle East Watch, 1990), p. 94.
4Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
for 1991, (DC: Department of State, 1992), p. 1610.
5Jerusalem Post, (Oct. 18,
6Jerusalem Post, (May 27, 1995).
7Associated Press, (January 27, 2000).
Department of State, 2000
Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, Released by the
Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Washington, DC, (September
State Department Report on Human Rights Practices for 2001.
10. David Singer and Lawrence
Grossman, Eds. American
Jewish Year Book 2003. NY: American Jewish Committee, 2003.