Total Pageviews

Saturday, July 27, 2013

What Happened to Jews of Damascus, Syria

Nadene Goldfoot                                                   

"The website of the Talisman Hotel in Damascus says the structure used to be a Jewish house which was restored into a hotel. Considering that not so long ago the word “Jew” or “Jewish” uttered on the streets of Damascus would be accompanied by uneasy looks and whispers, this sudden openness and turn to multiculturalism is surprising. After all, not so long ago the last Jewish inhabitants of this quarter had their phones cut off, were banned from traveling abroad and forbidden to talk to foreigners. But visitors to this trendy boutique hotel will never hear a word about it".

3,228 Jews left Syria in 1973.   Most of the remaining Jews left in the 28 years following 1973, due in part to the efforts of Judith Feld Carr, who claims to have helped some 3,228 Jews emigrate; emigration was officially allowed in 1992.  

"In 1994, the Syrian authorities gave the green light to some restoration projects, and such jewels as Beit al-Mamlouka, Beit Zaman and the Old Vine Hotel received a second life. Some were purchased by elite Syrian and Lebanese figures, such as Noura Jumblatt, Druse leader Walid Jumblatt’s wife. Others were turned into boutique hotels, each with its unique style and ambience. Spending a night in one of these hotels might cost a tourist $250 to $300."  These jewels were homes of Jews who had left Damascus's Jewish quarter, Harat al Yahoud.  The homes had been deserted and were neglected.  

This was the same year that  the last remnant of Jews were uplifted to Tel Aviv, Israel. 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. Neighbors still remember the families that lived in these houses that are about 200 to 300 years old.  The synagogues and schools are still there.  

The Farhi family was very influential.  Rafael Farhi, or Muallem, was an advisor to the Ottoman Empire sultan.  He was a Nassi "president" of the Jewish community and owned dozens of the homes in the Jewish quarter.  His home was called Beit (house) Farhi, which was across the ally from the Talisman Hotel.

People  might never know just how  the Jewish Quarter and its houses were stolen from their legal owners. By 1950 when the Syrian government passed a law seizing Jewish property, only 5,000 Jews were left in the country. Since the early ’40s the community experienced riots, anti-Jewish campaigns and laws, intimidation and terror. Naturally, the elegant tourist brochure of the Talisman doesn’t say a word about this black page in Syrian history.

"Alain Farhi, a businessman who now resides in the US and a descendant of Muallem Rafael Farhi, said that he was happy about the current restoration of Jewish houses, as “it is important to preserve this precious heritage for future generations.” Farhi was born in Egypt, where his family immigrated from Damascus at the beginning of the 20th century. He is deeply involved in genealogical research about the Farhi family, which can be found on his website Fleur d’Orient.

Here is what one American Jew said about Damascus in 2010 before the Civil War. He must not have known about the Jewish history there.  "Damascus has, in my opinion, the best Arabic dialect, and the country is incredibly inexpensive. There are good people to be found, and I am sure that if I told more of my friends that I am Jewish there would not have been too much of a problem.   

“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.. 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.”

Damascus had large communities of Jews ever since 1492 when the Spanish Inquisition caused Jews to flee from Spain.  Many had sought refuge in Syria.  They were then known as the Shami Jews.  Today it is thought that about 14 Jews remain in Damascus.  40,000 Syrian Jews live in Israel and have an Association of Damascus Jews in Israel.  Many also live in New York, USA.  

Resource: 9/24/13  beautiful pictures
Update: 8/11/13 excellent interview of Jewish lady from Damascus who fled in 1967 to Iran, etc.  
Alain Farhi:  Fleur d'Orient  website

No comments: