Tragedy In Aleppo

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Anna Therese Day Contact Anna Therese Day at feed­back@for­ward.com

Amid on­go­ing vi­o­lence, rebels re­call a Jewish community.

As we wound our way through the rebel-con­trolled neigh­bor­hoods of the dec­i­mated streets of Aleppo, I could hardly rec­og­nize what was once one of Syria’s most pros­per­ous cities.

This part of Syria’s sec­ond-largest me­trop­o­lis, a town once sto­ried for its eth­nic diver­sity, was now a pock­marked jumble of cratered ruins, even as life in gov­ern­ment­con­trolled ar­eas of the city con­tin­ued in rel­a­tive nor­malcy.

Mah­moud, my guide through the rebel-held part of the city, was giv­ing me a cook’s tour of the city’s re­cently bombed ar­eas, when sud­denly he halted. “We’re here,” he an­nounced with a quick glance. “The Jewish ceme­tery.”

What lay be­fore me was an aban­doned ceme­tery sprin­kled in con­crete, shrap­nel, and am­mu­ni­tion — now a prod­uct of re­cent gov­ern­ment bomb­ing. Upon closer in­spec­tion, the tomb­stones re­vealed a fa­mil­iar sur­prise: He­brew in­scrip­tions.

Mah­moud paused, no doubt an­tic­i­pat­ing my sur­prise.

“This city has many, many lay­ers of ghosts,” he re­sponded with a know­ing gaze.

Like oth­ers in this ar­ti­cle work­ing with the Free Syr­ian Army, Mah­moud, a 26-year-old English teacher who joined the rebels af­ter the gov­ern­ment’s bru­tal crack­down on Aleppo, asked that his full name not be used to pro­tect his fam­ily. He is a plu­ral­ist-ori­ented, pro­gres­sive young man. So I had shared with him that I had spent a sig­nif­i­cant amount of time work­ing and study­ing re­cently in Is­rael, where I had worked to­ward my Mas­ter of Arts in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence from Ben-Gu­rion Univer­sity. I also asked him about the Jewish community of Aleppo, ex­plain­ing that fam­ily mem­bers of my Is­raeli land­lord were among the 30,000 Syr­ian Jews that had fled Aleppo and other Syr­ian cities since Is­rael’s es­tab­lish­ment in 1948.

Now, how­ever, we were not fo­cused on his­tory. Mah­moud was show­ing me the war’s most re­cent bat­tle­ground — the Old City of Aleppo, which also hap­pened to be the site of the city’s his­toric Jewish neigh­bor­hood.

Most Syr­i­ans I en­coun­tered in Turk­ish refugee camps and in rebel-held Syria dur­ing Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber re­mem­bered the Syr­ian Jewish community and were quite will­ing to dis­cuss this part of their past. They also spoke of their own views and ex­pe­ri­ences re­lated to Is­rael as Syr­i­ans liv­ing un­der a gov­ern­ment that de­mo­nized it.

Ah­mad, a 28-year-old in­ter­net ac­tivist who fled to Tur­key in Au­gust, de­scribed to me how the regime of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad and his fa­ther and pre­de­ces­sor in of­fice, Hafez al-As­sad, cre­ated a so­ci­ety with per­va­sive anti-Is­rael en­mity that spilled over into many ar­eas of life. He re­called a gram­mar school his­tory les­son dur­ing which he once asked a ques­tion about Is­rael that re­sulted in the in­ter­ro­ga­tion and harass­ment of his en­tire fam­ily.

“My teacher snapped, ‘ the Zion­ist en­tity’ or some­thing like that,” when he asked about “Is­rael,” Ah­mad re­called. “I re­sponded some­what dis­mis­sively, ‘Okay, yeah, what­ever.’” That week, the mukhabarat, or Syr­ian se­cret po­lice, showed up at his home and ques­tioned his en­tire fam­ily. “I hadn’t re­al­ized it would be such a big deal,” he said, “I was just a kid, but it put my par­ents at risk of be­ing ac­cused of be­ing Is­raeli spies.”

This ac­cu­sa­tion, es­pi­onage for Is­rael, is the most se­vere al­le­ga­tion that one can be charged with in Syr­ian so­ci­ety. Years later, Ah­mad told me, agents of Syria’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency tor­tured him — stick­ing nee­dles un­der his nails be­fore rip­ping them out with pli­ers and forc­ing him into stress po­si­tions and ex­treme sleep de­pri­va­tion — when he re­turned home from an Amer­i­can-cer­ti­fied com­puter sci­ence pro­gram in Qatar with an en­ve­lope that was re­lated to the pro­gram and was marked “ISL.” The en­ve­lope had come from Amer­ica, and Ah­mad had no idea what the acro­nym was. The se­cu­rity agency claimed it stood for “Is­rael” and said it meant he was a spy.

In Aleppo, Has­san, an FSA com­man­der who is known com­monly as the Gen­eral, shared his fam­ily’s per­sonal con­nec­tion to the Jews of Aleppo and his in­her­ited knowl­edge of Aleppo’s vi­brant past.

“My fa­ther said Jews were a ma­jor part of this city,” the Gen­eral re­called dur­ing an Eastern Mediter­ranean din­ner of mixed meze, or small dishes of hum­mus, egg­plant and sim­i­lar fare. He claimed that his fa­ther’s un­cle had been mar­ried to a Jewish woman and that the gov­ern­ment had rounded up their en­tire fam­ily dur­ing an es­ca­la­tion of ten­sions with the early Zion­ists of Pales­tine. They were sub­jected to a rough in­ter­ro­ga­tion, threats and the brief im­pris­on­ment of one of his broth­ers on sus­pi­cions of Zion­ist es­pi­onage, he said. The un­cle and his Jewish wife fled to Tur­key and

‘We all know that the Jews are our not-very-dis­tant brother.’

then to Latin Amer­ica af­ter this in­ci­dent, the Gen­eral re­counted.

“It just got worse in 1948, so most of them left,” he ex­plained. “Those that couldn’t lived un­der all sorts of dis­crim­i­na­tion and sus­pi­cion un­til they were ba­si­cally no longer con­sid­ered Syr­ian.” Both Mah­moud and the Gen­eral talked about Is­rael while be­ing care­ful to dis­tin­guish be­tween Jews and the Is­raeli state, a state they re­gard as a form of Western neo-colo­nial­ism. It’s a view that many Arabs es­pouse.

Most of the Syr­i­ans I en­coun­tered spoke about the in­jus­tices faced by their Pales­tinian broth­ers and ex­pressed frus­tra­tion about the geopol­i­tics of Is­rael and Iran. In their view, the Iran-Is­rael face­off lim­its the West’s abil­ity to in­ter­vene in Syria on their be­half. In­ter­est­ingly, how­ever, I found some con­sen­sus among the rebels that Is­rael is the coun­try that will in­ter­vene mil­i­tar­ily to their ben­e­fit when — or if —As­sad moves or uses his cache of chem­i­cal weapons against the op­po­si­tion.

“Of course we’re most wor­ried about this,,” Mah­moud said, re­fer­ring to the pos­si­bil­ity that the gov­ern­ment could de­ploy chem­i­cal weapons. His leg trem­bled as he spoke. “Af­ter see­ing how [As­sad] has tar­geted hos­pi­tals and schools, and what the shabiha [pro-As­sad mili­tias] have done in the vil­lages, we’re not be­ing para­noid.”

“Is­rael is and should be con­cerned about the chem­i­cal weapons get­ting into the wrong hands,” the Gen­eral added. “So if [As­sad] moves on us with them, Is­rael will get in­volved.”

Is­rael came into play in other ways when the Syr­ian rebels an­a­lyzed their sit­u­a­tion. Khaled, a car sales­man-turned-FSA-gun­run­ner af­ter As­sad shelled his garage, vented about the steady flow of for­eign fight­ers and the grow­ing influence of Mus­lim fun­da­men­tal­ists known as Salafists within the FSA ranks. A sec­u­lar Syr­ian from the Alep­pine coun­try­side, Khaled spoke of reli­gious fight­ers from Afghanistan, Chech­nya and the Gulf, and even a hand­ful from the West in­fil­trat­ing the op­po­si­tion’s strug­gle. He ex­plained that they come with much needed funds for the op­po­si­tion but es­pouse aims and val­ues dif­fer­ent from the ma­jor­ity of FSA fight­ers.

“We’re fight­ing against a psy­chotic dic­ta­tor who for­bids democ­racy and now wants to kill us all,” Khaled ex­plained. “The for­eign fight­ers. They’re us­ing our strug­gle to get closer to Jerusalem.”

Of course, aside from such snip­pets of com­men­tary, Is­rael and the Jewish community of Aleppo’s past are far from the minds of most Syr­i­ans these days. They are busy dis­cussing As­sad sav­agery, the FSA’s lat­est gains, their dis­con­tent with Pres­i­dent Obama and their hopes and fears for Free Syria.

“We all know that the Jews are our not-very-dis­tant broth­ers, but some­times that’s who you get along with the least, the group you’re most sim­i­lar with,” the Gen­eral re­flected, ex­hal­ing a hit from his shisha. “His­tory is re­peat­ing it­self now in Aleppo, this time with the Alawis [Mus­lims] at­tack­ing us. I guess it gets uglier the closer you are to your en­emy.”

CAR­LOS PALMA

Guns and Graves: A Free Syria Army sol­dier stands amid the rub­ble of a Jewish ceme­tery in the old

city of Aleppo.

CAR­LOS PALMA

Dan­ger­ous Search: Has­san Abuharab, a de­fec­tor from Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces, searches for snipers in a burnt-out build­ing.

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