People of "the book" just like us ...

Author:Luxner, Larry
Position::MOSAIC - Scriptures

Jews, like Muslims and Christians are regarded universally as "people of the book" (people of the Scriptures) and during a tour of some of the region's Jewish communities, Larry Luxner found that while much antipathy exists towards Israel and the Zionist policies employed by its government, there is little--if any--animosity towards Jews as a religious group. In this issue he reports on a visit to Syria.

FROM THE ROOF of a nondescript, four-storey apartment building in downtown Aleppo--amid a jumble of water tanks, power lines and satellite dishes--one can gaze down at the last remnant of one of the oldest Jewish communities on Earth.

Hebrew gravestones, partially obscured by weeds and garbage, occupy a plot of land adjacent to the historic Joab Ben Zeruiah synagogue, whose stone archways and grand interior walls hint of a prosperous and lively Jewish past.

The shul, in continuous use for over 1,600 years, now sits deserted. And the families living in nearby apartments have no clue that the ancient building in their midst once housed the most influential centre of Torah learning in the Middle East.

This rooftop perch offers the only view of the synagogue's restored interior, because the building's front door is always locked. A sign at the entrance offers a phone number in Damascus for tourists to call, but the man who answers that number says military police must arrange all visits.

Such is life in Syria, home to no more than 50 Jews out of a total population of several million. Nearly all live in Damascus, except for perhaps two or three Jews residing in Aleppo.

"The Jewish community is quite elderly at this point. Nobody bothers them," said Seth Kaplan, a New York-based researcher who visited Syria in January for three weeks. "In fact, many Syrians told me they miss the Jews on some level."

Despite Syria's official anti-Zionist policy--and the state of war that has existed between Israel and Syria since 1948--this reporter heard not one comment against Jews during his five-day visit to Aleppo in late April.

When asked for directions to the "Harat al-Yahud", Syrians on the street helpfully pointed the way to what once was the Jewish quarter, without any hint of hostility. In fact, an Arabic-language sign at the entrance to the abandoned Joab Ben Zeruiah synagogue sternly warns against dumping trash "in front of this holy place of worship".

An ancient metropolis of 1.5m, Aleppo is Syria's second-largest city and world renowned for its...

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