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February 28, 2014

National Geographic: Syrian Jews Suffered Only from 'Suspicion'

Four Jewish girls, Fara Zeibak, Mazal Zeibak, Eva Saad and Lulu Zeibak. were raped, killed, and mutilated while trying to flee Syria to Israel in 1974.

It is fair to describe the Alawites of Syria as a "long-oppressed group," which National Geographic does in its March 2014 feature about fighting in Syria. But in the same paragraph, reporter Anne Barnard downplays the suffering of Syria's Jews, stating only that "most left after the founding of Israel, when the government began viewing them with suspicion."

Was it mere "suspicion" (the author doesn't clarify whether the mistrust was deserved or unfounded) that reduced a community of tens of thousands to just a few dozen, or was it much worse?

It was in Syria that the "first serious blood libel in the Arab world" targeted the Jewish community, historian Norman Stillman explained. The charge that Jews murdered two Christians to use their blood for Passover rituals in 1840 brought torture and death to the Jewish community. Jewish children were taken hostage. A letter from Damascus pleading for help reported that "the Governor with a body of 600 men proceeded to demolish the houses of his Jewish subjects, hoping to find the bodies, but not finding any he returned and again inflicted on them further castigations and torments, the most cruel of which was the tying one end of a cord to the member of virility by the other end of which they were dragged through the Governor's Palace to a water closet into which they were thrown."

Nearly 100 years later, in 1936, JTA reported that in Damascus, "Jewish shopkeepers were forced to join [a] general strike under threats that their establishments would be burned down."

In 1944, the city's Jewish quarter "was twice attacked by mobs," Maurice Rouhani pointed out in his chronicle of Jews in the Arab world.

The crescendo of anti-Jewish persecutions in the 1930s and 40s came to a climax in 1947. That December in Aleppo, Rouhani notes, "an unknown number of Jews were butchered to death by mobs that burned four big synagogues, 14 smaller ones and destroyed 150 homes." In short, "the Jews of Syria were completely paralyzed, isolated and terrified."

In the years that followed, the emasculated Jewish community was encumbered with severe travel restrictions, boycotts, and a virtual ban from Syrian universities, and other indignities.

The plight of Jews in Arab countries has too often been downplayed in the media. National Geographic's "suspicious" account of Syrian Jews only further harms understanding of Jewish history in the Middle East.

Posted by GI at February 28, 2014 01:10 PM


After the birth of the State of Israel in 1948, persecution of Jews remaining in Syria was common. The Jews were no longer permitted to own property, travel or practice their occupation. Jews who tried to leave the country were persecuted. The Muslim dhimmi laws were strictly enforced. Those Jews who were permitted to travel for business purposes could not travel with family members because the Syrian government feared that they would flee. The Syrian government feared that Jewish men would join forces with Israel and fight against them in the Israeli Army.
Never forgetting their Syrian brethren, community members from Brooklyn, New York often bribed Syrian government officials to help get those relatives still in Syria out of the country. Negotiations between America’s President George H. Bush, with heavy lobbying from Jewish Americans of Syrian birth, and Syria’s President Assad, resulted in Syrian Jews being granted exit visas to America as tourists in the early 1990s. Ironically, Assad’s demand that they not leave the country as emigrés gave the Syrian Jews whom entered America yet another ten years of persecution. In the United States as tourists, they could not practice their chosen profession, obtain licenses, and apply for public assistance or travel outside the United States.

Posted by: Erella Teitler at March 7, 2014 02:53 AM

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