A long, hard look at ‘Zionism in Damascus’

A healthy debate is currently underway within some Syrian intellectual circles, despite the disaster that has befallen them, about the role of Damascus Jews in the industry, culture and social life of their city prior the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. The issue surfaced a few years back after a series of television dramas were produced, depicting Damascus Jews in extremely favorable light. The four works broke many of the traditional stereotypes about them, mainly about stinginess and greed, also portraying them as good-citizens and fine nationalists. One of the works, for example, told the story of a beautiful and wealthy Damascene Jewish woman, who is forced to flee Damascus by her abusive husband, who works for the Zionist Commission, during the Palestine War of 1948. She pours her heart out weeping, chest-thumping her Syrianism, despite all the comforts of living in wealth in the United States. She dies from old age warmly in her bed, dreaming of Damascus.

A new book was released this year in London, telling a very different tale of Damascene Jewry: Zionism in Damascus, authored by Yaron Harel, a professor at Bar-Ilan University of Tel Aviv. The title, of course, is gripping by all accounts. His book is a historical narrative, while the television series is fiction and drama, so comparison between them, really doesn’t hold. The author, however, never visited Damascus, but relies on the wealth of documents and correspondences available at the British National Archives, and those of France, Turkey and Israel. There is nothing from the Syrian archives, of course, although he does reference prominent Syrian scholars like Sati al-Husari and Mohammad Kurd Ali.

Harel’s book tells the story of Damascus Jews story from 1875 until the early 1920s. His main theme is that they found solace in Zionism not as a religious/political movement, but as social and economic life jacket to save them from persecution and humiliation under Ottoman rule, and within their greater Syrian environment. He claims that class segregation, economic woes, religious/political bias against them by Muslims and Christians, were all behind their support for the Zionist project. The book implies that Damascene Jews never actually felt that Damascus was their home, and that it was the fault of Damascus society. I won’t debate the well-documented research that the book offers into the covert and over activism of Zionism in Damascus from the late nineteenth century onward, or the persecution that they faced under Ottoman rule. Both are true and well-said in the book, making it a very important addition to the Middle East library. Simply, nobody has done the Herculean task before.

I have to differ with the author, however, about the status of Damascus Jews. Denying their persecution at certain epochs of Syrian history would obviously be incorrect, but so would to claim that Damascus was hell on earth for its Jewish community. That exactly is what the book tries to push through the reader’s mind, quit intentionally. Without shadow of a doubt, the Damascus Jews had their problems, like being prohibited from building grand synagogues like the Ben Ezra one in Cairo, because Ottoman law obliged non-Muslim houses of worship to be inconspicuous, and they were forced to wear color-specific outfits to differentiate them from Muslims and Christians. They did not, however, live in misery.

The book starts with a quote by prominent Jewish musicologist and composer Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, who was born in Latvia and came to Palestine to set up a school for Jewish music in 1919. Speaking after World War I, Idelsohn sets the mood by saying says that the street life of the Damascus Jews reminds people “of the ancient ghettos from the Middle Ages.” The author starts with the wide agony that swept throughout the Jewish Quarter of Damascus when the Ottoman Government went bankrupt in 1875, refusing to repay Jewish creditors who had invested in Ottoman bonds. The extreme wealth that the community enjoyed before 1875 is completely ignored. The Ottoman Government owned them 20 million French francs, and in 1877 it annulled all debts to Damascene Jews, “reducing them to overnight paupers.”

The book then gives a horrifying statement, “In 1903, it was reported that no wealthy individuals remained in the (Jewish) community and that the veteran established families had either left Damascus or been completed impoverished. Some of them fell into such indigence that left them scraping for bread to feed their children. By 1904, there remained in Damascus only one Jew described as affluent.” One Jew — not a handful — not a “few” but one single Jew who remained affluent in Damascus! The author, of course, does not name him, but adds that when the Great War started in 1914, the number of wealthy Jews who stayed behind in the city amounted to no more than “three or four.” Meaning, the number of wealthy Jews in Damascus rose from one in 1904 to 3-4 by 1914, at a pace of three over a ten year period.

The author explains that the vast majority of Damascus Jews were poor, working in metal and wood engraving, weaving, painting and silk-weaving. He contradicts himself, however, saying that in the 1880s, some Jews were employed in the Ottoman Government in Damascus, which by all accounts, was a well-paying and respectable job. He states: “At the start of the 20th century, those few educated Jews who had not left Damascus found employment in the civil service, working for the Ottoman Railway Company, the Imperial Ottoman Bank, and as supervisors for the tramways that began running on the streets of Damascus.” The state was reluctant to hire them, he adds, because they observed Sabbath and would not work on Saturdays, meaning that does who did work and make money were un-observant Jews. Among the Jews who worked in high places were Nissim Beik Ades, chief director of the Hejaz Railway, Yakov Moshli, its chief inspector, and the lawyer Josh Abbadi, a jurist at the trade court of Damascus. These men were the upper-crust of Damascus; well-educated and refined working professionals living in beautiful homes, addressed as “beys” by the Damascenes, who mingling well with Syrian high society.

Professor Harel describes the status of Damascus Jews at the late 19th and early 20th century as living in “grinding poverty,” saying that in 1881, 25% were living in “abject poverty” while 50% were just poor, and 25% were lower middle class. This makes no mention of the bankers, money-lenders, and wealthy businessmen who owned some of the most magnificent mansions of Old Damascus, like Bait Lisbona, Bait Niyaden, or Bait Farhi, owned by Haim Farhi, one of the richest men Damascus ever know who was the banker of Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar, the governor of Sidon and Damascus in the late 18th century. He also fails to mention the beautiful three courtyard mansion of Yusuf Bey Anbar, another wealthy Damascene Jew who started construction in 1870 but eventually sold the property and it became Maktab Anbar, the elite school of Damascus — named after him. There is hardly any mention of wealthy and prominent Damascene Jews like the physician Ishak Totah, one of the most prominent doctors of internal medicine in Syria in the 1950s whose clinic on Abed Street was frequented by everybody who was somebody in Damascus, or the three-time Damascus MP Yusuf Linadu, who ran for parliament with President Shukri al-Quwatli on a National Bloc list in 1943. He actually served on every Syrian Chamber since 1928. The author dismisses all of them one shot, saying: “The few who had wealth weren’t considered rich” by the standards of Damascus, which of course is utterly untrue.

The author asks how given their terrible circumstances, “Jews could be integrated into the Syrian nationalist movement, as the case with the number of European nationalist movements. In the case of Syrian nationalism, the answer is undoubtedly negative!” He claims that “the Jewish intellectuals of Damascus had no shared language with their Arab counterparts” and “no meeting or dialogue between Jewish and Arab intellectuals existed.” He adds, “Acts of oppression and harassment by the authorities and by the Muslim population were a daily occurrence. The Jews accepted their inequality as part of the natural state of affairs.”

The most remarkable claim by Yaron Harel is that the great poverty of the Jewish community of Damascus forced many of their girls into prostitution, adding that the Jewish Quarter became “the center for harlotry in Damascus.” The Jewish Quarter did have prostitution centers, of course, but the girls working there came from all backgrounds — Christians, Jews, Muslims — and were from different nationalities within the Ottoman Empire. The only reason many were located in the Jewish Quarter was because the Ottoman Government forced that upon them, not because the Jews liked or wanted it. Other residents of Damascus, he adds, shunned “Hay al-Yahud,” seeing it as the center for all immoral activity in the city, because it served alcohol, although alcohol was also served in the Christian parts of Bab Touma and Bab Sharki and in some bars in Muslim parts of the Old City. The number of harlots in the Jewish Quarter, the book claims, ranged between 150-200 in 1911. Prostitution affected the ambitions of Jewish girls because its “financial success was overwhelming and their level of income was high by any standards.” He adds, “Until World War I Jewish prostitutes held the greatest sway over management of the Jewish Quarter and its inhabitants.” Again this statement is untrue, and is a great insult to the Jews of Damascus — their rabbis, their craftsmen, and their notables.

The author then sheds doubt about the existence and circulation of a little known Jewish newspaper that circulated in Damascus after World War I, called al-Hayat. It was published at the request of King Faisal I (who ruled between 1918-1920) three times a week for nine months, with articles by Muslim and Christian columnists, and had a circulation — according to its own editor Eliahu Sasson — of 7,000 copies. He does go into some length, however, about a Jewish/Arabic newspaper that appeared in Damascus during this time, called ha-Mizrahi/al-Sharq, which was edited by the prominent Jewish notable Ibrahim Totah. Faisal also gave license to a Hebrew Printing Press in Damascus, which is correct, but he did not, ever, let Zionists celebrate the annual date of the Balfour Declaration (2 November) in Damascus. The author claims that this date “had been celebrated in the Syrian capital since 1918 with enthusiastic public rallies attended by large audiences.” This is untrue, of course, and how could it be when the Syrian National Congress came out with thundering resolutions in March 1920 saying “no” to the Balfour Declaration. The author seems to forget that when the author of the declaration, James Balfour, came to Damascus in April 1925, he was forced to leave the city to Beirut, under French protection, thanks to angry demonstrations staged by students of Damascus University. How could a city that celebrated the Balfour Declaration treat James Balfour so badly?

Regardless of its inaccuracies, Yaron Harel’s book provides a wealth of information and is a must read for Middle East scholars. I grew up in Damascus in the 1980s, at the time when its Jews still lived and worked amongst us. Unlike Jews in other Arab cities, the Damascenes had Arabic names and they didn’t speak Yiddish of the Ashkenazi Jews or the Judeo-Spanish of the Sephardic Jews, but rather conducted their daily affairs in Arabic and used Hebrew only in their prayers. The mother of a dear high school friend was a Damascene Jew. Some of the metalwork furniture at my office in the old quarters of Damascus is the product of fabled Jewish craftsmen. One is a beautiful coffee table hand-made with brass, inlaid with silver. Its maker, Maurice Nseiri, had a large and famed shop in the heart of the Midhat Pasha Market. It was called “Umayyad Bazaar.” He made the doors of the Syrian Presidential Palace and those of the Sheraton Hotel, among others. In 1994 he left to Canada. I interviewed him in 2009 and he said to me: “Sham (Damascus) is my lover, and will always be.” He added, “Parting with Damascus was like parting with one’s soul!”