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Jews in Islamic Countries: Syria

Jewish Population
1948: 40,000    |    2022: 4

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.

When partition 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 regime of Hafez Assad.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 1990s.

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 the condition that the Jews do 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 peace conference.

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 visited from Istanbul, Turkey, to oversee the preparation of kosher meat, which residents froze and ate until his next visit. Two synagogues remained open in Damascus.7

Although Jews were occasionally subjected to violence by Palestinian protesters in Syria, the government took strict protective measures, including arresting assailants and guarding the remaining synagogues.8

According to the State Department, in 2001, Jews still had 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

During the Syrian Civil War that devastated the country starting in 2011, many significant cultural and religious holy sites were damaged or destroyed by bombings or general combat.  Syria's oldest Synagogue, the Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue in the neighborhood of Jobar, was destroyed along with everything inside of it during bombing runs carried out by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces in May 2014. The synagogue was over 400 years old and contained thousands of priceless and irreplaceable Jewish historic artifacts. During the Middle Ages, it served a populous Jewish community and was converted after Israel's founding into a school for Palestinian refugees. In addition to the Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue, during the Syrian Civil War, Assad's forces also destroyed the Umm al-Zinnar Church, and the 1,400-year-old Khalid Ibn Walid Mosque.10

The last Jews living in Aleppo were rescued in a secret mission, the details of which were revealed on November 8, 2015. Seven members of the Halabi family were rushed from their home, in a rescue facilitated and financed by American businessman Moti Kahana. Kahana had heard from local sources that ISIS-affiliated forces were closing in on the family and would soon know where they lived, so he hired “handlers” to help them escape. When members of the Halabi family were first awoken early one morning to hard banging on their front door, they thought that either Assad’s forces or ISIS militants were about to burst into their home to arrest them, or worse. They were hurried into a bus and told that they were being taken to New York City. All family members received fake passports from their handlers, who lied at checkpoints and said that the family was just a group of refugees looking for safety in the country's North. After a harrowing 36-hour car ride, the Halabi family wound up in Turkey, where Moti Kahana was awaiting their arrival with a rented house and supplies for them. The family decided to make aliyah and move to Israel but one of the older daughters, Gilda, had converted to Islam to marry her husband three years prior. Upon investigation, the Jewish Agency decided that since Gilda had converted to Islam to marry her husband, she was not eligible to make aliyah. The Jewish Agency took the matriarch of the Halabi family as well as her two unmarried daughters to Israel, but Gilda, her husband, and their three children were forced to stay behind in Turkey. When the lease on the home Kahana rented was up and they ran out of supplies, Gilda and her family had no choice but to return to Syria.11

The Central Synagogue in Aleppo, Syria, sustained minor damage to a corner wall when caught in the crossfire between groups of Syrian militants in early February 2016. Syrian humanitarian organizations contend that the damage was most likely caused by shelling. The synagogue remained standing despite the damage, but the building remains in danger as long as fighting continues around it.12

According to the 2020 State Department report on human rights practices in Syria, “the Foundation for Jewish Heritage and the American Schools of Oriental Research’s Cultural Heritage Initiatives reported in May 2020 the condition of 62 percent of Jewish-built heritage sites in Syria was poor, very bad, or beyond repair.”  

It also said:

The national school curriculum did not include materials on tolerance education or the Holocaust….Government-controlled radio and television programming continued to disseminate anti-Semitic news articles and cartoons. The regime-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency frequently reported on the “Zionist enemy” and accused the Syrian opposition of serving “the Zionist project.”

The report cited the Jewish Chronicle’s conclusion that no Jews were known to be living in Syria. The Jerusalem Post, however, reported that four Jews remained in Damascus (two women and two men) after the president of the Jewish community died in September 2022.

Sources: 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, U.S. State Department, (March 30, 2021).
Zvika Klein, “The president of Syria’s Jewish community passed away; only four Jews remain in Damascus,” Jerusalem Post (September 22, 2022).

1) Howard 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.
2) Newsday, (November 1, 1987); information provided by Rep. Michael McNulty.
3) Middle East Watch, Human Rights in Syria, (NY: Middle East Watch, 1990), p. 94.
4) Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1991, (DC: Department of State, 1992), p. 1610.
5) Jerusalem Post, (Oct. 18, 1994).
6) Jerusalem Post, (May 27, 1995).
7) Associated Press, (January 27, 2000).
8)U.S. Department of State2000 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Washington, DC, (September 5, 2000).
9) U.S. State Department Report on Human Rights Practices for 2001.
10)Josh Rogin Syria's Oldest Synagogue, Destroyed By Assad.The Daily Beast, (May 27, 2014).
11) Sandy Rashty, “Revealed: how the last Jews of Aleppo Escaped,”.Jewish Chronicle, (November 5, 2015).
12) “Aleppo synagogue damaged in fighting between Syrian militants,” Jerusalem Post (February 10, 2016).