Tag: Jews of Syria

Brooklyn Jewish visitors were asked to return to Syria

Anxious for western support, the Assad regime has been encouraging Jews to visit Syria, and there is even talk of rebuilding important synagogues. VINEWS has reported an unusual visit by 12 US Jews  who left Syria as children. One (improbably) said that it was for cheaper dental care. Makor Rishon has reported that a group of Syrian-American Jews visited Aleppo last month.

The twelve Jewish visitors from Brooklyn at a restaurant in Damascus

NEW YORK (VINnews) — An unusual visit by 12 American Jews to their former homeland in Syria has led to questions about the Syrian government’s intentions regarding its former citizens.

The 12 visited a local restaurant in Damascus and met the few remaining Jews living in the Syrian capital. There was even a request that the group meet senior members of Assad’s administration in Damascus but the meeting did not eventually take place. However local residents welcomed the Jews and they said that “all of them understood from our speech that we were Syrian Jews. All of them remembered Jews. We went through the entire marketplace. The locals recognized us and said: Welcome, this is your country, why don’t you come back? See what happened to our country, please come back.”

One of the participants who chose to remain anonymous said that the goal of the visit was to undergo dental treatments which are substantially cheaper in Syria than in the US. However members of the Israeli Syrian Jewish community told Israel’s Kann news that the participants more likely wanted to make a visit to the place of their former roots.

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Paris ambassador calls on Jews to ‘save Lebanon’


The Syrian blood libel that never was

Few have not heard of the Damascus Blood Libel of 1840: Jews in Damascus were accused of a murder in order to use the victim’s blood to bake Matza. Innocent Jews were imprisoned, several were tortured or died. Moses Montefiore and Adolphe Crémieux embarked on a mission to entreat the Ottoman sultan to condemn future blood libels. But 13 years later, another Blood Libel was prevented in the city of Aleppo, thanks to a vigilant Jewish baker named Moosa. Halakha of the Day has the story:

Sir Moses Montefiore went on a mission to the Levant after the 1840 Blood Libel

The pleas of the desperate Jewish community of Syria for the influential European countries to intervene were ignored by the British and the French. Several community leaders and rabbis were tortured by the Turkish authorities in Damascus, who seized the opportunity to confiscate property and take by force the possessions of the most affluent families in the community. The Damascus Libel had devastating consequences for the local Jewish population …

A few years later, on the 13th of Sivan in 1853 in the city of Aleppo, a blood libel was avoided just in time. While there is not much documentation in this case as in the case of the Damascus libel, one known version is that on that date the dead body of a child, who died or was killed in dubious circumstances, was “planted” by a group of Gentiles in the house of the Jewish baker at midnight. The antisemites plan was to arrive in the morning with the police and accuse the baker of a ritual murder. Then, start riots, looting the community, etc. A Jewish baker was the perfect target for this accusation, since he would be held responsible for “using Christian blood to prepare matzot, or other ritual foods.”

Miraculously, the baker (named Moossa, Moshe in Arabic) woke up in the night. He discovered the body, understood the potential threat, and got rid of it.When the authorities arrived in the morning they could not find anything.The baker informed the rabbis of the city what had happened and the rabbis said that HaShem , in His mercy, had saved the Jewish community of Aleppo from a terrible tragedy, and instituted that the 13th of Sivan be remembered as “Nes Moossan” (The miracle that happened through Moossa) and in remembrance of this miracle, we skip the recitation of the Viduy (confession), and that is a significant act of liturgical celebration.

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Why the first Sephardi rabbi never reached Manchester

For years, the disappearance of Rabbi Yeshaya Attia was an unsolved mystery, until the journal of a Victorian lady traveller came to light.  Lydia Collins reveals the truth in this article published in the Sephardi Bulletin (May 2010):

Scholars outside the Great Aleppo Synagogue

The first Sephardi synagogue in Manchester opened in 1874. The first official minister was Reverend Henry Pereira Mendes,  but fifteen years earlier a group of Aleppo merchants had made an attempt to employ their own rabbi in Manchester. Before the Sephardim had their own synagogue they attended the Ashkenazi synagogue, but it is clear that at the same time they were holding private Sephardi services. The origins of the community were mixed, each group having their own preferred form of service, and the Aleppans, a strongly independent and cohesive group, wanted a rabbi of their own.

In 1859 a group of merchants in Aleppo made a contract with Rabbi Yeshaya Attia in which he undertook to go to Manchester to serve the colony of Aleppo merchants there. The signatories of the document were Daniel and Eliezer Silvera, Jacob and Nissim Gubbay, Hillel Moses Sassoon, Shammah and Ades, Hara and Raphael, Btesh and Laniado. The Rabbi never arrived in Manchester and the details of his subsequent history have been disclosed in an unexpected source.

In 1855 an Englishwoman by the name of Mary Eliza Rogers travelled to the Middle East where her brother Edward Thomas Rogers was British Vice Consul at Haifa. During her four-year stay she visited many of the holy places and learnt to speak and read Arabic. She also kept a detailed journal which was later published. In her book she recounts a curious story about one of her fellow travellers on her return journey to England in 1859.

Mary Eliza Rogers: unexpected source

On 4 June 1859 she embarked at Beirut on board the Demetrius, a merchant ship bound for Liverpool via Alexandria, Malta and the Straits of Gibraltar. Two days later they anchored at Alexandria to take on a cargo of cotton. The captain of the ship knew no Arabic and wanted to speak to one of the deck passengers who had remained on board so he asked Miss Rogers to act as interpreter. She approached the man and passed on the captain’s message and they then fell into conversation. She later described him as aged about thirty, obviously intelligent and wearing the kind of dress usually worn by town Arabs. He told her he was going to some Syrian merchants at Manchester to whom he had been recommended and asked her how to find his way from Liverpool to Manchester as he knew no-one in England and spoke no English. At Miss Rogers’ request he wrote down his name in Arabic characters “Shaayea Ateyas” and she in turn wrote down in English and Arabic script the names of the three Manchester merchants he was to visit, and also provided a letter of introduction to a Syrian merchant at Liverpool. During the subsequent voyage they talked often and he sometimes read to her from the collection of printed books and manuscripts that he had with him.

By 26 June the ship had crossed the Bay of Biscay and they were within a day’s journey of Liverpool. Rabbi Shaayea’s health was beginning to cause concern. He had brought his own food for the journey but this had been inadequate and he refused all other offers of nourishment. On the night of the 26th there was a heavy swell on the sea and Miss Rogers passed on to Shaayea the captain’s advice to spend the night in a sheltered part of the deck where he would be safe. The following morning he was nowhere to be found and after a thorough search of the ship they were forced to conclude that he had gone overboard in the night.

The next day, Tuesday 28 June, the ship docked at Liverpool. The Turkish consul at Manchester ordered an inquiry into the disappearance and Miss Rogers was called to give evidence. As the only passenger who had spoken regularly to him she was the star witness and provided a full account of the events which were later reported to the Ottoman authorities. Thus, by a strange coincidence, a Victorian lady traveller had long ago recorded the fate of Manchester’ s first intended Sephardi rabbi.

Sources: Yaron Harel, ‘The first Jews from Aleppo in Manchester: new documentary evidence’ in Association for Jewish Studies Review 23:2 (1998), pp 191-202. Mary Eliza Rogers, Domestic Life in Palestine. London, 1862.

How Rachel Ben-Zvi brought Jewish girls from Syria to Israel

The 1941 Farhud massacre in Iraq was the trigger for Rachel Ben-Zvi, wife of Isaac, the future president of Israel, to begin to recruit 50 Jewish girls from Syria and Lebanon in 1943 to be trained and educated in the Land of Israel. But crucially, the girls needed to be taken to Palestine before they reached marriageable age. Many were then sent back as shlichot to encourage  local Jewish youth to join the Zonist enterprise. Report in The Librarians (with thanks: Motti) 


 Girls at the Ayanot training farm

 It was the events of the Farhud – the horrific massacre in Baghdad on June 1st, 1941, in which 179 members of the Jewish community were murdered – that convinced Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi that time was running out for the Jews of the Arab world. 

Since access to Baghdad was practically inaccessible, “an idea had come up; to​bring young women from the neighboring Arab countries – Lebanon and Syria.”

Ben-Zvi met with Henrietta Szold, the coordinator of the Youth Aliyah organization, spoke with children who emigrated from Syria on their own and promised to bring as many young women as possible to Mandatory Palestine and train them in agriculture.

 Szold provided her with fifty immigration certificates (issued by the British) for the mission. There was concern that if she were to gather too many young women, the British would deny them entry into Israel.

 From Jerusalem, Ben-Zvi headed out to Beirut. She relied on connections she had formed with Beirut community leaders during their visit to Mandatory Palestine and promptly met with Joseph Farhi. Many were opposed to the journey, arguing that “in Jewish homes in these countries girls are not allowed to leave the house,” and concluded that she would not be able to persuade the families to let the young women leave.

Despite the help she received from activists of HeChalutz, the Zionist underground organization, the task of swaying the families indeed turned out to be quite challenging: In many families, the father had immigrated to Latin America and mothers “looked forward to joining the head of the family overseas with their children, and, for the time being, were apprehensive about separating from the girls selected for Aliyah [Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel].” 

 “The mothers hear that I am looking for girls ages 13 and 14 and are already concerned about their future because at 16 or 17 years old they marry their daughters off. I reassure them, explaining that the girls will be accepted to the settlement project, where they will not be held back from getting married, raising families and bringing their relatives from Beirut to Israel.” 

 That was exactly the answer the worried families wanted to hear.

From the moment she arrived in Damascus, Ben-Zvi was struck by the vibrant Zionist activity in the Syrian capital, which easily overshadowed the relatively dormant Beirut underground organization. She was impressed by the Jewish youth’s strong desire to immigrate to Israel, even at the price of bitter arguments with their parents. 

 The eagerness and urgency expressed by the Youth Aliyah representative alarmed the activists who accompanied her: They demanded that Ben-Zvi refrain from speaking Hebrew even inside the Jewish ghetto. Only at the home of the community leader was she allowed to speak freely. 

She spoke to the dignitaries in Hebrew and French and was pleased to see that “the idea of ​​bringing students to be trained on educational farms was willingly accepted.” After receiving unanimous approval, she scheduled a meeting for the next day with the high school students.

“On my very first visit we informed the older high school girls of the idea of bringing young women to the Land of Israel for training and study.

 When the girls were asked if they would like to immigrate, they all raised their hands enthusiastically. In the more advanced grades, most high school students were girls, while there were few young men. I learned that the boys had to work to support their parents. The few young men in class immediately demanded an explanation: ‘Why? Why could only girls immigrate? What would be the fate of the boys?’ I tried to offer comfort: ‘Their time will come, too.’ 

During the long recess I felt that the news was spreading from one class to the next. As I walked through the yard, I was stared at, hundreds and hundreds of children were drawn to me, calling out, ‘Palestine, Palestine, Eretz Yisrael!’”

After sorting out the immigration process in Damascus, Ben-Zvi moved on to Aleppo, arriving in November, 1943. She was shocked to see the location of the girls’ school – it was adjacent to a Syrian brothel frequented by soldiers around the clock.

 She heatedly told the school principal, “the whole neighborhood is a symbol of diasporic dispossession.”

Just like in Beirut, Ben-Zvi was desperate to meet with the community members, who barely spoke Hebrew. And again, like in Beirut, she blamed the Jewish community in the Land of Israel for failing to send support for the few dedicated teachers of the community. 

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The 1947 Aleppo riots made our family want to flee Syria

In 1947 after riots broke out in their city of Aleppo, the parents of Ofra Basul-Bengio, now a professor at Tel Aviv university, contemplated smuggling out their family from Syria to Israel. But they could have been executed if caught. Finally, in 1954, Ofra’s father managed to obtain passports from the governor of Aleppo,  rarely given to Syrian Jews. She tells her story to Haaretz (with thanks: Lily)

Ofra Basul-Bengio’s parents, Latifa-Adina and Kemal-Avraham Basul.(Photo: courtesy)

The first time we attempted to escape Aleppo was shortly after the United Nations vote on the partition of Palestine in November 1947. A powerful fear seized us and all the Jews in the city during the war, when we were compelled to cope with bitter experience of seeing the burning of our businesses, schools and synagogues, including the Central, or Great, Synagogue, which housed the ancient Aleppo Codex (the priceless manuscript of the Hebrew Bible created in Tiberias in the 10th century). 

Our family, who lived in a Muslim neighborhood and saw with our own eyes the torching of the Jewish-owned café opposite our home, and heard the angry crowds chanting that, “Palestine is our land, and the Jews are our dogs,” decided that there was no alternative but to try and flee Syria before it was too late. 

 It was decided that everyone in the family would put on the clothes of Arabs. My mother and we four girls wore veils; my father and the four boys also put on traditional Arab clothing. To further hide our Jewish identity, our parents assigned each of us an Arab name, like Fatma or Mohammed. 

We locked our house with all its contents and set out for the railway station in the hope of boarding the first train that would take us to Lebanon, and from there to the Land of Israel.

But immediately after we got on the train, the conductor announced that if there were Jews among the passengers they had to disembark immediately or face severe punishment. We had no choice and were forced to get off for fear we would be found out. That ended our first escape adventure – but not our ordeals. 

Fearing the pogroms would continue, our family joined other Jews in the home of a Christian family that had undertaken to protect us and others afraid for their lives. The image of the men standing and reciting Psalms for our salvation has never left my memory. 

After a time the situation calmed down somewhat and we were able to return to our home, though the urge to try again to leave Aleppo did not abate.

The desire to flee stemmed not only from existential fears but also from a potent affinity for Zionism that had informed our lives even before the war broke out in Palestine in 1948. My father, Kemal-Avraham Basul, had visited that land in 1934, when the rail line between Damascus and Haifa was still operating. 

The intention was to see whether it would be possible to immigrate with the family, but it didn’t work out at the time. 

Still, the longings for Zion did not diminish – for example, my father used to read us stories in Hebrew, like the one about little Yossi, who wanted to get to the Land of Israel. The tale fired our imaginations and touched us so deeply that our eyes and his welled up with tears each time he read it to us.

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