Small Jewish Community Still Remains in Syria

Even though most of his friends and relatives have left, Albert Cameo says he will never abandon Syria.

"My family has always been here," said Cameo, 68, a retired tailor and president of Syria's estimated 200-member Jewish community. "It's important for some of us to stay here to keep our traditions."

Most Jewish Syrians left in waves after the creation of Israel in 1948 and the enactment of harsh Syrian laws barring them from owning property, withdrawing funds from bank accounts and traveling.

Many Syrian Jews migrated to the United States. But others are scattered around the globe, residing in Europe, Israel and Latin America. Those who stayed behind say they did so because of advanced age, health issues, reluctance to move or unwillingness to face an uncertain future.

Today, a reporter must solicit permission from both the ministry of information and Syrian intelligence service to visit the lone functioning synagogue in the old Jewish Quarter in Damascus, which at its height had some 20 temples. The neighborhood is characterized by abandoned and dilapidated buildings and shuttered storefronts.

"It is very depressing to walk down the empty streets," said Allaham.
Most Jews arrived in Syria after being expelled from Spain in 1492 for refusing to convert to Christianity.

At its height, the Jewish community in Damascus had 20 synagogues. But life for many became intolerable with the onset of the international Zionist movement and the anti-Jewish sentiment that followed throughout the Middle East.

After the creation of Israel in 1948, some 860,000 Jews were forced to flee their native lands and properties in Arab nations in an exodus that didn't end until around 1970.

Jews were stripped of their citizenship in Egypt, Iraq, Algeria and Libya; detained or arrested in Algeria, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq and Egypt; deprived of employment by government decrees in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Algeria, and had their property confiscated in all Arab countries except Morocco, according to Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, a New York-based alliance of 27 Jewish organizations.

Anti-Jewish riots were widespread. In Syria, pogroms in 1947 drove 7,000 of 10,000 Jewish residents of the city of Aleppo into exile. Subsequent laws barred Jews from purchasing and selling land and froze their bank accounts. Syria's Judaic treasures were smuggled out, including a Bible written in 1260 known as the Aleppo Codex that is now in the National Library in Jerusalem.

For those who remained in Syria, the situation changed dramatically after President Hafez Assad assumed power in a bloodless coup in 1970 and lifted restrictive laws under intense U.S. pressure. The word Mossawi - Arabic for follower of Moses - was removed from Syrian Jews' identity cards. Domestic travel restrictions were lifted, as were restrictions on Jewish businesses and the buying and selling of property.

Today, only about 200 Jews remain in Syria, mostly elderly and almost all Damascus residents. (SFGATE)
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UPDATE: Visit the JewishGen Sefardic SIG to learn more about Jews from Syria.

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