JTA / June 7, 2007
By Larry Luxner
ALEPPO, Syria — From the roof of a nondescript, four-story apartment building in downtown Aleppo — amid a jumble of water tanks, power lines and satellite dishes — one can gaze down at the last remnant of one of the oldest Jewish communities on Earth.
Hebrew gravestones, partially obscured by weeds and garbage, occupy a plot of land adjacent to the historic Joab Ben Zeruiah Synagogue, whose stone archways and grand interior walls hint of a prosperous and lively Jewish past.
The shul, in continuous use for over 1,600 years, now sits deserted. And the families living in nearby apartments have no clue that the ancient building in their midst once housed the most influential center of Torah learning in the Middle East.
This rooftop perch offers the only view of the synagogue's restored interior, because the building's front door is always locked. A sign at the entrance offers a phone number in Damascus for tourists to call, but the man who answers that number says military police must arrange all visits.
Such is life in Syria, home to no more than 50 Jews out of a total population of 18.5 million. Nearly all live in Damascus, except for perhaps two or three Jews residing in Aleppo.
"The Jewish community is quite elderly at this point. Nobody bothers them," said Seth Kaplan, a New York-based researcher who visited Syria in January for three weeks. "In fact, many Syrians told me they miss the Jews on some level."
Despite Syria's official anti-Zionist policy — and the state of war that has existed between Israel and Syria since 1948 — this JTA reporter heard not one comment against Jews during his five-day visit to Aleppo last month.
When asked for directions to the "Harat al-Yahud," Syrians on the street helpfully pointed the way to what once was the Jewish quarter, without any hint of hostility. In fact, an Arabic-language sign at the entrance to the abandoned Joab Ben Zeruiah synagogue sternly warns against dumping trash "in front of this holy place of worship."
An ancient metropolis of 1.5 million, Aleppo is Syria's second-largest city and is world-renowned for its walled Citadel, which stands on a hilltop right in the middle of town. From a Jewish point of view, it's also famous for the Aleppo Codex — the earliest known manuscript containing the entire text of the Bible.
The Jewish presence in Aleppo reached its zenith in the late 19th century, and began declining before World War I as young Jewish men fled to avoid serving in the Ottoman army. Thousands of Syrian Jews ended up in Mexico City, Buenos Aires and New York.
Massive emigration continued after the war, and intensified in 1947 as Syria — having gained independence from France a year earlier — encouraged pogroms against Jewish-owned shops and synagogues.
Throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s, Syria's few Jews lived in fear, chafing under constant police surveillance and severe restrictions on business dealings, property ownership and overseas travel. Those limits pretty much ended in the mid-1990s, when then-President Hafez al-Assad — under heavy U.S. pressure — allowed more than 1,200 Jews to leave Syria for new lives in the United States, Europe and, indirectly, Israel.
"There used to be a Jewish quarter in Damascus and maybe 20 synagogues," said Kaplan. "Today, there's only one functioning synagogue, and they struggled to get a minyan the Shabbat morning I was there. We actually didn't make it. We got to eight."
JTA's attempts to interview Syrian Jews proved fruitless, since no one seemed to know how to get in touch with them. Jews here keep such a low profile that officials at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus won't comment on the subject, even on background.
Waddah Tabshow, owner of the Jafra House Oriental Souvenir Shop in Aleppo's famous Souq al-Madinah, told JTA he knew a number of Jews growing up, though he had lost contact with them over the years.
"Jewish people here had friendships with many people, but the families we know left in the early '90s, because they got permission from the Syrian government to leave," he said.
Mahmoud Sharif, an English-speaking tour guide, suggested that the Jews left "because Syria wasn't a good country to live in, and because there were more opportunities in other countries."
Sharif, 31, did his army service on Syria's border with the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in the Six-Day War of 1967. A college graduate, Sharif said he has nothing against the Jewish people.
"Israel is one thing, and Jews are something else. We respect the Jewish religion and consider it one of God's religions, but we don't accept Israel," he told JTA.
"The problem is not with the people of Israel, but with the government. Israel uses heavy weapons against children. They've forced Palestinians from their land. The Palestinians have a miserable life, and many [refugee] families in Syria still think of their villages. If you ask them about Palestine, they will cry."
Talking about politics — even when criticizing Israel — is a risky proposition in Syria, where police seem to be nearly as numerous as the ubiquitous posters of President Bashar al-Assad and his late father, Hafez al-Assad.
For example, a 20-foot-high statue of Hafez towers over the main highway from Damascus to Aleppo, while an enormous billboard of Bashar, 41, guards the entrance to the al-Hamadiyya market in Damascus, with the Arabic-language text: "God Protects Syria."
At the Omar Khawatmi Elementary School in a poor neighborhood of Aleppo, more than 1,000 boys and girls in blue uniforms assemble on the outdoor basketball court every morning to sing patriotic songs and shout slogans in Arabic.
Asked what they're shouting, the headmaster carefully replies: "They are praising our president."
Even so, things have apparently lightened up a bit since the younger Assad took over in 2000 upon the death of his father.
"We feel we can talk more freely now, and criticize things that are wrong," said Sharif, the tour guide. "For example, three days ago, on a television program called 'Let's Talk,' people were speaking frankly about Parliament, saying that politicians are only for themselves and that we want them to do something for the people. I never heard such words on TV before."
And one thing Syrians talk quite a lot about is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The ongoing violence in the West Bank and Gaza dominates TV shows, coffee-shop conversation and headlines in the newspapers — all of which are state-controlled, including the English-language Syria Times.
"People here don't like Israel," said Sharif. "They think about this situation every day. It's our daily problem. They think Israel won't last forever."
Asked what it would take to change people's attitudes, the young man thought for a moment.
"If Israel gave us back the Golan, it would be a good sign they really want peace," he suggested. "[But] whether the government makes peace with Israel or not, the people will not agree. And if they agree, it's because they'll be forced to agree. They hate Israel."
Meanwhile, Imad Moustapha, Syria's ambassador in Washington, has carefully cultivated warm relations with the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn.
"Since introducing myself to them, we've become very friendly," said Moustapha, who's represented Syrian interests in the United States since 2004. "They've invited me to their weddings and bar-mitzvahs, and I have met their grand rabbi."
Moustapha added: "I firmly believe that Syria and Israel will have peace one day. It's regretful that some politicians in Israel don't have this vision. How unfortunate it is that we have to wait for years, for Israel to realize that they have no other alternative."
In the meantime, Aleppo shopkeeper Salaheddin Abbas has his own take on the situation.
"It's obvious that America and Russia are making trouble in the region, so that Russia can sell weapons to Syria and Iran, and the U.S. can sell weapons to Israel and Saudi Arabia," said Abbas, a 36-year-old seller of antique brassware and carpets. "I believe poor people in Israel want peace, not rich people. It's all about business."