Sunday, April 14, 2013

Syria: Fate of Jobar Synagogue and Other Jewish Sites Uncertain - But Don't Rush to Conclusions

Damascus, Syria. Views of the Jobar synagogue from the World Monuments Fund-sponsored survey. Photos: Robert Lyons / World Monument Fund (1995).

Syria: Fate of Jobar Synagogues and Other Jewish Site Uncertain - But Don't Rush to Conclusions
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) On April 1, 2013 Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that "the 2,000-year-old Jobar Synagogue in the Syrian capital of Damascus was looted and burned to the ground."   More recently, on April 9, Adam Blitz reported - also in Haaretz - that the destruction of the synagogue may be exaggerated, and cautioned against assuming the worst in a situation where the destruction of monuments - or reporting of their destruction - has been used increasingly by both sides in the conflict as part of the propaganda war that has accompanied the actual shooting and bombing conflict.  

Though I have no special information about the situation in Syria, I would agree with Blitz.   I remember well reports of the destruction of the Dubrovnik synagogue, when that city was shelled in the 1990s, and I have combated other (false) rumors about the real or pending destruction of Jewish site over the years.  Still, we should be worried.  The historic Jobar synagogue stands outside of downtown Damascus and one can easily imagine shelling and fighting near the site, none of the photos of videos posted on line by either side show evidence of dramatic destruction - only some seemingly minor damage.

 According to the Haaretz April 1st article:
the Syrian army loyal to President Bashar Assad and rebel forces are blaming each other for the destruction of the historic synagogue, according to reports on Sunday.

The synagogue is said to be built on the site where the prophet Elijah anointed his successor, Elisha, as a prophet. It had been damaged earlier this month by mortars reportedly fired by Syrian government forces..  The rebels said the Syrian government looted the synagogue before burning it to the ground, Israel Radio reported Sunday.
The government said the rebels burned the synagogue and that so-called Zionist agents stole its historic religious items in an operation that had been planned for several weeks.
But according to Blitz:
Syria's synagogues are now a battlefield for misinformation and half-truths by both the Assad regime and its opponents, with YouTube videos purporting to show plundered synagogues and blame thrown at both sides.  I simply do not believe that in the case of the Jobar synagogue the destruction has been as total as that put forward by these heavily edited and politically-engaged 'reports'. It is clear that several weeks ago the synagogue’s exterior was shelled, but it seems equally clear that the resulting press coverage has not differentiated between the exterior and the prayer hall across the courtyard. 
What I do know is that the most recent videos in this media onslaught are composite pieces of propaganda. At a time when coverage of Syria’s war is mediated by soldiers, outsiders and the protégés of various warring factions, the free press should not be so quick to respond to online claims made by interested parties. 
This virtual world often consists of hearsay and at other times mere subterfuge; the Syrian reciprocal blame game operates for every site that is reported damaged, and terms like "burned" or "destroyed" are standard phrases on both sides.  To the long list of the casualties of this most brutal war, it's clear that the first victim, as always, is the truth.
One of the videos mentioned by Blitz and  posted by supporters of the Assad regime show the synagogue and denounce its looting and shelling (by "NATO sponsored Al Qaeda FSA terrorists"), but despite one obvious mortar shell hole and some associated rubble, the building seems remarkably intact, and almost all the fittings and furnishing documented there by Robert Lyons for the World Monuments fund in 1995 seems to be intact.  The Torah cases (tiks) are empty - but these merely suggest that the small Jewish community has removed the precious scrolls elsewhere for safekeeping - as any community would do. We'll just have to wait and see.

Whatever has happened at the Jobar synagogue, it drives home the fact that when the fighting stops and whatever government rules Syria - plans and action will be needed to care for the Jewish monuments, and to transition to some sort of pubic control of these historic religious sites in a country where already few Jews still reside, and even fewer may stay through the fighting and any eventual peace to come.  We have learned form other countries in the region that threats to Jewish sites can be as great or greater after the peace as during the fighting.


Hels said...

I have been looking at the synagogues of Damascus and Aleppo over the last two months. Not to see the damage, nor to allocate blame between the Asad army Vs the rebels. But to see what has lasted since 1948-54, and whether it can be removed safely.

Do you have any Before photos?

Dorothy King said...

I posted some before photos here as people are not being given access to the b/w ones in this post:

I should have more of Jobar and Aleppo coming soon.