Jewish Sites in Syria Are the Latest Front in Propaganda War

Recent and contested reports that a synagogue outside Damascus was burned to the ground should be taken with a grain of salt, as Syria's Jewish sites are a battlefield for misinformation and half-truths by both the Assad regime and its opponents.

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Uncorroborated reports have recently appeared in both the Arab and Jewish press suggesting that the Jobar Synagogue, located in a suburb of Damascus, had been plundered and burnt by either the Assad regime or rebel forces.

This claim should be met with some skepticism, bearing in mind the disinformation wars that thrive in the Syrian conflict, but in any case Jobar's synagogue has certainly been desecrated once before, during the Damascus Affair of 1840. As the Irish missionary J.L. Porter noted in his work, “Five Years in Damascus” (1855): “At one time the Jew would be the actual ruler of Syria, and then in a few weeks he would be stripped of fortune and perhaps cruelly mutilated or even murdered.”

However, the fate of the Jobar synagogue, past and present, does not fully embody the 1200 years of co-existence between Jews and Muslims in Syria, nor the Jewish communities themselves that once thrived there.

Immediately before the onset of the Syrian civil war two years ago, there were only a handful of Jews left in Damascus. But many synagogues – over a dozen – were still standing, a testament to a once-diverse community composed of Syrian Jews of ancient local lineage, as well as 'recent' Jews who immigrated from Iberia and Italy from the 16th century onwards. The Al-Raqay synagogue (Iraqi) and the Franji synagogue (Senores Francos, a reference to Italian Jews of the 16th century) were familiar fixtures in the communal landscape.

Damascus' traditional Jewish Quarter, Harat Al Yahud, in the south-east of the Old City, remained derelict and largely abandoned for many years after its Jewish inhabitants left, especially after Syrian independence and the UN partition of Palestine vote in 1947, which triggered pogroms against Jews in Aleppo and Damascus.

Harat Al Yahud's demise should be seen in the broader context of a city experiencing mass Jewish emigration, negative population growth, and a lack of social policy to address urban decay. In a country where nearly 90% of the housing is owner-occupied, the task of reviving any of the residential quarters of the Old City on a private basis remained a challenge. Assad's regime attempted to re-house Palestinian refugees in and amongst the remaining Jewish population, and offered the refugees subsidized rents, but it was not until a decade ago that Harat-Al Yahud would be regenerated.

Change came in 2004 when the Syrian sculptor Mustafa Ali bought the Bukhais ancestral home. The family of silk traders had left more than fifteen years prior. By 2005 their residence had been restored to its former glory and transformed into an art gallery. In the course of time, forty additional artists followed Ali’s lead and pitched camp in the Jewish Quarter.

Concurrent with the rise of an artists’ colony was a government-sponsored program to restore the Old City’s synagogues. This interest in minority affairs was spurred by the secularist ideology of the Assad regime which, somewhat instrumentally, voiced frequent affirmations of a multi-ethnic Syria.

Despite this gesture, there still remained no scientific attempt to survey the synagogues (before the rapid restoration program) or to catalog their holdings. The last attempt to grapple seriously with the Jewish record in Damascus was in 1995, when the photo-journalist Robert Lyons produced a survey for the World Monument Fund’s Jewish Heritage Program, which managed to cover 75% of the extant sites.

Still the question persists: How should the past be maintained once the Jews have gone? There have been examples of cooperation between Middle East authorities and their expatriate Jewish communities: The Beiruti community in France engaged with the Lebanese government and secured the eventual restoration of the Magen Avraham Synagogue. There are other examples of Iraqi Jewish artifacts, once illegally confiscated by the Iraqi authorities,that are now on loan to institutions in the U.S.

Then there are examples of where cooperation has soured. The Iraqis are now demanding the return of the Jewish archive. In Egypt, the remaining Jews have voiced criticism of the state’s involvement in the handling of their heritage sites – while this tiny community’s monuments have received state protection from potential Islamist violence.

I myself have pleaded that Jewish artifacts in Damascus’ synagogues should fall under the control of Syria's Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums. I have stressed the diligence of Dr. Abdulkarim, its director, and this has triggered discussions about the future of Jewish sites in both the free press as well as – surprisingly - Hezbollah's Al Manar, which accused the "Zionist intelligence agency", in coordination with al-Qaida, of stealing treasures from the Jobar synagogue via a commando unit to made up of combatants "of Arab origins: Iraqi, Moroccan and Lebanese, and were dressed in Islamist jihadists’ uniforms." 

Syria's synagogues are now a battlefield for misinformation and half-truths by both the Assad regime and its opponents, with YouTube videos purporting to show plundered synagogues and blame thrown at both sides.  I simply do not believe that in the case of the Jobar synagogue the destruction has been as total as that put forward by these heavily edited and politically-engaged 'reports'. It is clear that several weeks ago the synagogue’s exterior was shelled, but it seems equally clear that the resulting press coverage has not differentiated between the exterior and the prayer hall across the courtyard. 

What I do know is that the most recent videos in this media onslaught are composite pieces of propaganda. At a time when coverage of Syria’s war is mediated by soldiers, outsiders and the protégés of various warring factions, the free press should not be so quick to respond to online claims made by interested parties. 

This virtual world often consists of hearsay and at other times mere subterfuge; the Syrian reciprocal blame game operates for every site that is reported damaged, and terms like "burned" or "destroyed" are standard phrases on both sides.  To the long list of the casualties of this most brutal war, it's clear that the first victim, as always, is the truth.

Adam Blitz is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute and former Fulbright scholar who is producing a report on Jewish sites in Syria supplementing the report by Emma Cunliffe, “Damage to the Soul: Syria’s Cultural Heritage in Conflict”(May 2012, Global Heritage Fund and UNESCO).

A Jewish family in Damascus circa 1910. Credit: Wikipedia
Jobar SynagogueCredit: Youtube Screenshot

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