Ernst Herzfeld via Smithsonian Institute
The western wing of the Central Synagogue of Aleppo in the early 20th centuryErnst Herzfeld via Smithsonian Institute
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Are Syrian Jews Arabs?

Our History Detective columnist traces the story of Syrian Jews, and Jews from Syria

Dan Shapira
July 28, 2021
Ernst Herzfeld via Smithsonian Institute
The western wing of the Central Synagogue of Aleppo in the early 20th centuryErnst Herzfeld via Smithsonian Institute

Like so many of the countries perceived to be Arab or Arabic-speaking, Syria’s name has nothing to do with the Arabic language (add to the list Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt or Misr/Masr, Tunis, Mauritania, and Iraq). In Arabic and in Syria, there is ongoing dispute about how to spell and where to stress the name of Syria. Syriac (cf. sursi in the Talmud) is a kind of Christian Aramaic with a huge literature; the speakers called their Aramaic language by the Greek name, and, apparently, their country, that of biblical Aram. 

The point is, Syria was called Syria by Aramaic-speaking Christians prior to it becoming linguistically Arabicized (the process still noncompleted and even reversed sometimes, with some Israeli Christians learning Syriac again and even attempting to speak it).

Before the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the Western usage of “Syria” or “Syria and Palestine” included the Eastern-Mediterranean Ottoman possessions, or the Levant proper. The corresponding Arabic name was and is Bilād al-Shām (pronounced belaad ash-shaam), the lands of Sham. Al-Shām may mean Damascus, the North, Great Syria, or even Jerusalem and the Land of Israel, in medieval Judeo-Arabic usage.

Thus, Jews of Jerusalem and the Land of Israel along with the Jews of Damascus were called Shāmīs in Yemen and elsewhere; the pro-Nazi mufti of Jerusalem began his anti-Zionist and pro-French career as an upholder of the idea that “Palestine is Southern Syria”; and in the Israeli Knesset sat people opposed to the Israeli state who also denied the existence of a “Palestinian people,” confessing themselves to be “Syrians” or “pan-Arabists.”

Now let us try to define “Arabs”—we will need it when we’ll talk about the mustaʿrib, or Arabized Jews. Most people tend to think that every Arabophone is an Arab. Jews used to speak and still speak many non-Jewish languages, and most of them know that there used to be or still are Arabic-speaking Jews.

The vast majority of speakers of Arabic elsewhere are not Arabs, not only in historical terms, but simply by the conventions of the Arabic language. In the Arabic language and in the culture connected with this language, speakers of Arabic are grouped into three groups:

“Ancient Arabs”, or al-’umam a’-bā’idah, the vanished nations, like ʿĀd by the sand dunes who disappeared in the Empty Quarter or ‘Amaliq. They don’t exist anymore.

“Pure Arabs”, or al-‘Arab al-‘āribah, “the Arab Arabs” of South Arabia, descending from Qaḥṭān.

The “Arabized Arabs” (mustaʿribah) of Najd, Jordan, Syrian Desert, and other parts of North Arabia. Even the word “Arabic” in the Qur’an might be a South Arabian (not Arabic!) loan word.

In the Middle Ages, mustaʿrib or Arabized referred to people speaking Arabic but lacking tribal reference, with the word ʾaʿrāb referring to pure tribal Bedouins (in geographic names, ‘Arab-XXX means that the place is populated by tribal Bedouins). The speed with which Jews Arabicized themselves everywhere in the wake of Islamic conquests is somehow astonishing—in the course of 100 to 300 years Jews became mustaʿrib, except in Iran, Kurdistan, and the Berber valleys of Morocco.

In the course of most of the 20th century, governments tried to make their subjects Arabs, in the sense of 19th-century European nationalism, with little effect. Now this project seems to be shelved, as evident from the death of pan-Arabism, the failed Arab Spring, the civil wars in Syria and Iraq, and the fall of the Islamic State. In place of Arabism, the Levant is home to a new particularism.

Who are Syrian Jews?

There used to be at least three different liturgical-linguistic-cultural Jewish communities, none of whom ever considered themselves to fit under a general rubric of “Syrian Jews,” which is a construct made to provide Americans and others with a general idea who these (or those) people are, and were. Of course, decades of living under military dictatorships, half-communist Alawite Ba‘athists, and among Sunni revivalists left their mark on the Jews of Damascus, Haleb/Aleppo, and Qamishly. Still, their identities, cultures, and histories were very different from each other.

I will begin with the last and the less known, that of Qamishly. Once, it was a sleepy town just across the border of the Turkish Nusaybin, Neṣibin/Nisibis. In the first years of French rule, waves of refugees came from Turkey—Aramaic-speaking Christians (who just began to call themselves “Assyrians”), Armenians, and some Aramaic-speaking “Kurdish” Jews from Neṣibin led by the Beṣaleli family. Life was good under the French and the Jewish community counted more that 3,000 at its peak. After the U.N. partition of Palestine, Jews in independent Syria were forbidden, Nazi-style, from the public gardens, cinemas, etc., and of course, fired from their jobs with the government. As everywhere in the region, Jewish girls and women were kidnapped, raped, and abused; the message to the men was “you are not men, you can’t keep your womenfolk pure, neither defend them.”

Ten years later, there were still 800 Jews in Qamishly. There were 150 Jews there after the Six-Day War. I never understood why so many Jews living in countries bordering on Israel and brutally discriminated against because of Israel’s existence, chose to stay. It was not about money only, it wasn’t (in most cases) about local patriotism, and it was not, in many cases, because of the physical inability to leave. Israel’s history proves that when Jews wanted to come to Israel, Israel was able, to this or that extent, to help them to do so.

As said, Qamishly was first populated by Assyrian and Armenian refugees who had fled for their lives from Anatolia and Kurdistan. Then Kurds came in from Turkey, mostly illegally. Later, Ba‘athist governments began to Arabicize the Kurdish-populated countryside bordering on Turkey, the same politics being implemented by Saddam Hussein of the rival—and Ba‘athist as well—Iraq. Now, Qamishly and the region are under Kurdification to reverse Assad’s Arabicization. The reports on a few Jews remaining there are confusing.

So how about Damascus Jews?

Damascus was seen as the fifth of the holy cities of the Land of Israel—many of us just forgot that. Jews populated the city throughout most of history, going much further than two millennia back. The Damascus Document found first in the Cairo Genizah, then in Qumran, testifies to the special status of Damascus. Paul was converted on his way to the city. An old midrash says that the Messianic Age will begin when נִירוֹן מִזְרָחִי שֶׁבְּדַמֶּשֶׂק falls, whatever “falls” means.

During the Crusades, Jews and Samaritans of the territories taken by the Crusaders sought refuge in Damascus (the Samaritan presence in Damascus ended in the 17th century and their synagogue passed on to rabbinate Jews).

Damascus was also an important Karaite center for centuries. The last Karaite Jew of Damascus left in the late 1830s for the Crimea, then we find him and his descendants in Jerusalem and Cairo. Many important Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic manuscripts came from the Karaite synagogues of Damascus. The Jewish Quarter of Damascus was in the southeastern part of the Walled City.

Outside the city, some 2 kilometers to the east of the Walled City, in Jobar, was the most important site of the Jews of Damascus, the two-millennia-old cave of Elijah and a synagogue. It was vandalized many times and hit by mortar bombs. It was finally intentionally destroyed in late May of 2014.

A French Jew, Shemuel ben Shimshon, described it in 1281 as a beautiful synagogue situated outside the city. In the early years of Ottoman rule, an anonymous Jewish traveler who visited the place found there some 60 Jewish families living in the village of Jobar. He particularly admired their beautiful synagogue, writing “I have never seen anything like it … it is supported by thirteen columns.”

In the late 17th century, Yosef Sambari, the author of an important Hebrew chronicle, says that the Jewish community of Damascus lived chiefly in Jobar, and names the synagogue of Elisha‘ and the cave of Elijah. The Jobar synagogue was built atop a cave thought to be the hiding place of Elijah. The hall center was said to be the place where Elijah anointed Elisha‘. In the mid-19th century, the synagogue was described as reminiscent of the Mu‘awiyah Mosque:

“The interior is supported by 13 marble pillars, six on the right and seven on the left side, and is everywhere inlaid with marble. There is only one portal by which to enter. Under the holy shrine ... is a grotto ... the descent to which is by a flight of about 20 steps. According to the Jews, the Prophet Elisha‘ is said to have found in this grotto a place of refuge ... At the entrance of the synagogue, toward the middle of the wall to the right, is an irregularly formed stone, on which can be observed the traces of several steps. Tradition asserts that upon this step sat King Hazael when the Prophet Elisha anointed him king.”

Next to the synagogue, there was the tomb of R. Shemuel Elbaz Abu-Haseira.

Were the Jews of Damascus Syrian, then?

The Jews of Damascus and Halab/Aleppo derive their origin from two main groups: from the mustaʿrib Jews who lived there at least since the Early Muslim and Mameluk periods, and from the Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula, who came to settle elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire, and resettle in Damascus, Halab/Aleppo (as well as in the Galilee) a couple of generations later, when the Ottoman Empire came into possession of the Levant.

The Ottoman Empire clearly favored the Iberian refugees, and this, together with their more “advanced” culture and access to heretofore unheard-of technologies, were among the factors of Sephardization of the Jews of the Levant. People began to make up Spanish genealogies for themselves, switched to Judeo-Spanish in Arabic-speaking or Greek-speaking surroundings, and finally almost convinced themselves they are Sephardi. This process was similar to what happened to the pre-Ashkenazi Slavic-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe, who were flooded by the Ashkenazi immigration in the 16th century. Other Mediterranean Jews, mostly of Sephardi extraction as well, came to Damascus from Europe, especially Leghorn, Venice, and so on—the so-called Franco.

Damascus played a crucial role in modern Jewish history when the Western European Jewish leaders realized that they were obliged to help their less-felicitous brothers and sisters in the Orient. The blood libel of Damascus in 1840 consolidated Jewish leadership in France and in the United Kingdom, and was the starting point of the successful Jewish lobbying efforts since then. Alliance Israelite Universelle was born consequently, with its huge impact on the Sephardi Jewry. In 1860, Muslims attacked Christians in Damascus and in Syria in general, while Italian Jews serving as European consuls rescued some important Christian clerics from lynch mobs.

When did Jews leave Syria?

After the Suez Canal was opened to ships in the late 1869, Jews, Christians, and later Muslims, too, began to leave the Levant—Damascus and Halab/Aleppo among other places. The canal economically ruined territories lying on the routes eastwards. The emigrants first swarmed Egypt—and these Syro-Lebanese, some of them educated in American and French schools, did to Egypt what the German and Judeo-German refugees of the 1848 revolutions did to America. Immigrants from the Levant continued to South America and sometimes to the United States. In South America, these Levantine immigrants coming from the Ottoman Empire became known as “turcos,” a pejorative term for Christian, Jewish, and later Druze, Shiite, and Sunni immigrants.

But what about Aleppo?

The Jews of Halab/Aleppo have a reputation of being exceptionally pious and also shrewd business people who are very well off.

This city, Aram-Soba, or Aram-Tsova in modern Israeli pronunciation, was once one of the most important cities of the Old World. The renowned biblical codex was held there for centuries, serving as the palladium of the local Jewish community. Heavily damaged in the riots accompanying the birth of the State of Israel, it then disappeared, and partly reappeared in Brazil and elsewhere, which is a story by itself. The father of the Egyptian-born Israeli spy in Syria, Eli Cohen, came to Egypt from Halab/Aleppo.

The dialect of Arabic spoken in the north of Syria is unlike that spoken in Damascus, Lebanon, Antioch, and Galilee. It is closer, in many aspects, to the forms of Arabic spoken in southern Turkey. In any case, dictionaries of “Syrian Arabic” read as dictionaries of two different, though closely related, languages. In many other aspects, the hinterland of the Halab/Aleppo lay in what is now Turkey—Urfa, Mardin, and farther north and east.

After the opening of the Suez Canal and, especially after the new French-Turkish border was established, cutting Aleppo off from its natural economic neighbors, the decline of the city began. Jews, sometimes speaking Arabic, Turkish, Judeo-Spanish, French, and Italian, lost their living and emigrated elsewhere.

Are there still Jews in Syria?

The last Jews of Syria were permitted to emigrate on the condition that they cannot go to Israel, having been evacuated between 1992 and 2016.

The majority live in Israel, with tens of thousands residing in Brooklyn, New York; Deal, New Jersey; and Miami.

Dan Shapira is an interdisciplinary historian and philologist at Bar-Ilan University. He is working currently on medieval and early modern Jewish minority communities, the Crimea, and the Khazars.

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