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Virtual Jewish World:
Damascus, Syria


Virtual Jewish World: Table of Contents | Asia | Syria


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Syria's capital, Damascus, was in olden times a caravan center situated at an oasis in Southern Syria, on the principal crossroads between Mesopotamia and Palestine.

- In the Bible
- Second Temple Period
- Under Muslim Rule
- Since 1948

In the Bible

The name appears as דַּמֶּשֶׂק Dammesek (but once as דּוּמֵשֵׂק Dummesek, II Kings 16:10) and דַּרְמֶשֶׂק Darmesek, as in Chronicles (e.g., II Chron. 16:2) and also in the Dead Sea Scrolls and rabbinic sources. The meaning of the name is obscure; derivations from Semitic sources have been suggested but the etymology of the name remains uncertain. In Assyrian documents of the first millennium B.C.E. Dimašqi is interchangeable with the peculiar epithet ša imérišu, the city or land "of his donkey," though the epithet most probably refers to the country only. The Egyptian Execration Texts and the Mari documents (18th century B.C.E.) refer to the Damascus region as the "Land of Apum," ruled by West Semitic princes. Damascus is mentioned by name for the first time in the geographical lists of Thutmosis III (15th century B.C.E.). In the El-Amarna letters (14th century B.C.E.) Damascus is mentioned several times, once explicitly, as being in the "Land of Upe" (i.e., Apu[m]); at this time its rulers bore Indo-Aryan names. The patriarchal narratives twice mention Damascus in passing (Gen. 14:15; 15:2), and the biblical account includes it within the Land of Canaan (Num. 34). Though this region lay within the Egyptian dominion until Egypt's decline in the 12th century, the Hittites sporadically penetrated and held it.

The desert oasis of Damascus became an important center for the Arameans shortly after their appearance in Syria toward the end of the second millennium. David, in his campaigns against the Aramean confederation, conquered the city and posted Israelite governors there (II Sam. 8:5–6). Damascus cast off the Israelite yoke during Solomon's reign and became the capital of the kingdom of Aram Damascus , remaining so until its destruction by the Assyrians in 732 B.C.E. It reached its height in the ninth century as an important political, economic, and cultural center. Even so, Damascus was forced to grant Israelite merchants special rights in the city, as indicated by the Aramean king Ben-Hadad's submission to Ahab: "… you may establish bazaars for yourself in Damascus, as my father did in Samaria" (I Kings 20:34).

The city of Damascus was repeatedly attacked by Assyria, as the latter gained power. In 841 B.C.E. and again in 838 B.C.E., Shalmaneser III besieged it, destroying the vineyards and orchards surrounding the city; later Adad-Nirari III twice (or even three times) spared the city only after being paid a heavy tribute; in 773 B.C.E. Shalmaneser IV also campaigned against Damascus, weakening it sufficiently to allow Jeroboam II, king of Israel, to impose his suzerainty over it; and in 732 B.C.E. the final blow was delivered by Tiglath-Pileser III. Reduced to the status of the capital of an Assyrian province, Damascus was still mentioned in Assyrian sources in 727, 720, and 694 B.C.E. and even as late as the reign of Ashurbanipal (668–627 B.C.E.). In the Persian period, Damascus was an important administrative center, and may have been the capital of the satrapy of Trans-Euphrates (cuneiform, ebir nãri; Aram. avar nahara [Ezra:4:10, etc.]; Heb. ever ha-nahar [Ezra 8:36; Neh. 2:7, 9]). The geographical position of Damascus, dominating the major trade routes, led to an economic prosperity in the biblical period, as did the fertility of the desert oasis, as reflected in the Bible (II Kings 5:12; Ezek. 27:18, where its trade in wine and wool is specified). Damascus was a cultic center for the god Hadad (cf. Ben-Hadad , the name typical of the Damascene kings), apparently worshiped locally under the name Rimmon (cf. "the house of Rimmon," II Kings 5:18). The ancient city of Damascus has not yet been uncovered. One of the few chance finds from the biblical period is a ninth-century B.C.E. basalt orthostat depicting a cherub/sphinx in Phoenician style, which had been built into a substructural wall of the Umayyad mosque. The latter building apparently stands on the site of the ancient temple of Hadad-Ramman (cf. II Kgs. 5:18). In addition, Damascus is mentioned in an Aramaic stele, fragments of which were uncovered at Dan in northern Israel.

From the time of Alexander the Great's invasion of the Near East in 333 B.C.E., Damascus served as a Macedonian colony, later becoming the capital of Coele-Syria and Phoenicia (from 111 B.C.E.), and then eventually becoming incorporated into the Roman Empire. Very little archaeological data is known about the pre-Classical city of Damascus, except for a few chance finds. The general plan of the present Old City may have been modeled on the general plan of the Hellenistic city, as some scholars have proposed (including Sauvaget), but there is no certainty about this. Roman remains include the architectural remains and inscriptions of the Damascene Temple of Jupiter, and a very distinctive street running east-west, which may very well be the same as the "Street called Straight" mentioned in Acts 9:11. A church dedicated to John the Baptist, which may have housed his relic head, existed in the city in the Byzantine period. Most of the ancient buildings visible today in the city are Islamic, including the impressive Great Mosque built by Caliph al-Walid in 705–15.

Second Temple Period

With the advent of Alexander the Great in the east, Persian rule in Damascus was replaced by Macedonian, and later by that of Alexander's successors, the Diadochi, Seleucids, and Ptolemaids who alternately ruled over Damascus until its conquest by Pompey in 64 B.C.E. The city is mentioned several times in the Hasmonean era in connection with the conquests of Jonathan (I Macc. 11:62), who appointed his brother Simeon commander-in-chief at the Ladder of Tyre and after his conquest of Gaza in the south returned to Damascus. The army of Demetrius came to Kedesh in Galilee to thwart him but was defeated. Subsequently (ibid. 12:24–32) there is mention of another battle with the army of Demetrius in the land of Hamath, when Jonathan again was victorious and returned to Damascus. According to some scholars the sect known from the Covenant of Damascus settled in the town or in its proximity after the capture of Damascus in the time of Pompey. "The land of Damascus" is mentioned several times in the book together with Damascus itself as the sect's place of residence. It may be assumed that this thickly populated commercial city situated at a major crossroads attracted Jews from various places.

Salome Alexandra attempted to extend her rule over Damascus which was threatened by Ptolemy of Chalcis but was unsuccessful (Jos., Ant., 13:418). In Damascus Pompey met with the emissaries of Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, the Hasmonean brothers who were contending for the throne, and from there he went in pursuit of Aristobulus (ibid., 14:34f.). Damascus is also mentioned as Herod's place of refuge when, with the help of the high priest Hyrcanus, he fled Jerusalem when the members of the Sanhedrin were about to sentence him to death for having the Galilean rebels executed (ibid., 14:177f.). In the course of time a large and important Jewish community was established in Damascus. The Jews of Damascus in the first century C.E. are mentioned in Acts 9 and II Corinthians 11:32. In Acts, Paul states that he requested letters from the high priest in Jerusalem addressed to the synagogues of Damascus asking that they hand over to him the adherents of the new sect in order to bring them to Jerusalem. On the eve of the Roman war the Jews of Damascus were murdered by the gentile inhabitants (Jos., Wars, 2:559–561; Life, 27).

In talmudic literature Damascus is mentioned only in the economic sphere; it is called "the gateway of the Garden of Eden" (Er. 19a), reference being made to its fertile land and produce: Damascene plums, wine of Senir, etc. The quality of the waters of the rivers of Damascus and their validity for ritual ablutions are also discussed (TJ, Beẓah 3:2, 62a; Parah 8:10, "Keramyon" and "Puga"). Apparently Judah ha-Nasi had possessions to the west and south of Damascus, and on his journeys to them he visited that city as well as the Jewish communities in the vicinity (Sanh. 5b), many of which are mentioned (Ḥovah, Kokheva, Kefar Avraham, Kefar Karinos, Rom, Beth-Anath, Aratris, Ifarkoris, Sakhuta, etc.). It may be assumed that on their way from Ereẓ Israel to Babylon scholars passed through these places, but there were no institutes of learning there or in the city of Damascus, and it may be inferred that the Jews of Damascus engaged in agriculture as well as in commerce and became well known in this respect.

Roman rule in Ereẓ Israel and Syria commenced in 64 B.C.E. and continued under the Eastern (Byzantine) Roman Empire until the first half of the seventh century. During these 300 years, the Roman and Persian empires were engaged in a struggle in the region, which changed hands several times. In 613, Damascus was again captured by the Persians. They retained it only for a short time. The despotic and often religiously fanatical Byzantine administration alienated the inhabitants, even the Christians, and they certainly did not succeed in gaining sympathizers among the Jews and Samaritans. As a result all the cities submitted to the Persian armies without any opposition.

From the descriptions of the Armenian historian Bishop Sebeos (seventh century) and the book of the monk Astrategius of Mar-Saba, among others, it is learned that the Jews collaborated with the Persian conquerors against the Christians. From Damascus the Persians proceeded to conquer Ereẓ Israel, coming there together with their Jewish supporters (according to Sophronius). It may be assumed that the alliance of the Jews with the Persians was motivated by the hope for a tolerant attitude and, perhaps, even of gaining autonomy for the Jewish communities of Syria and Ereẓ Israel, as had been attained by the large Jewish community of Babylonia. The alliance of the Jews of Damascus with the Persians and their participation in the punitive actions against the Christians are evidence of their difficult situation under Byzantine rule. Although the Christian population also suffered under Byzantine rule, the mention of the Jews' participation in the campaign of suppression against the Christians, and particularly those from Tyre, testifies to fierce rivalry, and perhaps also to additional privileges granted the Christians by the Byzantine emperors so as to oust the Jews of Damascus from their position.

Under Muslim Rule

According to one tradition, the Jews were mentioned in the terms of the capitulation in 635, according to which the city was handed over to the Arabs. It is certain that the conquerors granted the Jews the southeastern quarter of the city, where they had previously dwelt. By comparison with the oppression that they suffered under Byzantine rule, there was a definite improvement in their situation. During the reigns of the caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty (661–750), the Jews, as well as the Christians, enjoyed tolerant treatment. However, with the ascent to power of the Abbasid dynasty (750–1258), they suffered from decrees against them along with an increase in the taxes levied upon them. Even so, they could observe their religious rituals openly and the ties with the academies of Palestine and Babylonia were renewed. The Damascus community was affected by events which influenced the Jewish population of the Orient. Furthermore, the sectarian movements in Babylonia found sympathizers in Damascus. According to the Karaite author Al-Kirkisānī , there were still in his days (first half of tenth century) some remnants of the ʿIsāwiyya sect (founded by Abū ʿĪsā al-Iṣfahānī) in Damascus. At the same time, the great Muslim caliphate began to disintegrate and Iraq, which was the center of its empire, suffered from the wars between various groups and military factions. These events also marked the beginning of an important emigration of Iraqi Jews towards other countries. Damascus, like other cities in Syria and Egypt, became the home of many Iraqi Jews who established their own synagogues in the city. One of the pages in the records of the Damascus bet din for the year 933 contains four betrothal documents of Iraqi Jews in three consecutive weeks.

After the conquest of Damascus by the Fatimids in 969, a period of prosperity began for the Jewish community. The Fatimids were noted for their tolerant attitude towards non-Muslims and they appointed Jews and Christians to high positions. At the end of the tenth century, Manasseh ibn Ibrahim al-Qazzāz held the position of head of the financial administration of Fatimid Syria, and used all the means within his power to further the welfare of his coreligionists. The Jews of Damascus at that time were in close contact with the Jews of Cairo and the Palestinian academies. In Damascus there were distinguished scholars such as Samuel b. Hoshana (III) of the Palestinian academy, who was a hymnologist and probably also av bet din. As a result of its close ties with the Palestinian academies, the community of Damascus was dragged into disputes in Palestine. It was especially involved in the controversy between the gaon Solomon b. Judah and his opponent Nathan b. Abraham. In the Genizah there are a few documents about the immigrants from Damascus to Egypt during Fatimid rule.

With the conquest of the greater part of Palestine by the Crusaders, the Palestinian academy was transferred to Hadrach , near Damascus, and later to Damascus itself. The first head of the academy in Hadrach was Solomon b. Elijah, who held this position during the early 12th century. The academy was then headed by Abraham b. Mazhir and his son Ezra. The 12th-century traveler Benjamin of Tudela, who visited Damascus in about 1173, relates that there were 3,000 Jews in the city. On the other hand, his contemporary Pethahiah of Regensburg, the German traveler, maintains that there were 10,000 Jews in Damascus. These numbers seem to be exaggerated and it is unlikely that the Damascus community consisted of more than 2,000 Rabbanite Jews and about 600 Karaites. Besides craftsmen and small tradesmen, there were also physicians and intellectuals who composed Hebrew poetry. The poet Judah Al-Ḥarizi , who visited Damascus in 1217, mentions the exilarch R. Josiah b. Yishai (Jesse) and the physicians Moses b. Ṣadaga and Isaac b. Baruch as residents of the city.

Saladin, who conquered Damascus in 1174, and his descendants, the sultans of the Ayyubid dynasty, were indeed fervent Muslims, but even so they treated the members of other religions with tolerance. They also befriended intellectuals and employed the services of physicians. In general, the Ayyubid rule (12th–13th century) brought prosperity for the whole city. Trade relations with the European countries were strengthened as a result of the establishment of colonies of Genoese and Venetian merchants in the coastal towns of the Latin principalities. It seems that the first nesiʾim, descendants of the Exilarch who settled in Damascus, were Solomon and his son Yoshiyahu in the first half of the 12th century; and in the 1180s and 1190s Judah, the son of Yoshiyahu. At the beginning of the 13th century came his relative Yoshiyahu ben Ishai. These leaders received money from the public treasury and gave the community a sense of importance but did not have any official position in the city. They traveled often to Syrian communities, Ereẓ Israel, and Egypt and received money from the local communities. Yoshiyahu was mentioned by Alḥarizi who wrote about the leadership of the community in the last decade of the 12th century and at the beginning of the 13th century, including the great nagid Obadiah and Judah Abu Alrada. The title nagid of Damascus was later given to Hillel ben Moses. In the Cairo Genizah one finds the appointment order given in 1193 by the Mamluk Sultan al-Malik al-Fasl ʿAlī, the eldest son of Saladin, to Obadiah. He appointed him as the head of all the Jews, Rabbanite, Karaite, and Samaritan, in Damascus and all the communities in the area of Syria.

After the Mamluks defeated the Mongols at the battle of ʿAyn Jālūt in 1260, Syria came under the domination of the Mamluk sultans of Cairo. These sultans, influenced by fanatical theologians, agreed to issue decrees against non-Muslims. In Damascus, where many Muslim theological colleges had been founded since the reign of Saladin, the theologians had considerable influence, which they used to implant religious hatred within the general population. As a result, during the Mamluk period there was much oppression and many decrees against non-Muslims, even more than in the other cities under Mamluk rule. In 1321 the Muslims destroyed a synagogue, in 1354 there was a general persecution of non-Muslims, and in 1365 there were searches for stores of wine, as many Muslims bought wine from the Jews in spite of the Koranic prohibition of alcohol. The authorities also renewed the requirements compelling Jewish women to wear one black and one red shoe, and compelling the men to blow on a whistle when entering the public bathhouses. Periodically, the Muslims brought accusations against the Jews and forced some of them to convert to Islam. In 1392 the Jews of Damascus were accused of having set fire to the central mosque. One Jew was then burnt alive, the community leaders were tortured, and a synagogue was converted into a mosque. However, after a lapse of two years, this synagogue was returned to the Jews. In 1286 the exilarch Jesse (Yishai) b. Hezekiah excommunicated the kabbalists of Acre, who had criticized the works of Maimonides . There is no further mention of these exilarchs during later generations; however, a deputy of the Egyptian nagid had his seat in Damascus. During the whole of this period, the Jews of Damascus maintained contacts with the Palestinian population and they were accustomed to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem, as Naḥmanides and Estori ha-Parḥi testify.

The short occupation of Damascus by Tamerlane in 1401, the ransom which the conqueror levied upon the city, and the looting in which he engaged brought great suffering to all in the city, and the community was slow in recuperating from this calamity. However, during the second half of the 15th century, the Jews of Damascus enjoyed a period of economic prosperity. There were wealthy merchants among them and cultural activities flourished at the same time. According to the reports of Jewish travelers who came from European countries toward the end of the 15th century, there were between 400 and 500 Jewish families in Damascus at that time, besides a small Karaite community and a community of Samaritans . In 1435 the Italian rabbi Elijah La Massa, who settled in Jerusalem, was answering halakhic questions for Damascus Jewry. Rabbi Joseph of Montagna visited Damascus in 1481 and found an organized community including many scholars. He had the impression that no poor Jews lived in the city. A student of Rabbi Obadiah of Bertinoro visited Damascus in 1495 and was the guest of the president of the community, Moses Makran. He mentioned that the Jewish population numbered 500 families, most of them merchants, workers, and moneylenders.

During the early 16th century, the Spanish refugees of 1492 began to arrive in Damascus. This immigration increased after 1516, when Syria became a part of the Ottoman Empire . R. Moses Basola found 500 refugee families in the city in 1521, as well as special synagogues belonging to the Jews of Spanish, Sicilian, and Iraqi origin. There were at first some conflicts between the Spanish and Iraqi Jews. The Spanish Jews formed a separate community with independent institutions, such as a separate cemetery. The Sicilians also acted in the same fashion. The split of the Damascus community into these three groups lasted a long time, and each congregation had its own rabbi, as well as a special bet din. However, in time these divisions were repaired. The influence of the Spanish Jews, among whom there were a number of scholars, increased as a result of their high cultural level. Furthermore, when the descendants of the original Spanish Jews ceased using Spanish, a major division between them and the rest of the community was removed. The Turkish authorities usually treated the Jews fairly. Some exceptions occurred, such as the destruction of the Iraqi Jews' synagogue in 1570 by a Turkish commissioner. However, even in this case the community was indemnified after a short while. The Jews of Damascus traded with other parts of the Ottoman Empire and maintained close ties with the rabbis of Jerusalem and Safed . Scholars from Jerusalem and Safed were appointed to rabbinical positions in Damascus and some of the rabbis of Damascus immigrated to Palestine in their old age. As a result of these contacts the study of the Kabbalah spread among the Jews of Damascus. In 1591 R. Moses Alshekh from Safed visited Damascus as an emissary, returning a second time and serving as a dayyan in 1593. That year he returned to Safed and died soon after. R. Ḥayyim b. Joseph Vital went to Damascus and lived there. A local rabbi in Damascus, Jacob Abulafia, was Vital's rival. R. Samuel b. Ḥayyim Vital continued to propagate the teachings of his father in Damascus. In 1604 Safed was destroyed by the Druze and many of its Jews fled to Damascus. The influence of the kabbalists then became even more important. Two of the refugees, Isaac and Jacob, the sons of the Safed printer Abraham Ashkenazi, set up a Hebrew printing press in Damascus. In 1605 they printed Kesef Nivḥar ("Choice Silver"), the work of R. Josiah Pinto , the rabbi of the Sephardi Jews in Damascus. R. Josiah Pinto wrote a series of works which reflected his kabbalistic outlook. At that time, there were also scholars and intellectuals in Damascus who wrote secular poems in Hebrew. The poet Israel Najara settled in Damascus in 1579. In 1621 Rabbi Isaiah Halevi Horowitz (Ha-Shelah) passed through the city on his way to Ereẓ Israel and refused to serve as the local rabbi. Shabbetai Ẓevi received some support from the Jews of Damascus. When his disciple Nathan of Gaza came to Damascus, many Jews in the city indicated that they still believed in the pseudo-messiah, despite the fact that he had already converted to Islam.

The wealthy merchants in Damascus in the middle of the 19th century (comprising around 24 merchant houses) were the richest class in the city and managed most of the local business of the vilayet of Damascus. There were also moneylenders who were the bankers of the city. The richest families were Levi-Stambouli, Angel, Lisbona, Farhi, Harari, Tovi, and Hason, philanthropists who helped the community.

The traveler Benjamin II , who visited Damascus in 1848, estimated that the city had a Jewish population of 4,000, while the Austrian poet Dr. L.A. Frankl estimated that in about 1857 the population was 5,000. He mentioned the wealthiest Jew in Damascus, Raphael Stambouli, who was the host of Baron Alfonso de Rothschild in that year. He described the grandiose life of the community's elite, and noted the contempt of the Christian inhabitants for the Jews.

Frankl wrote in 1857 that the Karaite community in Damascus had been dissolved 50 years earlier. The Jewish community had eight synagogues, including "Frangi," which was the largest synagogue, founded by the Spanish settlers in Damascus; "Menesh," in which R. Hayim Vital had prayed; "Raki," in which the Farhi family had prayed (it was constructed in the middle of the 19th century); "Del Pasha"; "Halab"; "Midrash"; and "Dashabar" outside the city. Jews from Ereẓ Israel and Syria came to pray there. The great rabbi of Damascus in the second half of the 19th century was Rabbi Isaac Abulafia (died in Tiberias in 1910). Famous rabbis in the city were Nethanel Moses Chaboba, who was appointed head of the bet din in Damascus until his departure to Jerusalem in 1904 where he died the same year, Aaron Jacob, Solomon Sukari, and Meir Mashen. The ḥakham bashi in Damascus at this time was Rabbi Jacob Peretz. The massacre of Christians by Muslims and Druze in 1860 was followed by Christian accusations that the Jews had taken part in the violence and had bought their looted possessions. Many Jews were imprisoned as a result of these accusations, but later they were freed. The basic condition of the community did not change as a result of these events. However, after 1870 the economic situation deteriorated. This was due to the opening of the Suez Canal, which limited the international trade of Damascus, and the bankruptcy of the Ottoman Empire in 1875. Furthermore, local industries were ruined by the importation of manufactured goods from Europe. Economic decline was followed by a moral and cultural decline. At the turn of the century some Jewish girls became notoriously known as "singers," and the rabbis attempted to end this shame. In 1888 there was only one talmud torah in Damascus with 450 students, and in 1895 it was transferred to the Alliance Israélite Universelle. This organization had opened a school in Damascus in 1864, but it was closed after five years and reopened only in 1880. A school for girls was inaugurated by this organization in 1883. In 1910, 768 students were enrolled in these schools. In 1911 the Alliance Israélite Universelle withdrew its support from the schools. An 1883 report noted that 25% of the Jewish population was very poor, 50% was poor, 25% belonged to the middle class, and only one percent of community members were wealthy. Most of the Jewish inhabitants were simple workers. In 1895 there was a split in the community regarding the chief rabbinate. One group wished to dismiss the ḥakham bashi Rabbi Isaac Abulafia. Rabbi Solomon Eliezer Alafandari was appointed, but his 13 years in the city were marked by dissension. In 1909 he immigrated to Ereẓ Israel (and died in Jerusalem in 1930). In the second half of the 19th century there were about 20 Ashkenazi families from Europe which had assimilated into the older population of the community. In the 18th century Jews from Persia, Bukhara, India, and Iraq had settled in Damascus. In 1822 many Jews from Aleppo settled there after the earthquake in that city. It appears that the Jewish population in the city grew from 3,000 to 5,000. Many Jews from Hamah also immigrated to Damascus between 1832 and 1840. After 1860, Jews from Hasbiya settled there. At the end of the 19th century, many Jews from Damascus immigrated to Ereẓ Israel.

Emigration from Damascus up to 1870 was minimal, with most of the immigrants leaving for Egypt. But in the last two decades of the 19th century immigration was stepped up and in the first two decades of the 20th century it became a flood. Most of the emigrants were young people who settled in North and South America, where they hoped to improve their economic situation. According to the Ottoman census of the year 1882, there were 3,177 Jewish men and 3,088 Jewish women in Damascus at the time. The first regular elections for the Va'ad Gashmi were scheduled in Damascus for the end of the 19th century. From c. 1840 to the end of the century there had been a Va'ad Ruḥani with authority in religious affairs. During the second half of the 19th century, many local Jews abandoned Jewish tradition.

Throughout the Ottoman period Damascus had the second largest community in Syria after Aleppo . In 1870 there was some incitement by the Christian inhabitants and the British consul, Richard Barton, against the Jews of Damascus, and the latter appealed to Sir Moses Montefiore , Francis Goldschdmidt, Rabbi Adler of London, and Charles Netter to get the consul dismissed. He was ordered by his government to return to England in 1871. During World War I the city suffered a severe economic crisis. Eliyahu Sasson reported in 1921 that only 5% of community members were wealthy, most of them merchants, 25% were workers, and almost 70% were needy. The Protestant mission was active within the community but had only limited success.

The community was unsuccessful in its efforts at maintaining a Hebrew school. There was no increase in the population of the community due to the continuing emigration of Jews from Damascus to Beirut and to both North and South America. In 1900 Damascus had 10,000 Jews. In the first decade of the 20th century 1,500 young Jews emigrated from Damascus.

In 1930 the headmaster of the Alliance Israélite Universelle estimated the Jewish population at not more than 8,000 and noted the Zionist influence on Jewish society there. In 1926 the number was the same, and in 1943 there were only 6,000 Jews in the city. The Zionists founded two Hebrew schools in Damascus, in which a majority of the pupils came from the poorer strata of the community, but in 1925 these schools were closed. In the Jewish quarter many young Jews spoke French, which helped many of them who emigrated. A number of rabbis lived and were active in Damascus at the end of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century. Rabbi Jacob Hacohen Trab (d. 1923), who was born in Damascus, was appointed rabbi of Beirut in 1900. Rabbi Judah Ḥayyim Maslaton was the son of the community rabbi, Ezra Hacohen Trab Maslaton. He was born in Damascus in 1872 and immigrated after World War I to Egypt (d. 1946). Rabbi Joseph Judah Dana (died in Haifa in 1973) was a student of Rabbi Isaac Abulafia and served for many years as rabbi of Damascus. He immigrated c. 1948 to Israel. In Damascus social differences were marked, and the wealthy Jews lived on a very high standard. These had a Western orientation and many of them were Francos who had capitulation rights. Among them were the Lisbona family, which enjoyed Austrian protection, and Jacob Levi Stambouli, who had British protection. The Jewish press in Europe emphasized the poverty of the Jewish majority. The talmidei ḥakhamim of Damascus were exempt from community taxes, but in 1875 the government ordered them to pay property taxes. In 1918 there were 15,000–17,000 Jews in Damascus. Only two families, Laniado and Totah, were wealthy, 300 families belonged to the middle class, and 600 families were needy. In 1919 most Jewish children were enrolled in Hebrew institutions headed by Abraham Elmaliah and Joseph Joel Rivlin. But in November 1919 the Jews of Damascus began to break off contact with the Committee of Deputies and the Zionist movement. The president of the community was Moses David Totah. In 1919 an orphanage was established and the Joint began to help the community. In 1924 there were 1,359 students in the Alliance Israélite Universelle institutions. There were also Jewish students from rich families who studied in Christian schools. In 1911 the new ḥakham bashi in Damascus, Rabbi Jacob Danon, invited his son-in-law, Abraham Elmaliah, to the city. Elmaliah changed the talmud torah to a Hebrew national school and invited teachers from Ereẓ Israel. Until 1917 it had 300 students and 200 more children in the kindergarten classes. In 1924, 150 poor Jewish students studied in Protestant Mission schools. In 1925 the Jewish quarter was sacked during the Druze rebellion against the French Mandate; some Jews were murdered and dozens were injured, while many buildings and shops were plundered.

The world economic crisis of the 1930s hurt also the Jews of Damascus. A large number were not employed and many immigrated to Ereẓ Israel and other countries. In 1936 they were accused of Zionism and Jews fled from Damascus. Zionist activity continued, however. In 1942 Tuviyyah Arazi described the dire economic circumstances of many of the children and youngsters there. Most of the children aged 10–12 worked and received no education. In that year the headmaster of the Alliance Israélite Universelle school was murdered.

Since 1948

The Jews of Damascus experienced fear and discrimination after the Israeli War of Independence. In July–August 1948 the Jewish quarter was bombed and dozens of Jews were killed and injured. Of the approximately 5,000 Jews in Damascus in 1948, and 3,500 in 1958, there remained only between 1,000 and 1,500 in 1968. Most Jews left for Lebanon immediately after the outbreak of the War of Independence, settling in Beirut; others went to Israel, Europe, and America. The vacant houses in the Jewish quarter were occupied by Palestinian Arab refugees whose presence caused constant tension and clashes with the remaining Jews. Many Jews fled from the city and secretly left for Israel and Lebanon. According to a report of the World Jewish Congress in 1954, the Jewish quarter in Damascus was full of Arab refugees. The head of the community committee was the banker Sabri Laniado, but the committee did not have any contact with the local authorities in Damascus. Only Jews who had special licenses could leave the city. Others were seized and imprisoned.

The Jews were supported by the Beirut community and by the Joint Distribution Committee as well as by grants from Syrian Jews in other countries, such as Mexico, Argentina, the United States, and some in Eastern Europe. Most of the money was transferred to the authorities as bribes. Only a little of it reached the needy. Many Jews abandoned their property. In the Jewish talmud torah there were just 170 children with the funds for the school coming from the U.S. The Jews were persecuted by the authorities and frequently arrested, especially during the trial of the Israeli intelligence officer Eli Cohen (1965) and during the Six-Day War (1967). The Muslim population also attacked Jews and planted a bomb in the synagogue in August 1949. The Jewish community suffered serious financial difficulties, most of its members being artisans or unemployed and living on the charity of the community council. A few Jews worked as clerks in the Banque de Commerce (which used to be the Zilkhah Bank), or in a Jewish-owned clothing factory. The number of conversions to Islam of Jewish girls marrying Muslims increased after the Jewish mass emigration. In 1968 the community's affairs were governed by a council of seven to nine members, whose main function was to support the needy with funds from Syrian Jews in America. Nissim Nedebo was rabbi of the community. The Alliance Israélite Universelle continued to run a school in Damascus, which had 420 pupils in 1965. Forty boys and girls attended government schools, and in 1965 there were eight Jewish students at Damascus University.

In an undercover operation in late 1994, 1,262 Syrian Jews were brought to Israel. The spiritual leader of the Syrian Jewish community from 1976 to 1994, Rabbi Abraham Hamra, was among those who left Syria and went to New York (and later Israel). Syria had granted exit visas on the condition that the Jews did not go to Israel. The decision to finally free the Jews came about largely as a result of pressure from the United States following the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference.

Many Jews worked as coppersmiths in Damascus. These artisans developed a style and technique of their own, creating masterpieces of metalwork in the course of the 20th century. With the immigration of the last artisans to Israel in 1992, this era came to an end in Damascus.

On March 1, 2013, the ancient Jobar Synagogue in the Jobar disctrict of Damascus was severely damaged by Syrian regime forces after shelling of the opposition military in the area. The Jobar synagogue was reportedly built in commemoration of the biblical prophet Elijah, with centuries of Jewish pilgrimage. On March 31, the synagogue was looted and burned to the ground while Syrian government forces and rebel militias blamed the other for the destruction. The rebels said the Syrian government looted the synagogue before burning it to the ground while the government said the rebels burned the synagogue and that so-called Zionist agents stole its historic religious items in an operation that had been planned for several weeks.


Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved; Al Arabiya (March 2, 2013); JTA (March 31, 2013)

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