Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Jewish ghosts of Aleppo's past

 Broken tombstones in Aleppo's Jewish cemetery (C. Palma)

 Fascinating article by Anna Therese Day about Aleppo's Jewish 'ghosts' in The Forward.  It is interesting how many people in Syria seem to recall the Jews,  although only some 3,000 remained in the country until the 1990s.

Mahmoud, my guide through the rebel-held part of the city, was giving me a cook’s tour of the recently bombed areas, when suddenly he halted. “We’re here,” he announced with a quick glance. “The Jewish cemetery.”

What lay before me was an abandoned cemetery sprinkled with concrete, shrapnel, and ammunition — all a product of recent government bombing. Upon closer inspection, the tombstones revealed a familiar surprise: Hebrew inscriptions. Mahmoud paused, no doubt anticipating my surprise. “This city has many, many layers of ghosts,” he responded with a knowing gaze. Like others in this article working with the Free Syrian Army, Mahmoud, a 26-year-old English teacher who joined the rebels after the government’s brutal crackdown on Aleppo, asked that his full name not be used to protect his family. He is a pluralist-oriented, progressive young man. So I had shared with him that I had spent a significant amount of time working and studying recently in Israel, where I had worked toward my Master of Arts in political science from Ben-Gurion University.

I also asked him about the Jewish community of Aleppo, explaining that family members of my Israeli landlord were among the 30,000 Syrian Jews that had fled Aleppo and other Syrian cities since Israel’s establishment in 1948. Now, however, we were not focused on history. Mahmoud was showing me the war’s most recent battleground — the Old City of Aleppo, which also happened to be the site of the city’s historic Jewish neighborhood.

Most Syrians I encountered in Turkish refugee camps and in rebel-held Syria during October and November remembered the Syrian Jewish community and were quite willing to discuss this part of their past. They also spoke of their own views and experiences related to Israel as Syrians living under a government that demonized it. This accusation, espionage for Israel, is the most severe allegation that one can be charged with in Syrian society.

Years later, Ahmad told me, agents of Syria’s National Security Agency tortured him — sticking needles under his nails before ripping them out with pliers and forcing him into stress positions and extreme sleep deprivation — when he returned home from an American-certified computer science program in Qatar with an envelope that was related to the program and was marked “ISL.” The envelope had come from America, and Ahmad had no idea what the acronym was. The security agency claimed it stood for “Israel” and said it meant he was a spy.

 In Aleppo, Hassan, an FSA commander who is known commonly as the General, shared his family’s personal connection to the Jews of Aleppo and his inherited knowledge of Aleppo’s vibrant past. “My father said Jews were a major part of this city,” the General recalled during an Eastern Mediterranean dinner of mixed meze, or small dishes of hummus, eggplant and similar fare.

He claimed that his father’s uncle had been married to a Jewish woman and that the government had rounded up their entire family during an escalation of tensions with the early Zionists of Palestine. They were subjected to a rough interrogation, threats and the brief imprisonment of one of his brothers on suspicions of Zionist espionage, he said. The uncle and his Jewish wife fled to Turkey and then to Latin America after this incident, the General recounted. “It just got worse in 1948, so most of them left,” he explained. “Those that couldn’t lived under all sorts of discrimination and suspicion until they were basically no longer Syrian."

 Both Mahmoud and the General talked about Israel while being careful to distinguish between Jews and the Israeli state, a state they regard as a form of Western neo-colonialism. It’s a view that many Arabs espouse.

Most of the Syrians I encountered spoke about the injustices faced by their Palestinian brothers and expressed frustration about the geopolitics of Israel and Iran. In their view, the Iran-Israel face-off limits the West’s ability to intervene in Syria on their behalf. Interestingly, however, I found some consensus among the rebels that Israel is the country that will intervene militarily to their benefit when — or if —Assad moves or uses his cache of chemical weapons against the opposition.

Read article in full: 

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