Albert Cameo, leader of what remains of the Jewish community in Syria, says he’s trying to fulfill an obligation to his religious heritage. The 70-year-old is organizing the restoration of a synagogue called al-Raqi in the old Jewish quarter of Damascus built during the Ottoman Empire about 400 years ago. The project, which began in December, will be completed this month as part of a plan to restore 10 synagogues with the backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and funding from Syrian Jews.
“Assad sees the rebuilding of Jewish Damascus in the context of preserving the secularism of Syria,” said Josh Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. “This is an effort by the regime to show its seriousness and an olive branch to the Jewish community in America, which they have been wooing.”
While Syria is still officially at war with Israel, the country is trying to portray itself as a more tolerant state to help burnish its image internationally. Syria’s 200 Jews are mirroring the actions of their co-religionists in Lebanon, where restoration work began on Beirut’s Maghen Abraham Synagogue in July 2009.
“For Syria there is a clear dichotomy between the Arab- Israeli conflict and the Palestinian cause on one hand and her pride of her diverse cultural heritage on the other hand,” said Imad Moustapha, Syria’s ambassador to Washington.
Indirect peace talks between Israel and Syria, mediated by Turkey, broke down in December 2008 when Israel began a military offensive in the Gaza Strip that it said was aimed at stopping Islamic militants from firing rockets into southern Israel. The previous round collapsed in 2000, when the two nations failed to agree on the return of the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1967.
The largest Syrian-Jewish community, estimated at 75,000, is centered in Brooklyn, New York and New Jersey. Joey Allaham, 35, a Syrian Jew living in New York, still considers Syria his homeland.
In December, he helped set up a meeting between al-Assad and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella organization of Jewish groups in an effort to foster ties between Syria and the American Jewish community.
During their visit, Allaham and Hoenlein toured the Franji synagogue across from the Talisman Hotel in Bab Touma, in the old city of the Syrian capital. The synagogue, also known as Ilfrange, gets its name from the Jews who came from Spain and dates back 400 years, according to Cameo.
“President Assad was kind enough to support us,” Allaham said in an interview. “We are going to bring support financially.”
Syrian Jews, a group dating back to the Roman Empire, numbered as many as 30,000 in 1947 and were indigenous Arabs or Sephardim who fled to Syria after their expulsion from Spain in 1492, according to Sara Reguer, author of “The Jews of the Middle East and North Africa in Modern Times.”
The community resided in the cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Qamishli, dwindling in size because of emigration to the United States, western Europe and South America from the early 1900s.
The “big flight” of Syrian Jews came after the creation of Israel in 1948 when riots erupted in Aleppo, resulting in Syria prohibiting Jews from leaving the country because they were going to Israel, said Landis.
The remaining Jews were allowed to leave Syria in 1990 as relations with the United States thawed because Washington sought the country’s support to oust former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, Landis said.
“Syrian Jews living in Israel, Turkey, Western Europe, and the United States feel a positive affinity toward their homeland,” said Tom Dine, who used to head the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said by e-mail. “Reconciliation is long overdue.”
Unlike his three brothers who live in Mexico, Cameo says he has no desire to leave Syria.
“Morally I can’t leave my country and the religious places of worship here,” Cameo said from his home
in Damascus. “I have a duty to preserve our heritage.”
Sept. 18 (Bloomberg) -- In 1983, Isaac Arazi and his wife were caught in sectarian fighting during Lebanon's 15-year civil war. A Shiite Muslim militiaman helped the couple escape.
Arazi, a leader of Lebanon's tiny Jewish community, sees the incident as a lesson in the Arab country's tradition of tolerance. Now he is trying to make use of that tradition, along with the global diaspora of Lebanese Jews, in a drive to rebuild Beirut's only synagogue, damaged during the war.
``Those who don't have a past don't have a future,'' Arazi said to explain his push to rebuild the synagogue.
Beirut's Maghen Abraham Synagogue opened in 1926 in Wadi Abou Jmil, the city's Jewish quarter, located on the edge of west Beirut near the Grand Serai palace, where the government meets, and within walking distance of parliament.
Lebanon then was something of a haven for Jews, some of whom were the descendants of those who had fled the Spanish inquisition; it later served a similar role for refugees from Nazi Germany. With ``no history of anti-Jewish tensions,'' it was the only Arab country whose Jewish population rose after Israel's creation in 1948, according to Kirsten Schulze, a lecturer at the London School of Economics and author of ``The Jews of Lebanon.''
By the mid-1960s, there were as many as 22,000 Lebanese Jews, said Arazi, 65. In addition to heading the Jewish Community Council he owns a food-machinery business with 1,000 customers.
``Christians, Muslims and Jews were all living together when I was growing up,'' said Liza Srour, 57. ``Whenever there was a war with Israel, or tension, the government used to provide protection for us.''
That changed with the nation's 1975-1990 civil war, as Jews fled the violence triggered by rivalries among the nation's Christian, Muslim and Druze factions and emigrated to Europe, North and South America.
Now, Arazi said, only 100 Jews live permanently in the country, while another 1,900 go back and forth or have intermarried into other religions. Srour is the only Jew still residing in Wadi Abou Jmil.
In 1982, according to an Associated Press report at the time, Israeli shells tore through roof of Maghen Abraham as the Jewish state invaded southern Lebanon in an effort to crush Palestinian guerrillas. The synagogue has been closed ever since, its brittle entrance gate chained and padlocked. Plaster and rubble are scattered on the floor.
Arazi figures it will cost about $1 million to restore the synagogue. Making the effort possible is the end of an 18-month crisis between Lebanon's political factions, the blessing of the Lebanese government, financial support from a downtown reconstruction project and acquiescence from the Shiite Hezbollah movement that fought a month-long war against Israel in 2006.
He so far has raised about $40,000 for the project, but has promises of more. Ten percent of the estimated cost will come from Solidere SAL, a company founded in 1994 by then-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri -- later assassinated in a bombing supporters blame on Syria -- to rebuild the capital's downtown.
The company has given $150,000 to each of 14 religious organizations that are restoring places of worship in Lebanon -- about $2.1 million in all. ``We help all the communities,'' said Solidere chairman Nasser Chammaa.
The Safra family, whose Safra Group includes Brazil's Banco Safra SA and Safra National Bank of New York and which was based in Lebanon in the 1940s as part of the Jewish community, has agreed to help fund the project once work begins, Arazi said.
Joseph R. Safra, nephew of Republic National Bank of New York founder Edmond Safra, said: ``We do not comment on private matters.'' Joseph Safra heads Arview Holdings, Inc., a New York financial-consulting and advisory firm.
Two banks in Switzerland whose founders have Lebanese- Jewish roots also agreed to provide financing, Arazi said. One of the banks has pledged $100,000 toward the synagogue's restoration. Arazi declined to name the banks.
Even the warring factions in Lebanon's government have blessed the project. ``This is a religious place of worship and its restoration is welcome,'' Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, 65, said in an interview. Hussain Rahal, a spokesman for Hezbollah, said his group -- which refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist, and which the West considers a terrorist organization -- also supports the restoration of Maghen Abraham.
``We respect the Jewish religion just like we do Christianity,'' he said. ``The Jews have always lived among us. We have an issue with Israel's occupation of land.''
Arazi said work on the restoration is to begin next month. Meanwhile, his council is already working on plans for its next project: restoring Beirut's Jewish cemetery, where about 4,500 people are buried.
Walking among the weeds overgrowing the cemetery's tombstones, Arazi said: ``I remember my father when I come here.''