Jews and Syria: 11 Fascinating Facts
Syria's once vibrant Jewish community goes back thousands of years.
Syria dominates many news headlines today. Here are ten interesting facts about Jewish connections with this ancient country.
Residents of Aleppo, the northern Syrian city that for millennia was home to a vibrant Jewish community, trace their city’s origin to the Jewish patriarch Abraham. Accompanying his flock of sheep through the area, Abraham is thought to have distributed sheep’s milk to local residents.
The Hebrew word for milk, halev, became the name of the town. (Aleppo is known as Haleb in both Arabic and Hebrew.)
Syria in the Torah
Syria was an important trading partner with Israel in ancient times. Damascus, the present-day capital, was an oasis resting point on trade routes from Mesopotamia to Israel. Jews were present in Syria as far back as the time of King David, who conquered Damascus and briefly appointed governors over the city (II Samuel 8:5-6).
During the reign of the Jewish King Ahab, a local king from Syria named Ben-Hadad waged war against the Kingdom of Judah. God aided King Ahab and his Jewish army, who prevailed, after which Ben-Hadad relinquished his hold on Jewish cities and allowed Jews to trade in Damascus: “The cities that my father took from your father, I shall return; and you may control markets in Damascus, just as my father did in Samaria” (I Kings 20:34).
Located adjacent to the ancient Kingdom of Israel, Jews lived in Syria since ancient times. One notable Jewish resident was Judah haNasi, famous for the redaction of the Mishna, who owned land near present-day Damascus. The Mishna mentions many Syrian cities that were home to Jews in ancient times, including Kefar Karinos, Rom, Aratris, and Beth-Anath.
Maimonides, the great Medieval rabbi, cited the Jewish community of Aleppo as one of the most spiritual and dynamic Jewish communities outside of the land of Israel: “In all the Holy Land and in Syria, there is one city alone and it is Halab (Aleppo) in which there are those who are truly devoted to the Jewish religion and the study of Torah.” (Igros U’Teshuvos Rambam, Epstein Publishing, Jerusalem, 5714 pg. 69.) Rambam’s monumental philosophical work, Guide for the Perplexed, was written in the form of a letter to a Syrian rabbi, Joseph ben Judah ibn Shimon.
When King Ferdinand of Spain expelled his country’s thousand-year-old Jewish community, Sultan Beyazid II, ruler of the Ottoman Empire, sent his navy ships to bring Jews to Ottoman lands. “Can you call such a king wise and intelligent?” he asked of King Ferdinand. “He is impoverishing his country and enriching my kingdom!”
Spanish Jews poured into the ancient Jewish communities of Syria. For some generations, these new arrivals kept a distinct culture, speaking Ladino instead of the local Arabic. By the mid-1700s, the Spanish Jews had blended with the other Jewish communities in Syria.
The Famous Aleppo Codex
In the early Middle Ages, a Jewish scribe named Ben-Asher laboriously hand-copied the Torah and other manuscripts onto parchment, then stitched them together to make a codex, an early form of book. Unlike Torah scrolls, this Codex contained punctuation, vowels and musical notes, making it especially valuable to scholars seeking to understand key Jewish texts.
When Crusaders sacked Jerusalem 1099, they murdered the city’s inhabitants – one Christian knight recorded the scene near the Western Wall “where there was such a massacre that our men were wading up to their ankles in enemy blood” – and sacked the city. One treasure taken away for ransom (along with Jewish leaders) was the Codex.
The Codex was eventually bought back from the Crusaders by Jews; in 1375, it was brought to Aleppo, one of the great centers of Jewish Torah study, and housed in Aleppo’s magnificent Grand Synagogue. There, the Codex acquired an almost mystical importance. People would travel to pray near it, and it was said that if the Codex ever left Aleppo, the Jewish community there would cease to exist.
Five hundred years later that prophecy started to become true. In 1947, when the UN voted to create a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, Arab rioters, egged on by government officials, attacked Aleppo’s Jewish community, killing scores of Jews and burning many buildings, including the Great Synagogue. The Codex vanished. It was smuggled out of Syria and brought to Israel. It reappeared in 1958 in Jerusalem, but with nearly 200 pages missing. It’s thought that some of these pages are in the hands of Syrian Jews who regard them as holy objects; some might have been sold on the black market. The remaining Aleppo Codex today is housed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Damascus Blood Libel
Long a fixture in Europe, the infamous blood libel (the lie that Jews kill Christians and use their blood to bake matzah) spread to a land outside of Europe for the first time in 1840, when a Franciscan friar and his servant disappeared in Damascus.
Local Syrian officials, ruled at the time by French colonial authorities, arrested and tortured several prominent Jews, who later tried by the French consul. Two Jews died in prison; one agreed to convert to Islam to save his life. American President Martin Van Buren was so horrified by this use of torture, his Secretary of State noted “he cannot refrain from expressing surprise and pain that in this advanced age such barbarous measures be resorted to in order to compel the confession of imputed guilt.”
In December 1947, when the UN voted to partition Palestine into two nations and establish a Jewish state for the first time in two thousand years, the Muslim residents of Aleppo turned on their Jewish neighbors in a frenzy of killing. Urged on by government officials, rioters killed dozens of Jews and burned many buildings, including Aleppo’s famed Great Synagogue.
Author Matti Friedman interviewed a survivor of the pogrom: “Howls of rage came from (the rioters) outside. The Jews in Palestine, someone screamed, were cutting Muslim babies from their mothers’ wombs. His parents barricaded the family in the main room of the house…. Then the rioters were at the door, and the boy escaped barefoot through a window… When they had taken his family’s valuables, they used the kerosene and coal his parents had been storing for winter to set the building alight” (from The Aleppo Codex by Matti Friedman, Algonquin Books, 2012).
Anti-Semitism continued to intensify, and Syria’s Jews began to flee, mainly to Israel and the United States. Home to 40,000 Jews in 1947, only a few thousand Jews remained in the country by 1967.
Our Man in Damascus
In the 1960s one of the most dapper men about town in Damascus was Kamal Amin Ta’abet, a Syrian who’d lived in Argentina and cultivated connections and friends at the highest levels of Syria’s new Ba’athist Government.
In reality, Kamal was Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy, whose wife Nadia was waiting at home for him in Israel. He was born in Egypt to Syrian Jewish parents, then moved to Israel as a child. He volunteered to deep undercover in Syria, despite the incredible dangers.
Eli Cohen at the Golan Heights with Syrian military personnel
One of the greatest threats to Israel at the time was Syria’s determination to divert water from the Jordan River, depriving Israel of one of its major sources of water. Syrian troops also used the high mountains of the Golan to fire into Israeli towns and farms. Eli Cohen provided Israel with major intelligence on both issues. After using his contacts to procure a tour of the Golan Heights, Eli suggested that Syrian troops plant trees at their military bases to provide shade and cover; Israel was later able to pinpoint the exact location of military bases from the location of these trees.
In 1965, Eli Cohen was caught sending a secret radio message to Israel. He was arrested, tortured, and publicly executed. Syria continues to refuse to hand over his body, though in late 2016, video of his execution was released for the first time, posted on a Facebook page titled “Syrian Art Treasures”.
Syrian-American Jews Rescuing their Brethren
In 1989, with thousands of Syrian Jews trapped in Syria and facing brutal anti-Semitism, a group of Syrian-American Jews formed the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews, headed by New York lawyer Alice Harary Sardell. Between 1989 and 1995, the Council intensively lobbied American and foreign politicians and diplomats, and spearheaded work to get news of the plight of Syrian Jews to a broader audience. “We needed to elevate the plight of Syrian Jews which was unknown to the world” explains Clement Soffer, a Vice President of the Council.
The Council took out full page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post asking Syria to “LET MY PEOPLE GO”. They feverishly granted interview on radio and television. They helped organize simultaneously demonstrations in London, Paris, Rome and Sydney, demanding that Jews in Syria be allowed to leave.
Finally, on April 27, 1992, Syria announced that it was dropping travel restrictions on Jews who wished to leave. Syrian-Brazilian Jewish banker Edmond Safra paid $3 million for airline tickets for 4,500 Syrian Jews, and a number of Jewish agencies, including the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews, helped arrange and finance their settlement in Brooklyn, New York. “If they had remained in Syria,” Clement Soffer explains, “they would surely have been slaughtered.”
Canadian Grandma Who Rescued Syrian Jews
Judy Feld Carr was an ordinary Ashkenazi Jewish musician living in Toronto with her husband when she first learned about the intense anti-Semitism Syrian Jews faced, and the difficulty the Jewish community had in escaping once the highly anti-Zionist Baath Party came to power in 1963. At the time few people were focused on helping Syrian Jews; most institutional attention was directed to the much larger Soviet Jewish community instead.
Even though Judy was not Syrian, and was not living in New York where the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews was active, Judy and her husband Ronald got in touch with a synagogue in Damascus, and started sending religious items to help the Jewish community there. In 1975, a friend of Judy’s went back to Aleppo visit her brother there. The friend was briefly imprisoned back in Syria, and eventually returned to Toronto with a letter from the Jewish community that she managed to smuggle out. “It’s a letter that you only see during the times of the Holocaust,”
Judy Feld Carr explained. “It was a letter written by three rabbis in Aleppo, saying something to the effect that: ‘Our children are your children. Get us out of here!’”
Judy started fundraising at her Toronto synagogue and in the Jewish community, and managed to raise money to bribe officials to smuggle a Jew out of Syria. He’d been imprisoned and tortured back in Syria after his children had tried to flee the country. Suffering from cancer, he entered Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto. He had only one further request, he told Judy: he wanted to see his elderly, ill mother, who was living in Israel. “Then,” he explained, “I can die in Israel.” Judy brought him to Israel. The day before he died, Judy visited him. He begged her to smuggle out one of his daughters. Honoring the wish of a dying man, Judy promised, and smuggled out the 19 year old, who went on to marry and build a family in Israel.
“That was the beginning of the ransoming,” Judy Feld Carr later explained. One by one, financed by the Dr. Ronald Feld Fund for Jews in Arab Lands at Toronto’s Beth Tzedek Synagogue, Judy arranged to smuggle out “exactly 3,228 Jews – one at a time” over the next 28 years.
“Let’s face it,” Judy told The Times of Israel in 2012, “I’m a mommy who lives in Toronto. I’m not an expert in foreign intrigue…. It doesn’t blend at all with what my former profession was and being a mother of six kids”. Judy never visited Syria, and for years toiled in secret, in incredible danger, as her identity became known to Syrian security forces. Only in the 1990s was her work recognized.
In 1995, Israel’s then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin wrote to the Toronto grandmother: “Words cannot express my gratitude to you for 23 years of hard and dangerous work. Very few people, if any, have contributed as greatly as you have. The Jews of Syria who were rescued and the State of Israel owe you so much, and will never be able to reward you as you deserve.”
Helping Syrian Refugees Today
Since Syria’s civil war broke out in 2013, over 2,000 Syrians have been smuggled into Israel to receive life-saving medical treatment. The Ziv Medical Center in Safed has treated over 800 wounded Syrians, making it one of the largest treatment centers for Syrians anywhere. Syria remains formally at war with Israel and refuses to recognize the Jewish state. When Syrians who were treated in Israel return to Syria, they cannot tell people where they’ve been; Israeli medical personnel remove all Hebrew writing from medication and equipment to protect their Syrian patients.
Israelis are helping Syrians in other ways too.
Israeli businessman Moti Kahana has spent over $2.2 million of his own money to send humanitarian aid to southern Syria. He founded Amaliah, meaning “work of God” in Hebrew, which helps coordinate Israeli volunteers and the Israeli army as they send food, medicine, drinking water and educational materials to Syria. Amaliah also helps bring Syrians to Israeli hospitals and organizes empowerment workshops for Syrian women. In September 2016, when the UN found it too dangerous to bring emergency aid into Syria during the Muslim festival of Eid, Amaliah worked with the Israeli Defense Forces to transport a ton of meat into the country.
Another Israeli organization, “Operation Blossom of Hope” uses crowdsourcing to raise money to help Syrian refugees stranded in Europe. Founded by Israeli humanitarian worker Shachar Zahavi, Operation Blossom of Hope set up fifty drop-off sites around Israel, raising over one and a half ton of donated winter supplies for the refugees including coats, sweaters, boots, warm socks, blankets and sleeping bags.
Israeli humanitarian organization Israel Flying Aid (IFA) has been operating in Syria since 2011, training and equipping nearly 2,000 of the famed “White Helmets”: volunteers who conduct search and rescue missions amid rubble from Syria’s lethal war. IFA also has trained 22 doctors and many medical technicians. For years, IFA volunteers worked in Syria without revealing their Israeli identity. When her colleagues first learned she is Israeli, recalls Gal Lusky, IFA’s founder and CEO, one of her Syrian colleagues stood up and declared “Now I understand. You are not even my friend. You are my enemy. After Assad, we are coming for you next.” Despite such sentiments, Israeli IFA volunteers continue to provide vital, life-saving aid to Syrians.