As a matter of urgency regard must be made to Jobar synagogue’s many artefacts should they soon find their way into the antiquities market…

 

 

Al Racqy Synagogue, Damascus with traditional poplar-beamed ceiling

Al Racqy Synagogue, Damascus with traditional poplar-beamed ceiling

Jobar synagogue, two kilometres North East of Damascus’ Old City, has not been far from the News. Headlines fell during Passover of this past year and culminated in a dramatic story of a synagogue “burned to the ground” (“Historic Damascus Synagogue looted and burned” JTA Jewish Telegraph Agency 31 March 2013). Immediately before Christmas the converse was stressed with a different story of a cryptic message from the Free Syrian Army rebels (F.S.A) to a certain individual named “Moti” (“Syria’s ‘Destroyed’ Ancient Synagogue is Still Intact” The Times of Israel, 22 December 2013).  This coverage, together with Sotheby’s recent sale (17th December 2013) of an item purported to be a “rare surviving artifact of the Jewish community at Jobar [which] may be all that remains of this ancient and venerable community [1], guaranteed Jobar’s place in the annals of 2013.

Reportage and revision may not be particular to Jobar. What is is the politics of rhetoric, the spurious role Judaism and its history have come to play in Syria’s thousand-day conflict; it is this which distinguishes Jobar’s plight from that of other heritage sites engulfed in a tragic war.

The latest report from The Times of Israel alleges that the synagogue’s “Torah scrolls and other Judaica [are currently]being held by an Islamist group inside Syria, which, it [is] said to be demanding the release of prisoners captured by the Assad regime in return for the items.  Whereas once Syrian Jews were collectively persecuted and at best bartered, now Judaica occupies such a role.   More to the point, matters Jewish, with or without Syria’s dozen or so Jews, have come to sit equidistant from regime and rebel rhetoric. If the regime was long determined to demonstrate that there was indeed a Jewish presence in Syria, a prime example being the Syria Breaking News video of 2012 “Ana Yahudi – I am a Jew” [2], the unlikely guardians of Jewry now appear to be Islamists not secularists.   

With narrative and counter-narrative competing to be heard, this is a good time to review the press coverage associated with the synagogue and put forward the case for Jobar.

 

Shrine of Elijah, Jobar Synagogue -former burial chamber (Courstesy of Christoph Knoch)

Shrine of Elijah, Jobar Synagogue (former burial chamber) (Courtesy of Christoph Knoch)

 

The synagogue is dedicated to the prophet Elijah: the Hebrew Eliyahu Ha-Navi or Arabic al-Khodr, venerated by Muslims all the same. The ancient shrine, a former burial chamber below the prayer hall, was the scene of pilgrimage for the infirmed or curious in search of the miraculous. By the mid-20th Century Jobar, well removed from the main centre of Damascus’ Jewish life, ceased to operate as a congregational synagogue. Hidden behind several doors and a courtyard it was, until a few months ago, one of many Jewish sites facing oblivion. Today, and for all the wrong reasons, the same can no longer be said.

Jobar’s resurgence began on the 2 March 2013 when Al-Arabiya posted an online video by Syria’s opposition military council [3]. The caption read, “the video shows Syria’s ancient synagogue destroyed by regime forces”.  In the course of discussion Al-Arabiya quantified the destruction to that of “severe damage” after being shelled by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad.  The synagogue was deemed to be, “one of the most ancient in the world.”

The video evidence did not reveal damage to the prayer hall. This sat several metres below ground, behind a narrow entrance and the other side of a courtyard. The footage showed the effects of mortar fire which were limited to the exterior, the street entrance to the synagogue complex, where rubble from the upper floors now lay.   

Quick on the heels of Al-Arabiya was The World Jewish Digest (World Jewish Daily). It developed the story with a similar heading, “Ancient Syrian Synagogue Destroyed” and a sub-heading attributing the destruction to regime forces [4]. The article of the 2nd of March 2013 went beyond Al-Arabiya’s claims of a 2000 year old synagogue and proclaimed “a devastating cultural loss for world Jewry.”

Concurrent with The World Jewish Daily was The Jerusalem Post. It ran two near -identical headlines: One (in quotation marks) which indicated that the synagogue had been “damaged”. Another piece revealed that the synagogue had been destroyed [5].

The Times of Israel followed suit. In an article entitled, “Syrian troops destroy ancient synagogue (The Times of Israel 2 March 2013)” [6], Yoel Goldman refined the above to that of “severe damage”. The same Al-Arabiya video was cited.   

Jack Khoury, writing in Haaretz also on 2nd of March 2013 similarly acknowledged the F.S.A.  video with a headline, “WATCH: Assad forces destroy oldest synagogue in Syria, rebels claim” [7]. Mr. Khoury also opined that, prior to the attack, “the synagogue structure has undergone almost no change since it was built 2000 years ago, making it unique both architecturally and historically”.

Damascus Old City (Courtesy of Christoph Knoch)

Damascus Old City (Courtesy of Christoph Knoch)

Shortly before my article of 28 March 2013 appeared in The Jerusalem Post “Saving Jewish Antiquities in Syria” [8] a second F.S.A. video published by Orient News was uploaded to the internet. This video revealed more detail: localised damage to communal rooms on the upper floor (within the synagogue complex) but no damage to the actual prayer hall which was still equipped with electricity [9].  

The following day, 29 March 2013, Jobar was back in the News and kept in the spotlight by regime and rebel propaganda.  Syrian News attributed looting of “The Oldest Jewish Synagogue in the World” to the F.S.A.  [10].Yet on the very same day Al-Manar, the Hizbullah broadcasting corporation in league with the al-Assad regime, produced an alternative piece under the banner, “Syria Truth”. Looting was now attributable not to the F.S.A. but to “Zionist commandos [Al-Manar’s term]  as tales of cross-border raids, international “stings” and fictitious authorities paved the way for what to follow.

 “The Zionist intelligence agency has succeeded in robbing various precious items from the synagogue located in Jobar neighborhood, north-east of the Syrian capital, Syria Truth website reported….The Zionist agents were assisted by the Jordanian Kingdom, Turkish militias, the so-called “Free Syrian Army” and al-Nosra front of al-Qaeda which controls the area, the website stated. The site obtained this information from its correspondent Lea Abramovitch citing sources close to the Syrian Rabbi Ibrahim Hamra who lives in the Occupied Territories of Palestine since 1994…The sources confirmed to Syria Truth that the decision to steal the contents of the Syrian Jewish temple was made three weeks ago, due to being a victim of several shells that have ravaged its outer wall. [Al-Manar, 29 March 2013]” [11]

 

Al-Racqy (Iraqi) synagogue, Damascus

Al-Racqy (Iraqi) synagogue, Damascus (Robert Lyons)

 

Were the reader in doubt how the Israeli and other press could capitulate to rebel or regime propaganda and perpetuate a story of severe destruction their disbelief would be dispelled following the coverage of April 2013. Whatever the reason, no corroborated evidence was published before sensationalist headlines ensued.

On the 31st March 2013 Marcy Oster, writing for JTA [Jewish Telegraph Agency, “Historic Damascus Synagogue looted and burned”] reported the synagogue had not only been plundered but that it had been “burned to the ground” as the warring factions, the F.S.A. and the regime, blamed each other for the alleged destruction[12]. The same  account appeared in The Jewish Week [13] also on the 31st March 2013.

By the 1st of April 2013 stories of epic destruction circulated.  Russia Today reported that the synagogue had been “looted and burned and had its roof blown off”  [14]. The Jerusalem Post honoured the JTA story but also appealed to the authority of Israeli radio [15] as did The Times of Israel [16]. Haaretz stuck to the original JTA account   [17] with The Forward faring no better or worse [18].

CBS News, reliant upon The Associated Press, was more cautious with its coverage. It reported that the synagogue had been damaged and looted. It did however include an interview with Dr. Maamoun Abdul-Karim head of the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums [18]. The source of the interview appeared in Reuters in which Abdul-Karim indicated that he believed the synagogue’s scrolls had been moved from the town of Jobar to within Damascus’ Old City.  Reuters also maintained that the shelling had been light, contrary to the other reports above [19].

On the 2nd April 2013 Al Jazeera chose to follow Reuters’ lead with a conservative version of events [20] [21] in direct opposition to Maya Shwayder in the International Business Times [22].

Jobar synagogue (1996)

Jobar synagogue (1996) (Courtesy of Christoph Knoch)

Two weeks later on the 15th April 2013 a former acquaintance of mine contacted the custodians of Syria’s Jewish monuments.  Two members of Damascus’ miniscule Jewish population provided conflicting reports as to the whereabouts of the scrolls. The second report directly contradicted an earlier account which was in keeping with Abdul-Karim’s assertion. However both accounts indicated that the damage was limited. The prayer hall had been unaffected [23].

All too naively I assumed that The New York Times might still be interested in an alternative version of events. Late in the day I approached Sewell Chan on the editorial desk. However the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombing had just revealed itself and necessarily took precedence. Mr. Chan declined my article. He was more eager for an interview with the Jewish community in Damascus, which was patently impossible, than a second-hand account.  There was no longer sustained interest in Jobar at this time.

Who could put forward the case for Jobar? Oddly enough several writers who had put their names to the original reports of extensive destruction would re-invigorate the debate. Nine months on Jobar endures. Its renewed topicality rests with the media-savvy F.S.A. rebels; it was the F.S.A who persuaded The Times of Israel, via their source, to inscribe their cause in newsprint (albeit dressed up with reference to Judaica).

Ideology aside, the headline of The Times of Israel’s article, “Syria’s ‘Destroyed’ Ancient Synagogue is Still Intact”, should not come as a revelation. The video posted by the Dubai-based pan-Arab al-Aan broadcasting corporation on 23rd June 2013 entitled, “Jobar Synagogue and Bashar al-Assad?” [24] shows some damage to the traditional poplar-beamed ceiling of synagogue and its roof. There is also some residual debris; but it is fully evident that the synagogue is far from destroyed. Moreover, the interview with F.S.A. fighters indicates that they are protecting the synagogue – a claim not too distant from The Times of Israel’s story (except without reference to the much sought after Judaica).

Jobar Synagogue June 2013. Hole in poplar-beamed ceiling (by 5th window, left hand side. Reflection on wall).

Jobar Synagogue. Hole in poplar-beamed ceiling (by 5th window, left hand side. Reflection on wall). From al-Aan video June 2013

On close inspection al-Aan’s account consists of earlier video footage from March. It also insists that Jobar was “the oldest synagogue in the world”, that it housed the oldest Torah in the world” and that town of Jobar was once home tothe second largest concentration of Jews”.  Despite these grandiose and false claims the footage contains important evidence. Whether the video was disseminated by al-Assad’s foes or not, it is a critical witness in a conflict where validation is increasingly dependent upon videography and partisan reportage.  

The task, of course, is to know where fact begins and credibility ends. What is apparent is that December’s coverage in The Times of Israel takes matters one step further. The article omits the collateral damage to the ceiling and roof. No mention is made of the very real consequence of regime bombardment if the F.S.A remains encamped in the sacred site.  Of the scrolls, one is noticeably desecrated (although there is nothing to associate the object in the photograph with Jobar as the newspaper rightly reports). More significant is the image of the synagogue with mysterious “card” in situ. It does not, of its own accord, constitute proof of the synagogue’s endurance in December of 2013.   Surely the Skype-friendly rebels can do better than that.

What the image does show, which previous video coverage from March and June had not shown, is proof of a prayer hall bereft. Gone is the large menorah which sat upon the stone attributed to Elijah; so too are the many hangings and carpets that once “muffled” the walls as Colin Thubron, author of “Mirror to Damascus”, put it [25]. At its very least, The Times of Israel prayer hall photo may be one of the most recent images to emerge from Jobar post-June 2013.  

Sadly, if the coverage from April of this year helped to preserve the synagogue, perhaps because the site provided no further political purpose, the latest news may yet have the opposite effect.  Judaica, Syria’s Jewish past, has gained currency. It has entered the discourse of rebel strategy, whether in actuality or virtuality. Syria’s Jewish legacy now stands and falls with international perception of a conflict far away from these shores.

Yet this does not excuse inaction. The correct response precludes engagement with the F.S.A., the self-declared patrons of Jobar.  It also demands vigilance and an immediate need to document the existent photo and video testimonies of objects or inscriptions which once adorned the synagogue.  To date neither the prayer hall nor the much older shrine has been the subject of scientific investigation. There is little scholarly material on which to build. But we can at least start. As a matter of urgency regard must be made to Jobar’s many artefacts should they soon find their way into the antiquities market, subject to the whim, the ebb and flow, of their opportunistic captors.*

 [The above piece was published on 17 January 2014 before the destruction of the synagogue as reported in the Daily Beast on Tuesday 27 May 2014]

*Any item suspected of being illegally exported and/or traded illegally should be brought to the attention of Interpol and Dorothy Loebel-King at Lootbusters dorothy@lootbusters.com 

The author would like to thank, Dr. Emma Cunliffe, Christoph Knoch, Dr. Dorothy Loebel-King, Dr. Josef Meri and Hayley Blitz for their assistance and photographs.

Adam Blitz is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London and a former Fulbright scholar. The views expressed in the article are those of the author alone. Any errors or omissions are similarly those of the author. Adam.blitz@columnist.com @blitz_adam on Twitter

Notes

[1] Lot 93 in www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/lot.pdf…/N09060-93.pdf

‎[2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ywFx8zff8

[3] http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2013/03/02/269101.html

[4]  http://www.worldjewishdaily.com/jobar-synagogue-destroyed.php

[5]http://www.jpost.com/Breaking-News/2000-year-old-Syrian-synagogue-destroyed-by-Assad-army

[6]http://www.timesofisrael.com/historic-damascus-synagogue-looted-and-destroyed/

[7]http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/watch-assad-forces-destroy-oldest-synagogue-in-syria-rebels-claim-1.506718

[8]http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-Ed-Contributors/Saving-Jewish-antiquities-in-Syria-307898

[9] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vf8EsSo3cVU

[10] http://www.syrianews.cc/oldest-jewish-synagogue-world-looted-fsa/

[11] [Al-Manar, 29 March 2013]

[12]http://www.jta.org/2013/03/31/news-opinion/israel-middle-east/historic-damascus-synagogue-looted-and-burned

[13] http://www.thejewishweek.com/jobar-synagogue

[14] http://rt.com/news/synagogue-jobar-destroyed-damascus-139/

[15]http://www.jpost.com/Jewish-World/Jewish-news/historic-Damascus-synagogue-looted-and-burned-308288

[16] http://www.timesofisrael.com/topic/jobar-synagogue/

 

[17]http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/historic-damascus-synagogue-looted-and-burned-1.512858

[18]http://forward.com/articles/174075/-year-old-jobar-syrian-synagogue-in-damascus-b/

[19] http://www.cbsnews.com/news/historic-damascus-synagogue-damaged-looted/

[20]]http://in.reuters.com/article/2013/04/01/syria-crisis-synagogue-idINDEE9300AP20130401http://in.reuters.com/article/2013/04/01/syria-crisis-synagogue-idINDEE9300AP20130401

[21]http://blogs.aljazeera.com/topic/syria/damascus-synagogue-damaged-theft-and-shelling

[22]http://www.ibtimes.com/2000-year-old-damascus-synagogue-damaged-government-rebel-clashes-1166529

[23] Email communication: the author 15th April 2013

[24]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95z6APgIfDs and http://youtu.be/3zbYCZf-bwo

[25] Thubron, C. Mirror to Damascus (Vintage Books 2008) (reprint)