March 18, 2019

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Story on missing Syrian Judaica is ‘inaccurate and confused’

With thanks: Boruch, Lily

The veracity of an article by the Associated Press alleging that  Jewish artefacts have gone missing from the Syrian synagogue of Jobar has been lambasted as ‘conflated, inaccurate and confused.’

The article, by Beirut-based Bassem Mroue, quotes activists’ claims that ancient parchment Torah scrolls, put into safe keeping in 2013, have gone missing:

“The main missing cache, they say, contained torahs written on gazelle leather as well as tapestries and chandeliers, and was given to a militia by a local council for safekeeping when rebels surrendered the neighborhood to government forces earlier this year. That group, the Islamist-inspired Failaq al-Rahman brigade, later said that it was not in possession of the items after the council arrived at a new rebel base in Syria’s north after evacuating earlier this year.
Another set of objects appears to have been stolen by a Syrian guardian entrusted by the local council to hide the items in his home. The man, who officials involved declined to name, disappeared with the artifacts in 2014 before some allegedly resurfaced in Turkey.”

 The Jobar synagogue as it was before it was bombed in May 2014

Adam Blitz, an anthropologist and expert in ancient synagogues, thinks the story a fabrication planted by the Assad regime and the Iranians to blame rebels for failing to protect precious artifacts and to distract attention from the situation on the ground in Syria where Iranian-sponsored forces are under pressure for the US and Israel. ‘Cultural heritage has been weaponised and disseminated across mainstream and social media,’ Blitz claims. Jewish heritage is a political football, with the regime and rebels accusing each other of the bombardment and theft of antiquities.

Predictably, an article has appeared in the Iranian press repeating many of the AP allegations and misconceptions.

There is indeed much trafficking of artifacts in Turkey but these mostly turn out to have been crude fakes.  Jewish activists have been determined to ‘rescue’ endangered artefacts and smuggle them out of Syria. At least two Torah scrolls have resurfaced, not in Israel, as the article alleges, but in the US, and have been publically re-dedicated.

The Jobar synagogue, which is dedicated to the prophet Elijah, was bombed on 23 May 2014 when the Damascus eastern suburb of Ghouta was taken by rebels. Only a few structural pillars remain standing in the rubble. The synagogue does not date back to Biblical times, as is often claimed by the media, but is medieval.

The AP article makes other overstatements. Syria was never home to the largest Jewish population in the Middle East. No more than 12,000 Jews lived in  Damascus at the turn of the 20th century, according to Blitz.

Prior to the civil war, the Assad regime had a relatively good record for preserving Jewish heritage and has protected the few Jews still living in Damascus and the synagogues of the Old City. This is not to say that there has not been state-sponsored antisemitism.

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