June 15, 2000
Surprised by Assad
The first report on Assad's death caught me by surprise. It was from Eric Silver, our Jerusalem correspondent (see page 20), and it recounted his interview with the former chief rabbi of Syria, Avraham Hamra, who now lives in Israel.
Apparently in 1992 Assad had "opened the gates for Syrian Jews to emigrate," according to Hamra. Earlier he had "allowed more than 300 Jewish girls to leave Syria... to find husbands in their community living in the United States."
The rabbi reveals to Silver that a mere 75 Jews currently live in Syria; all but five reside in Damascus. The 75 had exit permits, but chose to remain in Syria for reasons of age or business or simply because they felt this was their home. And they were granted equal civil and religious rights, says the rabbi. Silver does not provide a whitewash for the late Syrian dictator. He sees him as a rigid enemy of Israel. But he gives the former Syrian rabbi his say and those words run counter to our (or at least my) reflexive assumptions about Assad.
Almost on cue, a background report followed across my desk. This one was from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency's reporter Peter Ephross, writing from New York. "As the funeral of Hafez Assad neared, two Sephardi Jewish leaders formerly from Syria, now from Brooklyn, rushed to Kennedy airport, armed with private invitations to the ceremony for the late Syrian president," according to Ephross. They had not proceeded because their security could not be guaranteed.
Nevertheless, the two men, one of them Saul Jacob Kassin, a leading rabbi for the Syrian Jewish community in the United States, were strong supporters of Assad. "All the Syrian Jews loved Assad," the rabbi told Ephross. The reporter seemed astonished. (As was I.)
At present about 33,000 Syrian Jews live in the United States, Ephross reports, most of them settled in comfortable circumstances in Brooklyn. The clothing and jewelry business seem to have attracted many of them.
Ephross says, "They are observant - their synagogues and Jewish schools dot the wide boulevards of Coney Island Avenue - and insular." Also, he estimates that today there are about 300 Jews, not 75, living in Syria.
What was surprising in the JTA report was that many in the community expressed sadness about Assad's death. Their English was poor and most spoke in Arabic, but they indicated Assad had dealt fairly with the Jews of Syria - perhaps more so than with other Syrians, certainly than with the Muslim fundamentalists. He "gave us freedom. He let us go out of Syria," one man explained.
Almost all the Syrian American Jews tended to be evasive on the subject of Assad and Israel. Perhaps one younger member of the community came close to expressing the feelings of the Syrian American Jews when he explained: "Assad was good for the Jews so long as you didn't go beyond the border of the law. If you went beyond the border of the law, it was something else," presumably the hard fist of an authoritarian regime suppressing dissent and coming down hard on human rights.
Peter Ephross is not offering a revisionist view of Assad. Nor for that matter am I or Eric Silver. Assad ruled with an iron hand. He could be brutal when dealing with opponents inside Syria - most notably when he killed more than 20,000 Muslims who resisted him in 1982. There was little room in Syria for civil rights. Those who aligned themselves against him were killed, exiled or shunted off to prison. And in foreign policy he was clearly an enemy of Israel.
But he also ran a tight, secular ship, modern in some ways (women play a role in the society and the schools are relatively free of religious fundamentalism), albeit reined in by rigid controls. Not surprisingly the autocratic censorship of press, information and education, and the careful checks on the economy, helped create an outwardly modern looking social system that is in reality a crippled, economic backwater: A marginal nation-state way out of competition in today's international global network.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons Assad resisted terms of peace with Israel. It would mean accepting Israel's dominance in the region, economically and militarily, with Syria functioning as just another backward third-world nation in the Mideast. Opposition, at least, meant conferring a fiercer, more respected status on Assad and Syria.
His son, Bashar, who has been positioned to replace Assad, looks at first glance like a different personality. He is in his mid-30s, educated as a doctor rather than as a military man, with postgrad training in England. He is attracted to computer technology and the wider dispersal of information. The trick will be to persuade the tightly organized advisers and supporters within the military and the bureaucracy to go along with him in order to produce change in Syria. They, of course, may have ideas of their own. - Gene Lichtenstein