Respected and Protected"
Syrians Working to Preserve Jewish Cultural Heritage
by FRANKLIN LAMB
Jewish Quarter, the Old City, Damascus
always encouraging when one comes upon some inspiring human enterprise, here in
Syria or elsewhere, that refutes the worn shibboleths and cliches about how
this or that group, or this or that religion, hates others and won't cease
targeting them until they are destroyed and burning in Hell.
In Syria today there is much evidence to refute the claims, often politically motivated, that Jewish cultural heritage sites are being singled out for destruction by rabid anti-Semites. One example of this is the Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue in the neighborhood of Jobar, on the outskirts of Damascus. For centuries, Jobar has been inhabited by a peaceful, mixed community of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, many of whom often attended events together at the synagogue.
Reports this week in Zionist media about the destruction of the 400-year-old (not 2000-year-old, as claimed, erroneously, by one report in Israeli media) synagogue, along with the loss of all its contents, are similar to reports over the past three years which turned out to be patently false. This observer has been waiting for clearance to visit the site, to learn exactly what happened there this week, to assess its current condition and inventory its religious artifacts, which comprise part of Syria's, and humanity's, collective heritage.
Jobar is a suburb of Damascus, and location-wise the Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue (measuring approximately 17 meters long by 15.7 meters wide) sits undeniably at a crossroads, in an area that has been occupied by rebel forces since the beginning of the Syrian conflict--which means it was sure to get damaged. With each shelling of the district over the past three years, claims were made that the synagogue had been destroyed by government forces. One such report, published on April fool's day in 2013 by the Times of Israel and widely circulated by Zionist media outlets, claimed that, "The 2,000-year-old Jobar Synagogue in the Syrian capital of Damascus--the country's holiest Jewish site--was looted and burned to the ground by government forces." The report was patently false but got spread far and wide, despite the fact that there have been no government forces in Jobar since the conflict began. Two copy-cat reports followed later in 2013, but they were equally false. Nearly a year later, however, in March of 2014, media reports conceded that the synagogue was still standing, with only minor damage, and that its contents appeared to be in good condition.
This observer has received credible reports about certain stolen artifacts, including gold chandeliers, from the Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue being offered for sale. It is well known in Syria that certain militia and other opportunists have been financing themselves by selling this country's cultural heritage whenever and wherever they get the opportunity. There is in fact a multi-million-dollar black market in this type of illicit trade. Security agencies in Syria, in coordination with INTERPOL, have been alerted to the thefts of Jewish property, just as with thefts of other antiquities, and they periodically issue what are referred to as "watch for and confiscate" lists of stolen artifacts.
It is not true"based upon this observer's many personal experiences in Syria"that Arabs hate Jews, although they would have plenty of reasons to, or that animosities between the two peoples are irreversible and irretrievable, and the reason I say this is that increasingly, in the Middle East as well as globally, people are beginning to distinguish between Jews as individuals (as "people of the book" and basically more or less like the rest of us) and fascist Zionism--an ideology being exposed as the greatest enemy and threat to Jews everywhere.
The latest, but so far unverified, information received by this observer from rebel sources claiming to have "contacts" in the Jobar Synagogue indicate that some early 20th century artifacts, including gold chandeliers and icons, were stolen early on in the conflict, and also that the area surrounding the synagogue has been shelled sporadically over the past nearly two years, resulting in modest damage to the exterior walls. This information was obtained as of last month. Conditions may well have changed this week. Other Syrian sources indicate that there has been interior damage with some scattered rubble in the nave and prayer rooms of the temple. But there has been no confirmation to claims of thousands of manuscripts, including Bibles, being looted from Jobar. On the contrary, many documents, including Bibles and other artifacts, were transferred by the local Jobar Council, with the full cooperation of the Syrian government, to an Ottoman-era synagogue in the Old City of Damascus for safe keeping. The location, which this observer has visited and where many Jobar Synagogue artifacts are today in storage, is one of six areas in Syria currently listed on the World Heritage List of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The site currently has round-the-clock government security that continues to guard the Old City of Damascus. It is also one of the 11 synagogues that President Assad had promised in 2011 to repair and restore, but alas that's a project that the rebellion has put on hold.
In light of all the unverified claims about the synagogue in Jobar, one is reminded again of the decade-long US/UK War against Iraq and the false reporting about what happened at certain archaeological sites in that country. Specifically we might recall the Iraqi Jewish artifacts that Ahmad Chalabi claimed he was able to 'rescue' for the Coalition Provisional Authority. Chalabi, of the ill-fated Iraqi National Congress, along with the Bush administration's Coalition Provisional Authority, sought to gain some much needed good press for himself and pals Richard Perle, Nathan Sharansky, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, this after April 2003 reports of thousands of priceless ancient artifacts being looted from Iraqi museums. The war planners were being castigated for their failure to protect Iraq's cultural treasures, and it soon became clear that some of Chalabi's pronouncements regarding the fate of Jewish artifacts were false and politically self-serving. Discredited, Chalabi's party did not win any seats in the December 2005 election.
Some suspect similar political grandstanding motives in the current reports about Jobar, and it may be a while before credible eyewitness accounts from the scene are gathered. At that point we will we know the truth about the fate of the Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue and the whole of Jobar. A delegation, including a Jewish representative from Damascus as well as this observer, has been trying to visit the area, but armed conflict and the continued occupation of the synagogue by rebels has prevented us so far from gaining entry.
What's important to note, though, is that the people of Syria and their government have made herculean efforts to avoid what happened in Iraq, and to assure the preservation of their global cultural heritage, of which Jewish antiquities is an important pillar. One example of these efforts is the fascinating case of the Dura-Europos Synagogue, discovered in 1932.
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