Shadows and Light: Syrians, Humanitarian Assistance and Israel

Damascus house and Barada river
Damascus house and Barada river

On Wednesday 3 July 2014 The Israeli YNetnews, part of  Yedioth Media Group  ran a story, “Jewish family secretly smuggled into Israel from Syria”.  This was substantially different from the coverage in The Jerusalem Post or The Algemeiner of the same day, both of which acknowledged that the individuals concerned were part of a “mixed” Jewish-Muslim family.
Were Jewish-Muslim relations in Syria ever that simple. There were isolated cases of conversion to Islam and of marriage beyond the confines of faith. However these individuals, cited in the press, did not constitute the 16 strong (or weak) Jewish community left in Damascus.

The news could not have come at a more opportune time. With a nation in mourning over the loss of three of its youths, Ynet’s exclusively Jewish coverage generated responses to the effect, “Finally! Some good news! Welcome!”, “Welcome home!” and “Ham Israel Hai” “The nation of Israel lives”). One might well ask whether the same responses would have ensued had it been known that the issue of Jewishness, a routine stumbling block for many, was pertinent.

The “rescue”, as it has been called, occurred more than 6 months ago. The individuals involved travelled cross-border from Syria to Turkey and then to Istanbul. At the time I questioned why 7 Jews, (as was then stated), would elect to journey through rebel-held territory and travel North to Turkey. It would have been substantially easier to exit via the Beirut-Damascus Highway, avoid the worst of the war zone and head to Lebanon: a relatively short distance from Damascus where the last remaining Jews lived. Equally, I questioned whether the former practice of restricted movement was remotely applicable and why those involved needed to be “smuggled”. Other Jews, albeit few, had left Syria once the conflict had erupted.

Somewhere in the mix the Jewish Agency became involved in a story that didn’t quite stack up. From Turkey a “three-generation family” gained access to Israel. Yet, the last three generational Jewish family departed Syria approximately 8 years ago when the remaining two children in the community, together with their parents and grandparents, left for the US.

In addition, Moti Kahana, the American-Israeli who had been instrumental in leaking the tale of the debacle of Jobar synagogue and its much sought-after artefacts, was central to the story. It was he who facilitated the operation, we are told. A rebel-sympathiser cum humanitarian, Moti Kahana forged relations with the rebels and, at some stage, ensured the safe passage of this “mixed” family.

Given Israel’s track record on immigration, asylum and what can best be termed an evolving refugee policy, the new arrivals are extraordinarily lucky. As with any refugee, for that is what in all likelihood and in practice they are (whether they meet the legal determination or not), these Syrians should be helped on their way to build a new life. They should be granted protection and be duly welcomed irrespective of their faith. And this gesture, on the part of the State to shelter Muslim Syrians and move beyond frontiers, should have been trumpeted by YNet – not hidden.

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. @blitz_adam on Twitter

About the Author
Adam Blitz is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London and a former Fulbright scholar. He is a member of PEN International. The views expressed in the article above are those of the author alone. Twitter @blitz_adam
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