Judaism in Syria

Syria has had well-established Jewish communities since at least the Roman period. These have included a community of Arab Jews, referred to as Musta’arabi or Mizrahi, from the Roman period, Sephardic Jews who settled in Syria following their forced migration from Spain in 1492, and Jewish merchants from Europe. The largest centers of Jewish life were in Aleppo, Damascus, and in the largely Kurdish town of Qamishli. The Aleppo Codex, the oldest manuscript of the Bible completed in in the year 920, was housed in Aleppo from the 15th century until 1947. A portion of the codex survives today in Jerusalem in the Israel Museum. Jews came to Syria for different reasons at different points in history, including for Syria’s proximity to Jerusalem, for economic opportunity, and for the largely peaceful relations between Syria’s diverse religious and ethnic groups.

In the late 19th century, European business interests disproportionately favored Christian and Jewish merchants while disfavoring the Muslim middle class. Ottoman "Tanzimat" reforms during the same period contributed to Muslim-Christian tensions which triggered Christian immigration. The construction of the Suez Canal resulted in the disintegration of overland trade routes, and especially those from Persia which some Jewish businesses were heavily invested in. With increasing import of European goods during the industrial revolution, local crafts production was also severely undermined. These economic changes led to a wave of Jewish emigration to Egypt and Lebanon and further contributed to ethnic and religious tension.            

During the interwar period which saw the early years of markedly anti-Zionist Arab nationalist movements, many Jews emigrated to the United States, Latin America, and Israel. Anti-Jewish sentiment increased in the years leading to complete Syrian independence from France in 1946, erupting in 1947 over the UN proposal to partition Israel into separate Arab and Jewish states. Riots in the Jewish quarters of Aleppo resulted in the destruction of Jewish homes and businesses, including Aleppo's Great Synagogue where the Aleppo Codex was stored. During this period the Syrian government enacted numerous discriminatory laws including a 1948 ban on the sale of Jewish property, the freezing of Jewish bank accounts in 1953, and a 1964 ban on Jewish travel and emigration. The travel ban was lifted by Hafez Al-Assad in 1992 during his "re-election" campaign, permitting families to reunite outside of Syria. In 1947, the Syrian Jewish population numbered around 15,000, declining to 5,300 in 1957, to 1,400 in the late 1980's, to around 250 in 2005. The small community of about 100 Jews remaining in Damascus has recently fled on account of the ongoing crisis.The largest contemporary Syrian Jewish community is in Brooklyn, New York. 

Sources

Steven L. Meyers, “Syrian Jews Find Haven in Brooklyn,” The New York Times, May 23, 1992, accessed June 6, 2013.

Judy F. Carr and Moshe Ma'oz, "Syria," Encyclopedia Judaica, 2nd. Ed., Vol. 19, eds. Fred Skolnik and Michael Berenbaum (Farmington Hills: Macmillan Reference USA, 2006), pp. 388-397.

Hayim Tawil and Bernard Schneider, The Crown of Aleppo: The Mystery of the Oldest Hebrew Bible Codex (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2010).

United States Department of State, “2012 Report on International Religious Freedom - Syria,” May 20, 2013, accessed June 14, 2013.

Image Credits:

"Jewish Family in Damascus, 1910," www.SyrianHistory.com, from Wikimedia Commons.

See also: Syria, Judaism