My heart is break­ing for Aleppo

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT - Emma Klein

THE AD­VENT of Isis into the scenes of tur­moil in Syria and Iraq has in­ten­si­fied the all-too- preva­lent scenes of death and de­struc­tion. Join­ingth­eanti-As­sad­forcesin Syria,Isishas­clashed­fierce­ly­with ri­val­re­bel­group­san­drecently cru­ci­fiedeight­meni­na­town­n­ear Aleppo.TheSyr­i­anOb­ser­va­to­ry­forHu­manRights­said the­men­had­beenex­e­cut­ed­for­be­ing­toomod­er­ate. A new rev­e­la­tion from Hard Choices, Hi­lary Clin­ton’s re­cently launched me­moir, indi­cates that the for­mer US Sec­re­tary of State was in favour of arm­ing the mod­er­ate rebels at the start of Syria’s civil war, but was over­ruled by Barack Obama. Weary of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Western pow­ers pre­ferred to ab­sent them­selves from the con­flict, which started more than three years ago when pro­test­ers against the Ba’ath dic­ta­tor­ship were vi­o­lently put down by govern­ment forces. Sub­se­quently, with a death toll of some 150,000 and mil­lions of refugees, and with the rebels taken over by Is­lamist ex­trem­ists, the con­flict has es­ca­lated enor­mously,.

View­ing the con­stant killing and de­struc­tion on the tele­vi­sion news is hor­ren­dous. And for me, per­son­ally, when the lo­ca­tion of de­struc­tion is Aleppo, it is par­tic­u­larly painful.

Aleppo has al­ways held great res­o­nance for me, since my pa­ter­nal an­ces­tors found refuge there in 1492, after the ex­pul­sion of the Jews from Spain. The city was part of the Ot­toman Em­pire, a cen­tre of great tol­er­ance which be­came a refuge for many com­mu­ni­ties. My fam­ily re­mained there for 300 years be­fore leav­ing for In­dia, which had just be­come part of the Bri­tish Em­pire and must have of­fered great po­ten­tial for pros­per­ity.

Jews had been set­tled in Aleppo since Bi­b­li­cal times and the name Douek was well known. Our fam­ily name was Douek Co­hen and there are still some rel­a­tives bear­ing that name to­day.

Dur­ing the visit of one of my cousins to Aleppo in the early 1960s, she met mem­bers of the Jewish com­mu­nity who were liv­ing in great fear. Very re­cently I met a young man, Rob, whose fam­ily had fled Aleppo a few years later. One of his an­ces­tors was also called Douek.

The fam­ily had been well es­tab­lished in Syria, un­til things changed with the found­ing of the state of Is­rael. Rob’s grand­fa­ther used to go round Aleppo be­fore Shab­bat, giv­ing money to the poor. His mother was ed­u­cated by nuns. Their rel­a­tively grand house was partly taken over by the Syr­i­ans.

Dur­ing the Six Day War, Rob’s mother re­called that they were given refuge in the Ital­ian Mis­sion Hos­pi­tal, run by nuns who were sub­se­quently beaten and raped for help­ing Jews. By then, too, Rob’s grand­fa­ther was fre­quently tor­tured on his way home from syn­a­gogue and Syr­i­ans would en­ter Jewish homes in the mid­dle of the night to en­sure no Jew had es­caped. The fam­ily’s even­tual flight from Aleppo in 1971, via Beirut, where they stayed for several months, was quite dra­matic.

The Aleppo Jewish com­mu­nity be­lieved that what had pro­tected Aleppo’s Jews for cen­turies was the Aleppo Codex. Writ­ten in the 10th cen­tury, this bound man­u­script of the He­brew Bible is con­sid­ered by many as the most au­thor­i­ta­tive ver­sion. It was con­sulted by Mai­monides him­self, and it is be­lieved that it was brought to Aleppo in 1375 by one of his descen­dants who thought that it would be the safest place for this re­li­gious and schol­arly gem. There it re­mained, un­til the syn­a­gogue where it was kept was burned down by ri­ot­ers, fol­low­ing the UN de­ci­sion in 1947 to es­tab­lish a Jewish state in Pales­tine. Even­tu­ally it was smug­gled, in a wash­ing ma­chine, into Is­rael in 1958 by a Syr­ian Jew, and pre­sented to the Is­raeli pres­i­dent. It was dis­cov­ered that some pages had been lost, and more dis­ap­peared in Is­rael.

Chris­tians, too, made up part of the Aleppo mo­saic of com­mu­ni­ties. One dis­tin­guished cler­gy­man, the 17th cen­tury scholar, Henry Maun­drell, served in Aleppo for six years un­til his un­timely death in 1701. In 1697 he trav­elled from Aleppo to Jerusalem and his book, Jour­ney from Aleppo to Jerusalem at Easter AD 1697, is con­sid­ered a mi­nor travel clas­sic.

To­day, Aleppo’s Chris­tians live in great fear and most who could af­ford to, have fled. An­toine Audo, bishop of Aleppo for 25 years, wrote re­cently of the “daily dose of death and de­struc­tion” and point­ing out while there are 45 churches in Aleppo, the Chris­tian faith was “in dan­ger of be­ing driven into ex­tinc­tion”.

In 2006, Aleppo won the ti­tle of Is­lamic Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture. To­day, thou­sands of years of his­tory are in dan­ger of be­ing re­duced to lit­tle more than a huge pile of rub­ble. Had the Western pow­ers in­ter­vened, as they did in Libya, where, of course, there was oil, they might have saved this out­stand­ing lo­ca­tion of refuge, schol­ar­ship and cul­ture from de­struc­tion.

The Codex ar­rived in Is­rael in a wash­ing ma­chine

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