How Damascene Jews hope to return….. to normalcy
Bab Touma Jewish Quarter, Damascus — Growing up in the small town of Milwaukie, Oregon and until after graduating from high school, I never knew or knowingly met a Jew. Not until my first post-high school job as a swimming instructor and life guard at the Portland Jewish Community Center, having recently earned an American Red Cross Water Safety
Instructor Certification — something I would recommend to any teenager today. My plan was to teach swimming and lifeguard over the summer at the JCC until the fall, when I planned to head to Boston University.
It was a terrific job. I got to swim laps during work when no one was in the pool, was given free lunches, and learned a lot from the old couple from Poland who handed out towels and looked after the pool dressing rooms. We became good friends. When we were first introduced, I noticed that this inseparable couple walked stooped over, seemed to be in failing health and had what looked like numbers tattooed in blue ink on their right arms. I had no idea what the numbers were for and didn’t want to appear nosy so it wasn’t until a couple of weeks later, during lunch one day, that my new
friends explained what had happened to them and how they came to be in Oregon. They explained how they had miraculously survived death at a place they called Auschwitz, a word I don’t recall having ever heard.
From not having any Jewish friends in high school, in Boston I soon had mostly Jewish friends and several times was invited for a weekend to Brooklyn, Long Island, Teaneck, New Jersey and other places in the metropolitan New York area. For a hayseed kid from a small town in the Pacific Northwest it was great to have fun and socially sophisticated
Jewish girlfriends, until I fell deeply in love with Hanna K, an observant ultra-orthodox student from a Newton, Massachusetts family. Hanna, who always covered her head stood out on campus from the typical Jewish girls from places like the Bronx or Westchester County, NY. Despite our mutual affection, Hanna explained she could never invite me to meet her family who lived just 20 minutes from BU because I was not Jewish and her father was very conservative. Both her parents fled Germany sometime in the 1930’s. I more or less understood, and she taught me a lot about Judaism, and I actually studied Hebrew for a while, at Hanna’s insistence.
Finally I marshaled the courage to visit her father’s real estate investment office which was just opposite the Boston Common and the historic Arlington Steet church within walking distance of Boston University Law School. Much like a
nervous a new lawyer appearing before a harsh judge for the first time, I practiced my lines as I walked along. I still remember the speech I hoped to deliver, but close to his office I passed the statute of the William Lloyd Garrison the 19th century editor of the abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, and one of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society as well as a prominent voice for the Women’s Suffrage movement. I paused to read the words inscribed on the stone at the base of his statue, words still clear to me: “I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD!” They emboldened and gave me renewed courage to face Hanna’s father.
My petition to Hanna’s very stern father, Abraham, was that I deeply loved his daughter, and that I would try to be for her the best possible husband. I then made what I hoped would be a case-winning appeal: “And sir, I would like you to know that by association, by education, by liberal politics, by philosophy and by choice, I consider myself Jewish and am studying Hebrew and Jewish religious teachings.” It was true and I was sincere.
As Hanna subsequently told me, her father was not at all liberal in his politics, was an atheist and he was not in the least impressed with my presentation. Before rather abruptly showing me the door, he did sort of mumble that he would consider the matter and inform me of his decision. I never heard back from the gentleman. Hanna and I remained inseparable during my last couple of weeks in Boston. But, as happens far too often in life, one loses contact with the dearest of dear friends. I left for a summer job in Washington, DC and then England, and I have no idea where life has led
her. To happiness I hope.
During the following years I experienced the intense Zionization among
those in the Jewish community I was involved with while working on the Hill
in Washington. Being known to be pro-Palestinian, I noticed the increased
politicization and polarization among my Jewish friends. Since then, thanks
somewhat to the Internet, this fracturing of the Jewish community has only
increased, with even some progressive liberal friends getting caught up in the
anti-Arab, anti-Islam, neocon-Zionist hate-mongering-nonsense now so
endemic in the US.
Against this backdrop, and after years of living in this region with few
Jews, recent visits to the Jewish community in Damascus has been a joy and
a breadth of fresh air because the ugliness of fascist Zionism and its corrosive
effects on Judaism as a philosophy is absent among Jews here. It’s like the
old days. I have now met more than half of the 30-40 (depending on whose
estimate) Jews remaining in the Bab Toumy Jewish Quarter of Damascus. In
2003, for example, the Jewish population was estimated to be fewer than 100.
In 2005, the US State Department estimated the Jewish population at 80
in its annual International Religious Freedom Report for 2008. In May 2012,
it was reported by the State Department that only 22 Jews still lived in Syria,
all of them elderly and living in Damascus in a building adjoining the city’s
only functioning synagogue. This is not true. The remaining Jews live
scattered around the Jewish Quarter and generally in family homes they
have occupied for many years.
My new, excellent friend Saul, is the last remaining Jewish tailor in Syria.
We spend time discussing just about everything but what I particularly like
about Saul, and Albert Camero, the head of what’s left of the Jewish
community in this battered country, is our discussions of “what went wrong”
from the days when Jews and non-Sunnis like Twelver Shiites, Alawites,
various Christian denominations, Druze and other heterodox communities
lived together in Syria, nearly as family.
( Photo: Syria’s only known remaining Jewish tailor, Saul L.)
Other new Jewish friends in Syria include R. and G. two sisters in their late
70’s who were born in Syria and live in their grandfathers lovely home amidst
the now empty mansions and less imposing Jewish homes in the Jewish
Quarter. Their residence is next to the former home of Nissim Indibo, the last
Rabbi in Damascus who died in 1976. “The sisters” as they are known to this
tiny community, invited me to tea in their home adorned with Hebrew tiles
on the walls and other Jewish religious artifacts. One day I listened to R.
and G. for five hours as they recited their families’’ history in Syria and even
their current political views. More time with them would have been better,
so interesting and charming are they.
(Photo: fplamb 3/13. One of the three remaining Synagogues in Damascus’ Jewish Quarter. No longer in use.)
A few years ago the American embassy offered Saul and R. and G. visas to
America, where over 75,000 Syria Jews live in just New York. Saul showed
me his. But like other Jews here, when the subject came up about moving to
occupied Palestine or America, they explained they have no interest in
leaving their country where, like the Palestinians living in Syria, they are
treated the same as any other Syrian, including free education, universal
government-paid health care, the full right to work and to own a home.
They are Syrian.
(Photo: fplamb 3/13. A fairly typical unoccupied Jewish home, one of dozens boarded up in the, in Jewish Quarter of Damascus. Unlike Zionist occupied Palestine, Syria has rejected any absentee occupant law and Jewish homes remain the sole property of the families who own them, irrespective of where they currently live. Consistent with local zoning laws in this historic district, these often magnificent dwellings can be renovated and sold by the former occupants with government permission.)
What the Jewish community in Damascus believes must happen to resolve
the current crisis is precisely what other Syrians in this capital city want.
The process leading to peace, noted below, is gleaned from interviews with a
cross-section of citizens in the Jewish Quarter and also from conversations
with a spectrum of Damascene society ranging from academics, retired and
current officials, members of the opposition in Parliament, small business
and shop owners, and just random people enjoying the spring weather in the
parks and surprisingly packed popular restaurants.
I was invited to such a restaurant this week. Into the late evening the place
in central Damascus was filled with narguilé smoking, card playing,
scrumptious desert eating, laughing and joking young and old people. I was
tempted to mount one of the tables and shout to the revelers: “Excuse me
please but haven’t you folks heard there is a civil war going on around here!”
The zest for life is strong here—even enveloped as it is, by so much death
and unimaginable suffering.
Asking Saul and others in the Jewish Quarter what their views of what the
solution is to stop the slaughter, they insist that the government is now
basically and finally getting on the right track, yet they yearn for the days of
Hafez al Assad and are adamant that, and then tend to believe it will happen,
that systemic modernization and liberalization be immediately implemented,
ranging from the economy, routing out graft, and expanding civil liberties.
They lament the misjudgments that were made during the spring of 2011
following the crimes committed by the regime against the youngsters in
Deraa who were brutalized and killed. That an opportunity to nip the
uprising in the bud was lost is a fairly common opinion heard in the Jewish
The path to internal civil peace for Syria, and likely the region, in the view
of Damascene Jews, as well as others in Syria seeking a return to normalcy,
emphasize the following points.
• There must be an immediate and real, across the country, cease-fire
supported and insisted upon by all the local and international power brokers;
• All manner of humanitarian aid and methods of delivering it across Syria
and also to the approximate one million Syrian refugees forced out of Syria by
the violence must be immediately organized and supported by all sides
without political and military calculations of which side might benefit. The
Syrian people will benefit and that outsiders should return to whence they
came is a common expression;
• All parties much commit to saving the endangered cultural heritage and
historic sites and support the still existing government institutions,
infrastructure and civil services;
• The holding of the 2014 scheduled multi-party presidential elections on
time, with international monitoring by groups such as the UN and the Carter
Center. Internationally arranged security during the voting must be arranged
to avoid the experience of Iraq with respect to voting intimidation and even
targeting. In the run-up to the voting and during the campaign period,
security must be guaranteed by all sides. Following the elections an
immediate national referendum must be held for the citizens to render their
verdict on the current constitution
In Syria’s Jewish community there appears to be no interest in the Zionist
regime in occupied Palestine. ”Zionism is completely alien to Judaism. It
concerns expansionist political goals not religion. ” one gentleman explained.
“What we see being done to our Palestinian brothers under occupation by
fanatics in the name of religion has much more in common with some of the
extreme Jihadists around here than with most Jews” another explained.
One old lady brought out an article translated into Arabic she acquired years
ago entitled, “Israel’s Flag is Not Mine“. It was written by my late friend who
I had the honor to work for on his Middle East Perspectives magazine years
ago. Alfred M. Lilienthal was the author of “The Zionist Connection” among
several other important works and, I was told, has always been popular in
Syria despite the Zionist lobby labeling him “A self-hating Jew” whatever
that is supposed to mean. One gentleman, who has lived in the same house
on Straight Street for 47 years, explained to me that the label meant the same
as the “anti-Semite” smear as applied to non-Jewish critics of Zionism.
“Most Jews in Syria have always agreed with most of this man’s views. Zionism
and the Zionist regime in Palestine is the enemy of Jews, not our saviors.”
Saul then injected, “Zionism has caused most of the problems in the area.
Our religion is much respected in Syra. We have all lived together without
problems for millennia. There were no pogroms or ghettos here. Religion
comes from God. Zionism comes from fascism and racism.”
I left the meeting for a tour of one of the three remaining Synagogues in
Damascus, the Franji synagogue off Al-Amin Street across from the Talisman
Hotel in Bab Touma, and at which Jewish artifacts this week are being
collected for preservation in case war comes to the Quarter. Accompanied by
Saul and the remarkably fit sisters, R and G, I was reminded of a few words
the sometimes profane and often brusque scholar Lilienthal frequently used
to sum up his political views on the Middle East:
“Everything for the Jews. Nothing for the Zionists.”
I believe my new friends would agree.