It was on November 4, 1991, the last day of the historic Madrid peace conference, and delegations from Israel and Syria were supposed to meet, face-to-face, for the first time since 1949, to discuss peace. In itself an historic event, as Syria has always prided itself on being Israel’s most implacable Arab enemy. But then, something happened, somewhat of a melodrama in a day full of real drama. The Syrian delegation did not show up, and not because their driver failed to find the palace which was assigned for the meeting. It was Hafiz Assad’s way of showing to his audience in the Arab world, that while he had come to Madrid, hostility to Israel was definitely not off his agenda.
James Baker, the then no-nonsense Secretary of State was called into action, and 12 hours later, late at night, the reluctant Syrians showed up. At that point, another surprise was about to unfold, and this time, the 10 Syrian delegates were caught red handed.
Yossi Ben Aharon, the able head of the Israeli delegation, opened his statement, by making a very pointed demand to his Syrian counterpart, Muaffaq Allaf, a Sunni businessman confidant of Hafiz Al Assad. LET MY PEOPLE GO. That was
Ben Aharon’s dramatic opening remark. Referring, of course, to the 4000 of our brothers and sisters, still living in Syria at that time, suffering under the yoke of a repressive regime, which refused to grant them their basic human right to leave and go to whatever destination they chose. This was the opening statement. Not any reference to borders, security, the substance of peace. It was unprecedented by all international standards, but not for representatives of Israel. This was the Jewish call for solidarity, the Zionist commitment of a state priding itself, and rightly so, for being the safe heaven of persecuted Jews.
This was one of these moments when I personally felt so proud of being an Israeli Zionist, of being part of history in the making. Just few months earlier, I was on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport, when our Ethiopian brethren finally reunited with their historic homeland, after 25 hundred years of forced separation.
I was visibly shaken, in tears, unable to conceal my great excitement. And all this in front of the Foreign Press Corps in Israel, coming to cover the event which captivated world attention. One of them, the BBC correspondent, Paul Adams, approached me with great surprise, asking “how is it that you shed your professionalism and are so excited?”
It is because I am so happy to see my people finally come home, I answered, adding that it was and will ever be the great regret of my life, that I, and all of us, could not be there, in the slaughter houses of Europe, when our people so desperately needed us.
But back to Syria and Mr. Allaf, a distinguished, articulate spokesperson for a terrible regime. He recovered his nerve rather quickly, and retorted to Ben Aharon that there was no problem with Syria’s Jews who were so happy to be in their true homeland, enjoying the brotherly love of their Syrian compatriots. In fact, Allaf added, I had many Jewish friends in Egypt, where I lived for a while, and they all were SO rich….Antisemitic?…. I leave that determination to the readers.
In the next round of talks, in Washington D.C, Allaf showed us pictures of a demonstration in Damascus, led by the then dear Chief Rabbi, Abraham Hamra. The slogans in Hebrew [in Damascus….] praised the great leader, Hafiz Assad….
It was Syrian democracy in action.
But sad jokes aside, by 1994, Rabbi Hamra was already in Israel, kissing the Holy ground upon arrival. He and many of the 4000 that were in Syria in 1991 ended up in Israel, many reunited with their community in Brooklyn, NY. But all [short of some who chose to stay], were saved. Israel fulfilled its mission. Yet again. If we save one soul, we save the entire world, so how many worlds did we save then?
‘’WE’’ means the Jewish people at large, led by its vanguard, the State of Israel. A righteous tzadika like Judy Feld Carr from Canada, Syrian Jews from Brooklyn and elsewhere [whose names should still be undisclosed], individual gentiles and foreign governments, especially the US. Particular kudos are due to the late great Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir who made it such a focal issue for Israel, and also to Yossi Ben Aharon.
And we still owe readers an explanation as to how it finally happened: I remember the day, 10 April 1992, on the eve of another round of talks in D.C., when the Israeli delegation was informed that Hafiz Assad had called then President George Bush Sr. and informed him that he had finally succumbed to pressures and would allow freedom of movement to Syria’s Jews. The caveats were that they would not leave straight to Israel, and that the Jewish state would not use it in its propaganda, as it was a gesture to the US, not to Israel. I cannot tell with any certainty what the American quid pro quo was. I know for sure, that it would never have happened had it not for Israel’s existence and pressures.
So, let us make now a quick switch to what is happening in Syria these days, the indiscriminate sectarian slaughters, the dehumanization of an entire society? I dread the very thought or our brother Jews still being there in this awful period in the history of Syria. Who in their right mind wouldn’t?
Thank G-d they are out! It’s one more reason for the state of Israel to be proud of its Zionist mission.