The last Jews who wanted to leave Syria departed with the chief rabbi in October 1994. Prior to 1947, there were some 30,000 Jews made up of three distinct communities, each with its own traditions: the Kurdish-speaking Jews of Kamishli, the Jews of Aleppo with roots in Spain, and the original eastern Jews of Damascus, called Must’arab. Today only a tiny remnant of these communities remains.

The Jewish presence in Syria dates back to biblical times and is intertwined with the history of Jews in neighboring Eretz Israel. With the advent of Christianity, restrictions were imposed on the community. The Arab conquest in 636 c.e., however, greatly improved the lot of the Jews. Unrest in neighboring Iraq in the 10th century resulted in Jewish migration to Syria and brought about a boom in commerce, banking, and crafts. During the reign of the Fatimids, the Jew Menashe Ibrahim El-Kazzaz ran the Syrian administration, and he granted Jews positions in the government.

Syrian Jewry supported the aspirations of the Arab nationalists and Zionism, and Syrian Jews believed that the two parties could be reconciled and that the conflict in Palestine could be resolved. However, following Syrian independence from France in 1946, attacks against Jews and their property increased, culminating in the pogroms of 1947, which left all shops and synagogues in Aleppo in ruins. Thousands of Jews fled the country, and their homes and property were taken over by the local Muslims.

For the next decades, Syrian Jews were, in effect, hostages of a hostile regime. They could leave Syria only on the condition that they leave members of their family behind. Thus the community lived under siege, constantly under fearful surveillance of the secret police. This much was allowed due to an international effort to secure the human rights of the Jews, the changing world order, and the Syrian need for Western support; so the conditions of the Jews improved somewhat.

Prior to the initiation of the peace process in the Middle East, the Syrian Jewish community was deprived of many basic human and civil rights. Those who attempted to flee across the borders illegally were usually caught, arrested, and cruelly tortured in the dungeons of the secret police. The plight of Syrian Jewry became an international human rights issue in the mid-1970s. The United States, Canada, and France played leading roles in the efforts to bring justice to the community. The Madrid Conference in 1992 was the turning point for the Jewish community. American and Israeli pressure succeeded in convincing the Syrian government to declare that Jews could leave freely.

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