From Damascus to Brooklyn and back: 12 American Jews invited by Assad

Reports indicated that the visit was the culmination of a years-long effort by Assad to attract Syrian Jews back to the country.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

A group of 12 Jewish Americans, some Syrian-born and some of Syrian descent, made a historic visit to their embattled ancestral homeland recently, Kan News reported Wednesday.

The Brooklyn-based visitors were reportedly invited to visit Damascus by none other than the nation’s long-standing leader, Bashar Al-Assad, who appears to have embarked on a publicity campaign to rehabilitate his image after a bloody civil war.

Kan reported that the visitors said they visited Syria for cheap dental care, but the visit may have been for other reasons as well.

Syrian government ministers were said to have requested to meet with the group, though it’s unclear if such a meeting occurred or not. The group confirmed that it had met with the few remaining local Jews in Damascus, and had done some sight seeing of old Jewish neighborhoods and historical sites.

One visitor told Kan that the group had not hidden their Jewish identity and that they were warmly embraced by the locals. A photo posted on Twitter showed the group out to dinner in a Damascus restaurant.

“Everyone understood from our [dialect] that we were Syrian Jews, everyone remembered us,” he said.

“We went to shops everywhere. They got to know us and said to us, ‘Welcome, this is your country, why aren’t you coming back? Look what happened to the country, please come back.’”

According to Makor Rishon, the visit was the culmination of a years-long effort by Assad to attract Syrian Jews back to the country.

The Syrian government recently floated the idea of restoring the ancient Jobar synagogue, which was destroyed during the civil war.

During a Vogue interview in 2011, Syrian First Lady Asma Al-Assad said that Syria is a melting pot of religions and cultures.

“We live side by side, and have historically. All the religions and cultures that have passed through these lands—the Armenians, Islam, Christianity, the Umayyads, the Ottomans—make up who I am,” she said.

When the journalist asked Assad if that cultural mosaic included Jews, she answered in the affirmative.

“And the Jews,” she said. “There is a very big Jewish quarter in old Damascus.”

Some 100,000 Jews lived in Syria, almost all in Damascus, in the early 20th century. After the establishment of the state of Israel, the vast majority fled the country and settled in the United States, specifically in Brooklyn.

Others moved to Mexico, Argentina, and Panama, where they had relatives who established communities in those nations during previous waves of emigration.