Measuring value: the cultural memory of the last generation of Jews in Damascus (part II)

By Rania Kataf

This article will address traces of Jewish life in Damascus and the narratives and memories of the last generation of Damascene Jews who still live there or who left the country between the early 1990s and the period before the Syrian conflict beginning in 2011. The constructive research focuses on collecting and providing detailed images of the lives of the last Jews in Damascus; and to present their personal narratives, helping to convey an unknown reality of the Jewish experience in and after leaving the city. It is a unique attempt to preserve their history and cultural memory of a city they once called home.

For decades, Damascus has been losing increasing numbers of its Jewish population which has once been an elementary part of the Syrian society. While there were at least 16, 500 Jews living in Syria at the beginning of the 20th century[1], in the 2010s there are less than 20 Jews still to be found in the whole country.

In order to collect patterns of self-descriptions and narratives on their past yet recent experience as Damascene citizens and the effect the (geo-)political circumstances have had on their lives since mid-last century, the interviewees were asked about their biographical background, about their feelings of belonging and identity, about their life in Damascus and – if so – about their leaving of Damascus. This includes detailed questions about their homes and neighborhoods in the city, about religious sites, schools, social circles, the co-existence with non-Jews, community leaders, rituals, businesses and other details that help us to imagine a vivid community and inter-community life in the city. Furthermore, the interviewees were asked about the impact of restricting laws, discrimination and the reasons which led them to leave the country in the end. This led to questions about how they left and how they felt about their leaving, if they would return and how they still connect with people in the city.

Map of Damascus which depicts the main locations mentioned in the interviews.

1.     Chalaan
2.     Kasaa
3.     Bab Touma
4.     Ummayad Mosque
5.     Quemarriyeh
6.     Bab Shargi
7.     Jewish Quarter
8.     Harika

Facing the almost complete disappearance of the Jewish community today and its gradual marginalization in public life during the 19th century, they  look back on the time of the Ottoman rule – especially in its late period – when Jews were still playing central roles in public, politics and economy. The interviewees talk about the important role that the Jewish community had in crafts and trade and bring up notable Jewish figures who had important positions, for example members of the Farhi family who served as high treasurers for the Ottoman Empire[2].

When explaining how Antisemitism started growing in Syria, some interviewees go back to this era, long before the establishment of concurring modern nation states in the Middle East: They especially mention the so-called Damascus Affair in 1840, when Jews were accused of the murder of a Christian monk and his Muslim servant and confronted with ritual murder libels[3]. However, the radical change in the situation of the whole Jewish community in the country is ascribed to the time before, at and after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and its wars with Arab countries, including Syria. These political conflicts caused outrages against Syrian Jews like the 1949 Menarsha Synagogue attack in which 12 people died and around 60 were injured. Furthermore, it led to surveillance, imprisonments and government restrictions against Jews that limited their lives radically: these included the exclusion from public positions, travel bans, blocking of bank accounts, confiscations, the prohibition to sell property. This situation got even worse after the June War in 1967, and eased only since the mid-seventies when some of the restrictions started to be lifted[4].

Another consequence of 1948 was that Palestinian refugees started moving into the Jewish Quarter of Old Damascus, where they became the new settlers of abandoned houses, and public Jewish houses like the building of the Alliance Israélite Universelle school and the house of Chamahayah with a private synagogue were confiscated and used for the needs of the refugees. The description of the co-existence between the Palestinian refugees and the Damascene Jews who have remained in the city, is ambivalent: while some name the tensions between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ inhabitants of the quarter and the influence of the political events on their relationships, others point out a pragmatic, accepting and peaceful co-existence. This situation is described by Rachel Qamoo in her interview as follows:

“After 1948, the shape of our quarter changed tremendously. Palestinian refugees moved into our quarter and many Palestinians worked with us. The political situation might have been complicated, but in reality, we were able to cooperate with the Palestinians by providing them with jobs in our factories, turning them from refugees to citizens who made money and were able to buy property.”

Rachel Qamoo (born 1941 in Damascus), sister of Albert Qamoo, returned to Damascus because she made it her mission to take care of the city’s synagogues. This interview was conducted in Arabic and then translated into English by Rania Kataf.

This perspective fits into the broader narrative of peaceful co-existence, inter- confessional friendships and a strong feeling of belonging and shared tradition in the neighborhood and city community. The interviewees emphasize that these positive relationship and community feelings survived despite the growing political tensions in the region and government restrictions. Those living abroad, in this case in Brooklyn, explain how strong this identification with the Syrian and especially Damascene community and tradition remains also outside of Syria. One example of this is Joseph Jajati, who spoke in the interview about his feelings of belonging:

“I don’t remember how Damascus used to be in the 1990s, I was only two years old when I left so I grew up in the States. Yet, that did not make me any less Shami, I definitely feel Shami. Not remembering Syria does not make me any less Syrian and not physically being in Syria doesn’t either. My house in the States is a typical Syrian home and my family made sure I grew up the Syrian way. We speak Arabic at home, even at work, and I only speak English when I really have to. Everything we do, we do the exact same way it used to be done in Damascus; the food, the traditions, the ceremonies and celebrations.“

Joseph Jajati (born 1994 in Damascus) left Damascus for Brooklyn (New York City, USA) with his mother and his brother when he was only two years old. This interview was conducted in Arabic and then translated into English by Rania Kataf.

The travel ban on Syrian Jews was only lifted in 1992 which also marks a turning point mentioned in most of the interviews as it paved the way for the last big emigration wave of Jews from Syria. After more than a century of gradual decrease of the country’s Jewish population, this last movement left behind only a few hundred Jewish people[5]. Facing the disappearance of Jewish life in Syria, it is even more important to save the memories of the last generation and to make the traces of the long history of Jewish life in the region more visible.

Traces

Strolling around in Old Damascus with an open eye, one may still find evidence that the city has been a center for Jewish life in the region for centuries: Lintels with Hebrew inscriptions, temple symbols on former Jewish houses, old synagogues. The letters, Hebrew schoolbooks and banknotes that are to be found in private collections draw an even more detailed picture of the diverse aspects of Jewish life and history in the city. This chapter follows some of these traces.

Figure 1: Hand-drawn map of the Jewish Quarter in Old Damascus with French description, dedicated to Joseph Elia. Among others,  the map shows the location of the  Alliance Israélite Universelle school (number 11), the Frenj Synagogue (number 4), the house of Chamahayah (number 1) and the Bayt Lisbona (number 7). Source: Private Collection.

Letters to the government

Most of the Jews of Damascus practiced their private businesses in trade or handcraft, the most popular being in textile, gold and metalwork crafts.  During the Ottoman rule over Syria, Jews had the right to earn jobs in administrative government sectors. Yet as Syria began a new era under the French mandate, it seems the current government began eliminating the presence of Damascene Jews in its sectors[6]. In a letter sent by the Chief Rabbi of Damascus[7] on October 12, 1924, Dr. Suleiman Tagger asks the President of the  State of Syria, Subhi Bey Barakat (1889–1939, President 1922–1924), to show fairness for the Jewish community by considering its members for job vacancies in different government sectors, believing in the importance of creating a diverse government administration, which had to include all members of the Syrian community.

The letter was written in French, considering that in 1924 Syria was still under the French mandate. Yet the reply was sent back in Arabic, on October 16th of the same year by the President’s Secretary General. In his reply, the Secretary General shows gratitude for the Rabbi and the Jewish community who wishes to take part in the country’s administration. Yet he explained that jobs of such high-ranking are appointed based on loyalty to the government, experience, and level of education, not religion nor ethnic background.

Since 1947, after Syria became independent in 1946, and in the context of the repression measures against Jews that were taken by the government as a reaction to the political conflicts around the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Jews were forbidden to take positions in public services.

In the 1936 edition of Imtidad al-Ma’arif fi Suria (The Extension of Knowledge in Syria), an annual journal published during the Damascus International Fair, records show the increase in the number of Jewish students in the schools of Damascus. The 21 % increase from 1929–1935 includes 2300 students of Jewish origin (called “Israelites”) in 1929 and 2800 in 1935. The statistics furthermore shows the number of Muslim and Christian students in Damascus which also increased between 1929 and 1935. This is a very important document because not many records were created, other than in schools, to help estimate the number of individuals in a community.

Figure 4: The reply sent by the secretary general of the State of Syria. Source: private collection

Such population numbers may also be reconstructed with the help of documents of the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU) which was founded in France in 1860. The organization’s main activity in order to attain its objectives of international Jewish solidarity, improvement of Jewish welfare and emancipation, was to build a network of schools for spreading “modern”, French-style education among Jews especially in the Middle East and North Africa. The AIU school in Damascus was among the first of those schools. It was established in 1864 and, after being closed in 1869, reopened in 1880 with a boys’ school, followed by a girls’ school in 1983. It was considered one of the most elite schools in the city of Damascus. The AIU school was closed after its building was converted into an UNRWA installation for Palestinian refugees in 1948.

Jewish homes

In the winter of 2019, a lintel on top of a door of a house in the Jewish Quarter appeared after a major rainfall in the city of Damascus. The lintel is a mosaic marble with a Hebrew blessing from the Torah (Deut 28:6) at the front entrance of Moussa Khaski’s house, a family who left Damascus to Brooklyn in the early 1990s. The lintel was covered by the owners with mud bricks in 1948, after many Palestinian refugees came to settle in the empty homes of Jewish families who left Damascus before that date. During that period, many Jews in the Jewish Quarter feared conflict would arise between them and the newcomers, and as a result, the Khaskis decided to remove any clue that identifies their Jewish background. In an interview conducted with one of the Jews remaining in Damascus, Njour Zaki Shamoutoub states:

“In reality, conflict did exist between us Jews and the newcomers. And no one really spoke about the period during and post­1948 or the effect the establishment of the State of Israel had had on us as a Damascene community. Yet, there were many Jews who chose to hide their identity and remain anonymous to those newcomers.”

Njour Zaki Shamoutoub (born 1954 in Damascus), also called Eid, was famous for his tailoring in Damascus. This interview was conducted in Arabic and then translated into English by Rania Kataf.

Today, with only twelve members left of the Jewish community of Damascus, most Jewish property in the old city is closed and is under the supervision  of the Higher Committee for Jewish Affairs[8]. The majority of Damascene Jews sold their homes before leaving the country in the early 1990s. Some put their property up for rent under 99-year contracts. Since the early 2000s, many houses in the Jewish Quarter have been renovated and made into hotels or art galleries by their new owners; the most famous are The Talisman, Bayt Farhi, and Gallery Mustafa Ali.

Figure 7: Decorative lintel on the door of the private synagogue at the House of Chamahayah. Jewish Quarter of Old Damascus. Photo by Rania Kataf.

The Frenj Synagogue, located in the Jewish Quarter of the old city, is the only one in Damascus that is still functioning today. It is said to be founded by  the Sephardic Jews who came to Damascus (and the whole region) after their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula in the end of the 15th century[9] and to be the first synagogue that was built inside the city walls of Damascus.

The most famous among the synagogues of Damascus though, was the Jobar Synagogue, also known as Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, as it is associated with the prophet Eliyahu. It is considered one of the most important herit- age sites in Syria, situated in the city of Jobar, a suburb of Damascus. According to the legend, the synagogue dates back to 720 BC[10] and was a major  attraction for different Jewish communities for centuries. Unfortunately, it was destroyed completely in 2014, the third year of the Syrian conflict. In an interview conducted for this research, Rachel Qamoo states that:

“What breaks my heart the most is the Synagogue of Jobar. It used to be the second oldest synagogue in Syria, after the  Synagogue of Aleppo, before it has been destroyed completely during the Syrian conflict. During the 16th century, many of the Jews who escaped Spain came to settle in Jobar because  of its ancient synagogue. Those who moved to Damascus built the Frenj Synagogue, ‘frenj’ meaning foreigner, making it the first synagogue built inside the city walls. After that, seven synagogues were built, in addition to private synagogues inside Jewish homes. The most famous was the private synagogue  at the house of Chamahayah, which became a settlement for refugees from Palestine in 1948.”

Rachel Qamoo. This interview was conducted in Arabic and then translated into English by Rania Kataf.

This commemorative plate in the Menarsha Synagogue is dedicated to the twelve young victims of a grenade attack on the synagogue which happened on August 5, 1947 during the Shabbat eve service[11].

Despite the fact that the Star of David is considered one of the most popular Jewish motifs used to symbolize Judaism worldwide, a similar design is also known in Islamic art as Khatim Sulaiman. Khatim, or the Seal of Solomon, carries specific ideological meanings in Islam and is a very popular motif in mosques worldwide. Therefore, other symbols have appeared to show particular resemblance to Jewish people or Judaism in Damascus, including the shape of the temple and the snake in different Jewish properties through- out the Jewish Quarter. While the temple usually represents a private synagogue if present at a Jewish home, a snake is believed to protect the owners of the building from all evil. This symbol is a special feature of Jewish homes in  Damascus.

Figure 5: Torah shrine of the Frenj Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Old Damascus. Photo by Rania Kataf.

The Syrian Lira of 1977

In 1977, a Syrian paper bill was issued by the Bank of Syria with a photo of Jacque Zaibak, a Jewish metal worker from Damascus, and an illustration of the Umayyad Mosque in the background. Metalwork was among the handcrafts that Jews were most famous for in Damascus.

The next year, the Syrian government passed an order to remove the bill from the market. Many believe that this design caused controversy in the public because it included a Jewish character in an Islamic setting, especially for the merchants of Damascus, who urged that this image be substituted by a craftsman of Islamic background. Some made a remark that Jacque Zaibak actually asked that this bill be removed through a lawsuit, since the bank did not seek his permission to include his photo on the issued paper bill in the first place; and by 1979, the bill was completely removed from the Syrian market.

Figure 9: Syrian paper bill with a photo of Jacque Zaibak, a Jewish metal worker from Damascus (1977). Source: private collection

About the author: Rania Kataf is a Damascus-based researcher in Syrian cultural heritage. Since 2016 she has been involved in several projects for the safeguarding and documentation of her country’s architectural and oral history. In 2017 she completed the postgraduate certificate programme on art crime and cultural heritage protection with the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, Italy. She is now completing her Masters in World Heritage Studies online at the Brandenburg University of Technology.

Disclaimer: this article is intended for educational purposes, and does not purport to provide legal advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.

References:

[1] Demographical data from this time are not very reliable. The census made under the Ottoman rule of Abdul Hamid II (reigned 1876–1909) between 1881/2–1893, counted the Jewish population of Damascus with 6.265. For the period between 1930–1948, estimates of the Jewish population vary between 15.000 and 30.000 (Álvarez Suárez/Del Río Sánchez 2013:  112 –113, Jasim 2020: 10, Karpat 2002: 146–168, Na’eeseh 2009: 98–107, Zenner 2000: 36)

[2] The Farhi family poses, according to Thomas Philipp, an example for the fragile power position that several Jews had in the Ottoman Empire. He argues that they were given these influential positions for pragmatic reasons and because they did not have an independent power base and were completely dependent on the rulers whom they served (see Jasim 2020: 14–15). In general, economic privileges were only given to individuals within the Christian and Jewish populations who profited from legal protection by the European powers on which the Ottoman Empire became increasingly dependent. This dependence also  led to the settlement of so-called Capitulations, which among other things exempted traders of the European countries – including several local partners and protégés – from specific taxes. For the European powers,  in turn, local Jews and Christians were important intermediaries in trade because of their familiarity with the local market and their long-established trade networks with Europe (see Jasim 2020: 18–20, Krämer 2006: 253, Zenner 2000: 40)

[3] These followed the patterns of centuries-old anti-Semitic canards in Europe. The smear campaign was mainly pushed by the French consul Ratti-Menton, led to the arrest and torture of leading members of the Jewish communities and caused international attention and involvement (see Jasim 2020, 15–17). It is often put in the context of tensions between the Christian and the Jewish communities (Zenner 2000:41–42). For information about the dissemination of European anti-Semitic motifs in the Arab Near East in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, among others through translations of anti-Semitic writings into Arabic which were mostly published by Christians, see Krämer 2006: 255 –259. 

[4] For a more detailed overview on the restrictions see Jasim 2020: 26–34, Zenner 2000: 55–61 and timeline).

[5] On the previous emigrations and their different economic and political causes see Álvarez  Suárez/Del Río Sánchez: 112–113, Jasim 2020: 20, 34

[6] For further information on the appointment of Jews in the  administrative government sector during the late Ottoman  period and the French Mandate, see Stillman 1991: 58, Zenner 2000: 39.

[7] The office of the Chief Rabbi (Hakham Bashi) was established in the Ottoman Empire to lead, administer and represent the  Jewish communities of the Empire and its urban centers before the Ottoman authorities. For the role and the appointment procedure of the Chief Rabbi, see Zenner 2000: 45–46.

[8] The Higher Committee for Jewish Affairs is a non-Jewish government committee to supervise the Syrian Jewish community and  its matters. For further information see Jasim 2020: 32

[9] The descendants of Iberian Jewry are called Sephardim. In 1492, the so-called Alhambra Decree issued by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain after the Reconquista, expelled Jews from

[10] This is probably incorrect, but according to the sources mentioning the synagogue it is at least of medieval origin. For mentions of the synagogue in historical sources see Gottheil, Buhl, Franco 1906

[11] This attack was one of several outrages committed against Jews which occurred at various points in time (see timeline and Jasim 2020: 26–28), including in the period of the UN partition plan in 1947, during the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent war,  in times of instability inside the young independent Syrian  Republic, and – in this specific case – as a reaction to the Lausanne Conference of 1949 which attempted to resolve these disputes.