For reasons I won’t even try to guess, a Republican state senator from here in Virginia (in whose district I am fortunate not to reside) has written a gushing letter of appreciation to Syria’s murderous dictator Bashar al-Assad.
The most cringe-inducing paragraph of this disgusting letter comes near the end:
You have followed the practice of your father by treating with respect all Christians and the small community of Jews in Damascus. You defended their churches and the Jewish synagogue, and you have permitted them to worship freely, according to their beliefs. I am grateful for that.
OK, where to start?
First, Syrian Christians who have dared to oppose Assad since the uprising began have been treated just as brutally as any other Syrians who dare to oppose him.
Second, only a tiny handful of Jews still lives in Damascus or anywhere else in Syria. The Jewish community in Syria has not exactly thrived since the establishment of Israel, or since Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
Finally, here is how the Assad regime “defended” the 400-year-old synagogue in Jobar last weekend.