Last month, reports bubbled up on Arabic social media about a group of Jews that had traveled to the Syrian capital Damascus.
Swirling rumors said the visitors were invited by the Syrian government, or they were propaganda props, or connected to Israel, or even that they went to get discounted dental treatment.
The ongoing Syrian Civil War, past persecution of the country’s Jews and fraught relations with Israel made the visit seem improbable.
One member of the group, however, told The Times of Israel the trip was an “extremely normal” family vacation to the group’s ancestral home.
“There’s a lot to see in Syria. For me, I’m eating foods that I know, I’m speaking the language I know, I feel comfortable around the people,” Joe Jajati said. “I actually do feel at home, I actually do get that feeling so it was a very nice experience.”
Jews have a long history in the area that is now Syria, even though only a few remain there today.
Jews lived in Damascus and Aleppo 2,000 years ago, and tradition says there were Jews in the area long before that. The Dura Europos Synagogue found in the eastern part of the country dates back to circa 240 and may be the world’s oldest existing synagogue.
The Jewish community ballooned in Damascus after 1099, when Christian armies conquered Jerusalem in the First Crusade and massacred the city’s inhabitants. Historians say 50,000 Jews fled to Damascus, making almost one in three Damascenes Jewish.
In the Middle Ages, Syria was home to one of the largest Jewish settlements in the world, and the community was bolstered in the 15th century by refugees from the Inquisition, who were welcomed to Syria by the ruling Ottoman Turks.
The community was relatively successful, with some members becoming government ministers and advisers, until the 1840 Damascus Affair, when Christians in the capital said Jews had ritually murdered a missing monk. A group of leading Jews were imprisoned and tortured over the false allegations. There were several other lesser blood libels against the Jews in the decades following the incident. The community in Syria numbered around 100,000 at the turn of the 20th century, when the first families began immigrating to New York.
France ruled the area after World War I, but some anti-Jewish sentiments festered, and thousands of Jews moved to today’s Israel. After Syria gained independence in 1946, there were anti-Jewish riots in 1947, causing two-thirds of the community to flee. The establishment of Israel in 1948 sparked pogroms that killed dozens, and a grenade killed 11 or 12 Jews in a Damascus synagogue in 1949.
The government barred Jews from leaving the country and enacted other restrictive laws, although some sneaked out, risking steep punishment. The government under Hafez Assad allowed the remaining Jews to leave in the 1990s, as long as they didn’t move to Israel, leading to the last wave of immigration to New York in the mid-1990s. Today, there are around a dozen Jews left in the country.
Jajati’s family left Damascus for New York in the 1990s and early 2000s because the Jewish community had become depleted by emigration, he said. Young people could not find marriage partners and kosher meat had to be imported from Turkey. A visiting rabbi would come for a week and perform several brit milah circumcision ceremonies at once. The family members left reluctantly, and had all relocated by 2001.
The Syrian Jewish community in New York was formed by layers of immigration over the course of a century. Memories of Syria, the travails of leaving and attitudes toward the country and government differ. For families that left during the Ottoman Empire, there is likely little direct connection to Syria left.
“I hear from people here that left there in the 1970s. It was a different government, it was the start of Israel, there were some crazy people, things happened back then,” Jajati said. “It doesn’t mean that it’s like that now, and everyone’s under that impression.”
The New York community is generally close-knit and averse to media attention. It is not a monolithic group and there is no representative body, so it is impossible to gauge overall attitudes. Many people cherish the culture and feel a strong connection to the Jewish community, but do not feel connected, or care much, about the country or government.
Earlier arrivals also do not have business or personal connections there, and do not have Syrian passports or speak the language fluently, making it less likely they will visit. Many of the later arrivals still have vivid memories of life in Syria, and likely have mixed feelings about the Assad family, which held them in Syria, but later allowed them to emigrate.
A 2011 UJA-Federation survey put the Syrian Jewish population in New York City at around 38,000. The survey described the community overall as relatively affluent and religious and “heavily engaged in Jewish life.”
Jajati arrived in New York as a toddler in 1996. He grew up with a family that spoke Arabic and remembered Damascus warmly, he said.
“As a child I always wanted to see it, to experience it, but I never had the chance. My family went back one time in 2010 and they had a great time.”
“I was younger, so they promised they’re going to take me with them the next trip,” he said. Then “the war started happening and so my family was not interested in going back.”
A few years ago, Jajati said he became more interested in his Syrian roots. He downloaded an app to learn Arabic reading and writing and began consuming Arabic TV shows and music. He now reads, writes and speaks fluently.
In 2018, he was following news of the war and and connected with several people who ran Syria-focused social media accounts. The government had regained control of much of the country and he felt confident enough to venture back, despite warnings from people in the US. He convinced a friend to join him by paying for his trip, he said.
Above: The interior of al-Franj Synagogue in Damascus.
“I was prepared to go to a war zone,” he said. But “the difference between what I saw and what I’d been hearing and seeing was phenomenal, a huge difference.”
He ended up extending the weeklong trip twice and stayed for 21 days. He said he has now traveled to Damascus 10 times in total, eventually convincing his family to join him for the most recent trip. Twelve people went, including his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, he said.
He has retained his Syrian citizenship and has no trouble getting in, he said. There are flights from Dubai to Damascus, but he flies to Beirut and drives several hours to the Syrian capital.
“You drive on top of the mountains. You get to see the whole Lebanon on the way, you get to have some good coffee and food,” he said.
He sticks to Damascus on the trips, besides one foray to the coastal vacation town of Tartus. The capital has a lively nightlife and restaurant scene, he said. Some people he meets there are aware he’s American and Jewish and have no issues with either, and welcome him as a Syrian.
“Obviously I’m not walking around holding a sign telling random people, but whoever does know they’re very happy I’m actually returning,” he said. “The original city of Damascus, the old city, the Jews played a big role, so we’re original, so you’re welcome over there.”
And the dental work? His uncle did get a procedure done while in Damascus, for around a tenth of the cost in the US, but it was not a motivating factor for the trip.
He has visited Jewish sites in Damascus, including the Al-Franj Synagogue where his parents were married and he had his brit milah ceremony, and met the few remaining Jews in the city, who attend synagogue on Yom Kippur but are unable to muster a minyan, or prayer quorum. He visited the graves of the prominent rabbis Chaim Vitale and Nissim Indibo, and stayed in his extended family’s former home, which his grandfather sold in 2001 and is now a hotel.
He said there are government security guards stationed at Jewish sites, including the synagogue and cemeteries.
Despite rumors the family was invited there by the government, Jajati said he had no contact with any officials. He views the government as a secular regime that buffers against more extreme groups in the opposition.
The multi-sided Syrian Civil War has killed roughly half a million people since it started in 2011 and displaced many millions. The Assad government is often characterized as a dictatorship, and Syrian President Bashar Assad has been accused of war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons on civilians, allegations he denies.
“I don’t know why they put that on TV and they said I had a special invitation. I have no contact with the government, I had no invitation, none of that,” he said. “I don’t think they went out of their way to create any positive experience for me.”
“I think the least they deserve is some gratitude for preserving the Jewish sites,” he said. “I really want all the Jews to know that.
“Hopefully one day in the future, if Jews ever decide to go there, they’re more than welcome and they have everything there for them.”
At least one synagogue in Syria was badly damaged in the civil war and the condition of others is unknown, according to Diarna, a project that catalogues Jewish sites in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in the Damascus suburb of Jobar dated back to at least the Middle Ages. The Jewish community there was decimated by a pogrom in 1840, and the synagogue was hit by explosives in May 2014 during fighting. The Assad government and rebel forces blamed each other for the incident. Some ancient Jewish artifacts form the site had already gone missing after the area was taken by rebel forces. Two-thirds of the structure has been destroyed, Diarna said.
Chrystie Sherman, a photojournalist who has worked with Diarna, was the last photographer to document the synagogue before its destruction.
“We think it was hit by the Assad military. They’re not protecting anything and they don’t care about Jews,” she said. “The whole Jobar story, it’s heartbreaking, it was just such a beautiful place.”
She said she was not aware of any damage to Jewish sites since, but that all synagogues besides Al-Franj had been closed.
When she first attempted to visit Syria, she was denied permission to enter the country as a Jewish journalist, but later hid that she was Jewish and was able to visit Jewish sites with a guide under the guise of a research trip on Syrian religions in 2010.
When she visited Al-Franj, “they had government people there watching,” she said. The minders asked her and other tourists what they were doing there. She said she was doing a research trip “and then they didn’t ask me any more.”
“I slipped under the radar. I wasn’t followed, I wasn’t given a hard time by anybody so I was just lucky,” she said. “The Syrians don’t like people coming into their country and looking around.”
One of the country’s leading problems now is the economic ruination caused by international sanctions against the Assad government.
A Syrian journalist said the government was trying to attract business and investments for reconstruction, and was eager for foreigners to visit, including Jews. The Assad government was also trying to differentiate itself from Islamist rebel groups.
“They need to show all the world that it’s open for anyone,” Issam Khoury said. “They’re trying to send the message that the Syrian regime is better than the Islamic rebels because it can accept anyone. If he’s Jewish, not Jewish, they will accept anyone.”
The government’s sprawling security forces likely kept an eye on the visiting group during the trip, even though a group with Syrian passports could have easily entered the country on its own, he said.
“It’s not to protect them. They don’t care about Jews, to be honest with you. They’re interested in showing all the world that ‘We are in control and Syria is safe and Jews, when they decide to visit Syria, they will be happy and everything is good.’”
The foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates visited Syria last month for the first time since the civil war began, in a significant step for Assad’s reentry into the Arab world.
The regime has an “electronic army” that disseminates information on social media for propaganda purposes, and will sometimes publish information against the government to gauge the public response, Khoury said.
He saw social media posts about the Jewish group’s visit around the time it happened, but said the trip did not make waves online.
“People spoke about it as a normal issue, to be honest with you. No one is surprised now by anything inside Syria,” he said. “It’s not surprising because in general, before the Syrian revolution happened, many Syrian Jews visited Syria. We knew that.”
Additionally, both Bashar Assad and his father before him have long said they have no issue with Jews, only with Israel.
Jajati said it was sad that the community in Syria is no longer sustainable after the hundreds of years it lived there, and opinions about the government and visiting Syria are mixed in New York.
He said he has seen interest in returning for visits since reports about his own travels made the rounds. People he doesn’t know personally are contacting him asking for details on how to get there. “These people who want to go, I give them an answer: just book a flight and go,” he said.