Claims That Aleppo’s Synagogues Have Been Destroyed Are False


[ Part 2.2: “Attached Text” ]

Posted by Franklin Lamb on December 18, 2014

With respect to the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, although situated in
the district of the current front-line separating rebel from government
forces, it has not been destroyed and as of 12/16/2014 shows no signs
of damage.

Syria Jews

Editor’s note: Aleppo has been occupied by different empires and
rulers since antiquity, including Alexander the Great, the Byzantines
and the Ottomans, each left their legacy of art and culture behind
in the city. (Images: here, here,here, here, here and here)

by Franklin Lamb

Given the massive destruction in large parts of Aleppo, Syria’s
former economic juggernaut near the Turkish border, including in the
city’s Medina souk and Industrial zone, claims of even more
dire damage to Syrian heritage sites would perhaps be understandable.

Even if not backed up with probative material evidence and sometimes
made for political purposes by opponents of Syria’s government.

According to tradition, the foundation for the Great Synagogue in
Aleppo was constructed by King David’s General, Joab ben Zeruiah,
(circa 950 BCE), after his conquest of the city.

In the wake of the continuing conflict, questions from some quarters
have repeatedly surfaced regarding the status of the 5th- or 6th-
century Byzantium period, Great Synagogue of Aleppo. Known locally as
Joab’s Synagogue or Al-Bandara Synagogue, lore has it that the
building’s foundation was laid by King David’s general,
Yoav, whom Jewish tradition holds captured Aleppo. Maimonides, in
his letter to the rabbis of Lunel, speaks of Aleppo as being the only
community in Syria where Torah learning survived.

The Times of Israel reported on 10/16/2012 that “Aleppo,
once a trading center for Muslims, Armenians and Syrian Christians,
was also home to one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities
with its Great Synagogue which is now destroyed.” One of the US
based anti-Arab Zionist organizations, the notorious Anti-Defamation
League (ADL) claims that the synagogue was bombed by the Syrian army,
with similar false reports being circulated via politically motivated
internet conspiracy theories.

Another writer for the Jewish Times lamented: “While we continue
to hear of the damage inflicted on Aleppo, it is almost unfathomable
what is happening to its treasure trove of Jewish antiquity and
Synagogues within its borders.” Claims have been made that
Syrian government barrel bombs destroyed the cultural heritage site
nearly two years ago.

These accusations and statements are patently false.

Susan Harris wrote in November of 2012 about massive damage in Syria
to Jewish heritage sites, including in Aleppo, but without offering
specific data, the author implied a frenzy of antisemitism.

“Not only are the antiquities of Islam being destroyed, but a
site of great interest to Jews sits in the eye of a hurricane swept
in by the Arab Spring. For hundreds of years the Great Synagogue of
Aleppo was the home to the Aleppo Codex, written around 930 CE.”
And that it was caught up in “A labyrinth of medieval Jewish
structures recently set ablaze, and the last fragile structural
remnants of earlier civilizations crumbling into ash heaps under the
weight of prolonged violence.” This statement is also false. The
Codex has not been burned.

Articles and alarmist propaganda on the subject of Aleppo’s
synagogues have appeared with titles like

“What’s left of Jewish Heritage in Syria”, “Who
will save the remains of Syria’s ancient synagogues?”
(JTA), “Jewish Aleppo, Lost Forever The Syrian diaspora in
Israel watches its once-vibrant ancestral home fall to ruin in the
country’s civil war” (Joseph Dana 8/22/2012). They are
all misleading.

There have however been thefts of Syrian cultural artifacts; most of
them have been done by agents of Israel. During a 10-year period in
the 1980s, a collection of Jewish objects were stolen and smuggled out
of Syria to Turkey by then-Chief Rabbi Avraham Hamra. The collection
included nine ancient Bible manuscripts, known as the Ketarim, each
between 700 and 900 years old. In addition, there were 40Torahscrolls
and 32 decorative boxes in which the Sephardic Torah scrolls were
held. Israel offered a bizarre rationale that the thefts of antiquities
belonging to Syria were “necessary because official requests
for permission to take them out of Syria were denied”. Were
this excuse to be accepted our global heritage in Syria and elsewhere
would likely soon disappear.

Exterior view of the Shrine of the Book Aleppo codex. In January 1958,
the Aleppo Codex was smuggled out of Syria and sent to Jerusalem to
be placed in the care of the chief rabbi of the Aleppo Jews.

Another theft of Syrian cultural heritage is The Aleppo Codex,
believed to be the oldest manuscript containing the entire Hebrew
Bible. It was stolen from the Great Synagogue of Allepo according
to locals by the Mossad and in 1957 it was smuggled out of Aleppo to
Israel, where it was presented in 1958 to President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi,
and today it is housed in the Ben-Zvi Institute. The Aleppo Codex,
part of Syria’s cultural heritage, is considered by some experts
to be the most authoritative, accurate source document, both for
the Biblical text and for the vocalization and cantillation. Some
scholars claim in has greater religious and scholarly import than
any other manuscript of the Bible. Unbeknownst to the thieves, 295
of the original 487 leaves of the Codex remain in Aleppo near the
grand synagogue protected by a Syrian gentleman who was a volunteer
caretaker and groundskeeper of sorts for many years. Apparently when
the thieves pried open the vault underneath the basilica’s
basement floor they failed to notice a cloth wrapping underneath what
they stole or that the Codex had been divided for apparent study. The
people of Syria and all who value cultural heritage await the return
of the looted Codex from its thieves.

For over a week earlier this month, with the much-appreciated
assistance of security personnel, this observer moved around Aleppo
visiting endangered archaeological sites in order to chronicle
some of them as part of a two-year research project across this
cradle of civilization. Field visits and testimony of neighbors near
Aleppo’s 11 synagogues present probative evidence that while
they, as with many sites in Aleppo and elsewhere, are currently
endangered, as of mid-December 2014 these places of worship, which
are a valued part of Syria’s cultural heritage, are locked
and secured. They do not exhibit signs of vandalism and are being
watched over by authorities and by Syrian citizens in their respective

The courtyard of the Great Synagogue of Aleppo

With respect to the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, although situated in the
district of the current front-line separating rebel from government
forces, it has not been destroyed and as of 12/16/2014 shows no
signs of damage. The may be partly due to the fact that both sides
have been widely criticized for endangering Syria’s heritage
and, with the exception of Da’ish (IS), appear to be taking
greater care these days in selecting “military targets.”
Another reason may be because the Great Synagogue is located on a
side street of little apparent strategic import that has experienced
no armed conflict. As recently as two decades ago it was in use until
Aleppo’s remaining Jews left and as with other Jewish sites in
Aleppo and across Syria, including cemeteries, schools, and communal
properties, are now under government protection.

Rather than destroy Jewish heritage in Syria her government and people
have preserved and repaired them when necessary. As of mid-December
2014 only 13 Jews remain in Aleppo according to Rabbi Avraham Hamra
with nine men and eight women, all over sixty years of age. One of the
last to depart Aleppo was Dr. Haim Cohen, a general practitioner who
lived down the street from the Samoual Synagogue, which this observer
visited on 12/11/2014. Dr. Cohen used to frequent a shop across from
the entrance to the Samoual Synagogue, which I also visite,d and
according to the shop owner who has been in the same location for 47
years and whose main work these days includes the mending of piles
of military uniforms there has been no damage to synagogues in the
Governorate and certainly not to the Great Synagogue of Aleppo.

Beirut Maghen Abraham synagogue under repairs.

In February of 2011, coincidentally the month before of the beginning
of the current Syrian crisis, President Assad signed an executive order
to repair the Al-Raqi Synagogue in the old Jewish quarter of Damascus
by the end of the month as the renovation of 10 other synagogues in
Syria’s major cities continued. On 12/11/2014 this observer
photographed some randomly selected Aleppo synagogues, including the
one in the Samoual district, and found them locked and saw no signs
of desecration. Rather, normal citizens exhibit protective attitudes
toward these heritage sites and even tend to keep the outside areas
cleared of leaves and trash. Government workers also perform daily
trash pickups along streets where the synagogues are located. Officials
advised this observer that Syria sees the rebuilding of Jewish Damascus
and repairs to synagogues across Syrian in the context of preserving
the secularism of Syria and its culture heritage of which Jews were
historically an important part.

Bashar al Assad,President of Syria

Two months before the President signed the executive order to repair
synagogues, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference
of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, discussed the
Jewish synagogues and cemeteries in Syria and he reported that he
received a “very positive response from Assad.” Syria
Jews centered mainly in Brooklyn NY whose numbers are estimated at
85,000, maintain close ties with Syria. Some of them visit their
birthplaces and conduct regular business relations in the country
often experiencing criticism and pressure from the Zionist regime
still occupying Palestine.

In November 1989, the Syrian government facilitated the emigration
of 500 single Jewish women, who greatly outnumbered eligible Jewish
men in Aleppo. During the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference Syria agreed
to ease restriction on its Jewish population. As a result, Syria
lifted many restrictions on its Jewish community, and allowed Jews
to leave on condition that they not emigrate to Israel. Beginning on
the Passover Holiday of 1992, more than 4,000 remaining members of
the Aleppo and Damascus Jewish community were granted exit permits
and within a few months, thousands more left for the United States,
France or Turkey. Approximately 300 remained in Syria, most of them
elderly all choosing to stay in the culture their families had lived
in for many generations.

With the dawning of the 21st century, there was only a small, largely
elderly community left in Aleppo. Jews were still officially banned
from politics and government employment, and did not have military
service obligations. Jews were also the only minority to have their
religion mentioned on their passports and identification cards.

Though some were occasionally subjected to harassment by Palestinian
protesters during violence in occupied Palestine, the Syrian government
took measures to protect them.

The government protected Jewish primary schools for religious
studies, and Hebrew was allowed to be taught (today Hebrew is one
of the languages SANA, the Syrian News Agency presents its news item
in). Every two or three months, a rabbi from Istanbul visited Aleppo to
oversee the preparation of kosher meat, which most residents froze and
used until his next visit. The community gradually shrank. From 2000
to 2010, 41 Syrian Jews left for occupied Palestine, and its numbers
further dwindled as members of the largely elderly community died.

In 2001, Rabbi Huder Shahada Kabariti estimated that there were still
200 Jews in the country, of whom 150 lived in Damascus, 30 in Aleppo,
and 20 in Qamashli. In 2003, the Jewish population was estimated to
be fewer than 100. In 2005, the U.S. State Department estimated the
Jewish population at 80 in its annual International Religious Freedom
Report. In May 2012, one year into the Syrian civil war, it was
reported that only 22 Jews still lived in Syria, all of them elderly
and living in Damascus, in a building adjoining the city’s only
functioning synagogue. This report was not accurate. As of December
2014, approximately 15 Jews remain in Aleppo according to Rabbi Avraham
Hamra with nine men and eight women, all over sixty years of age.

The author,Franklin Lamb, a former Assistant Counsel of the US House
Judiciary Committee at the US Congress and Professor of International
Law at Northwestern College of Law in Oregon, earned his Law Degree at
Boston University and his LLM, M.Phil, and PhD degrees at the London
School of Economics. Lamb is Director, Americans Concerned for Middle
East Peace, Beirut-Washington DC, Board Member of The Sabra Shatila
Foundation, and a volunteer with the Palestine Civil Rights Campaign,
Lebanon. He is the author of The Price We Pay: A Quarter-Century of
Israel’s Use of American Weapons Against Civilians in Lebanon. He
can be reached at: [email protected]


A Short History of Modern Syria


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