Helping refugees, Syrian or otherwise, is the right thing to do. Resettling refugees so that they can get on with their lives is a good thing, and a much better thing than keeping them in refugee camps forever. I am, however, just a little bit conflicted and bitter about the necessary and moral work of helping our Syrian brethren and sisteren.
My girls are involved in organising clothing aid for Syrian refugees. They and everyone else in their Hebrew school, are each collecting one item of very good clothing that they don’t need anymore. It’s a well-thought-out idea (credit to Sara Harris, one of the other teachers, for the concept): no huge bulk quantities of rags and rummage; useful things that kids their age can wear right away.
As the kids made their posters for the collection, I was not entirely happy. I was thinking about other Syrian refugees. I was thinking in particular about the Jewish population of Aleppo who were hounded out of their homes in 1947.
There had been a Jewish community in Aleppo almost as long as there have been Jews (as long as, according to local legend, the time when the locals drank milk from Abraham’s goats, giving the city its name). In the 1490s, Aleppo had received large numbers of Sephardic refugees from Spain and Portugal (whose descendants maintained the tradition of a ninth Chanukkah candle to commemorate their acceptance by the Aleppo community), but remarkably maintained a separate synagogue service that preserved the pre-Sephardic rite of the congregation.
The Jews of Syria became increasingly uncomfortable during and after the period of direct rule from Vichy and later by the Free French. It is estimated that 4,500 Jews moved from the ancient Syrian communities to British Palestine between 1942 and 1947.
The excuse for the organized mob violence in 1947 was the United Nations vote at Lake Success, New York, to partition the western coastal strip of Palestine between a Jewish state and an Arab state. It is very likely, however, that the pogrom was a deliberate part of the “Arabization” policy that the Syrian state had been pursuing over the year since the French evacuated the territory of their expired Syria mandate. The pogrom in Aleppo may have been worse than the one in Damascus because the ‘Alawis of Aleppo might have felt the need to show themselves to be just as Arab as their more orthodox Muslim neighbors.
A large proportion of Aleppo’s prewar Jewish population of 10,000 fled the violence and destruction of communal institutions and personal property. The remainder were effectively internally displaced and ransomed by private Canadian funds over the ensuing decades. The Assad regime ended the prohibition on Jewish emigration in 1992 under pressure from the United States. By that time very few remained.
Almost none of the refugees from Aleppo and Damascus was resettled in Europe. The largest number were resettled in Israel and the United States, with most of the remainder in Mexico, Panama and Brazil. The one place in Europe where Syrian refugees found a home in any numbers was among the Sephardic Jews of Manchester.
We in the West supported the futile and still unsuccessful insurgency against the Assad regime that has created a new Syrian diaspora in the vast refugee cities of Jordan and Lebanon. We have been making vast contributions to support these refugees (a billion pounds from the UK to date, according to Prime Minister Cameron), which is fair since we are partly responsible for the policy failure which ruined their country.
Modern theory of crisis management tells us that refugees should be kept close to their original homes so that they can be returned there quickly. This is why we have preferred to create and sustain camps for most of the 11 million refugee Syrians. Unlike the Palestinian refugees in the region who are imprisoned by an earlier theory of crisis management, the UN will not deliberately allow them and their descendants to become a permanent regional underclass, though precisely how 11 million people will be resettled is still unclear. As Assad has stubbornly refused to put his head into a noose and the most barbarous elements of the insurgency have dominated the Syrian Civil War, the world struggles to deal with the results of our poor decisions.
The post-nationalist ideology which assumes that nations have had their day, and that the new post-nationalist world doesn’t need them, is crushed just a bit under the reality that Jordan can’t absorb millions of Syrians nor can Lebanon; and the rest of the world can only accept them if they agree to a greater or lesser extent to assimilate out of existence.
Gaming European human rights law by converting to Christianity is, indeed, an extreme version of what awaits Syrians’ identity as Syrians and as Arabs if they move to Detroit or Düsseldorf. As the millions of Syrians in Brazil and Argentina (including Syrian Jews) know, diaspora has its hazards.
I know that the Syrian refugees are displaced through no fault of their own. I am happy that we help them. I am still uneasy when we help them. You see, I also know that the old folks in those refugee camps, the grandparents of the young families paddling across the Mediterranean and clawing at the Hungarian border fence are the people who smashed the ancient synagogue of Aleppo and hounded the congregants out of their homes.
Those old Syrians, as youngsters, ganged up on a minority that had lived in Aleppo since the locals spoke Greek and Aramaic. They smashed their neighbors’ cemeteries and synagogues in a mirror of Daesh’s current treatment of Syrian Christians. They made refugees, who found refuge in Israel, the New World and Manchester; and now in their turn they are made refugees.
The Halabi Jews who left last century have mostly done very well. Many of them have much better lives in Holon or São Paulo or Brooklyn than they would have had if they had stayed in Aleppo long enough to have their world blasted to smithereens by Assad or Daesh. As a community they suffer less from assimilation than almost any other group of Jews on Earth.
I’m going to donate a stout leather belt that I bought from its maker in Bracebridge, Ontario, about ten years ago. It’s made to a waist measurement that is no longer relevant to me, and should give its recipient many years of attractive service. Take it with my blessing, and wear it to a new home where you and yours can thrive in peace.