Highest Jewish Population: c. 30,000 in 1930s
There has been a continual Jewish presence in Syria dating back at least 2,500 years. The oldest Jewish community in Syria lived in Damascus, but by the 4th century CE there was also a thriving Jewish community in Aleppo. Syria came under Muslim Arab control in 626 CE, during Mohammad’s lifetime, and Jews in Syria enjoyed a period of prosperity under early Arab rule. The Jewish community was significantly bolstered by Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition during the 14th century, the vast majority of whom settled in Aleppo. Syria became a part of the Ottoman Empire in 1516, during which time Jews were subject to dhimmi status and laws, their fortunes fluctuating depending on the ruler of the time. In the following centuries, small numbers of Jews from Spain and Italy continued to arrive in Syria. However, most of these new arrivals did not integrate into local Jewish communities, preferring instead to hold on to their European nationalities and customs. Throughout the Ottoman period, the Jewish community of Syria produced many great scholars, Rabbis, poets, and musicians.
In the 19th century the Jewish community of Damascus suffered from a series of blood-libels. In addition to this, the area suffered due to the waning economic importance of Damascus, and because of the 1860 Syrian Civil War fought between Druze and Maronite Christian factions. Many Syrians of all faiths fled the area, with many Jews emigrating to Egypt. In the early 20th century, before WWI broke out, many more Jews emigrated to Egypt and New York. After the War, Syria came under the control of France and, alongside Lebanon, became a French Mandate.
In 1929 the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was exiled and moved to Beirut. He began to preach against Jews in both Lebanon and Syria, and this, together with growing the popularity of Nazi propaganda, led to Jewish families leaving Syria and crossing the border into British Mandated Palestine. In 1940 Syria came under the control of the Vichy French government, but it was subsequently occupied by British troops in 1941 before antisemitic laws could come into effect.
In 1946 Syria gained independence, by which point no more than 10,000 Jews remained in the country. In 1947 the United Nations voted in favour of partitioning British Mandated Palestine, and riots broke out in Aleppo. Seventy-five Jews were killed, all the city’s synagogues were attacked, and many Jewish schools and businesses were vandalised and looted. Despite laws prohibiting emigration, nearly 40% of the remaining community fled Syria, taking a route through Lebanon into the newly formed State of Israel. In 1949 Jewish bank accounts were frozen, passports were confiscated, and restrictions were placed on Jewish businesses. From 1953, many Jewish properties were sequestered, and looting of Jewish premises became common. In Damascus, Jews were forced to live in specifically designated areas of the city. Between 1958 and 1962, Jews were sporadically permitted to leave Syria, provided they paid a specified sum (subject to frequent changes), and signed over all their property to the government. In this period, nearly 3,000 Jews left Syria.
In 1962, travel out of Syria was once again prohibited for the country’s Jews, and in 1963 the Syrian Ba’ath Party came to power. After the arrest of Israeli spy Eli Cohen in 1965, restrictions on Syrian Jews reached new heights. Jewish homes were put under constant surveillance, as were synagogues and Jewish schools. Jews were additionally prohibited from purchasing property and were no longer allowed to obtain driving licences. In 1967, following the Six Day War with Israel, Jews in Syria were put under house arrest for six months, and all Jewish doctors and chemists were sacked from their jobs. Many other Jews in employment also lost their jobs. Young Jewish men began to be smuggled across the border to Lebanon, despite facing harsh punishments if they were caught. In 1969, General Hafez Al-Assad rose to the top of the Ba’ath Party, increasing his popularity by bringing in economic and education reforms, and uniting the country with a policy of staunch opposition to Israel.
In 1973, following the Yom Kippur War, Jews were prohibited from owning radios, and Jewish homes in Syria had their telephone and postal lines cut. Attempts at escape continued, and in 1974 four young Jewish women were attacked during their attempt to flee the country. They were brutally violated and murdered; their bodies found alongside those of two young Jewish men who had attempted to escape on a separate occasion. News of this event spurred Canadian activist Judy Feld Carr to initiate a rescue campaign of Syrian Jews. Clandestinely bribing Syrian officials with money raised from private donations made by diaspora Jewry, Carr successfully helped over 3,000 Jews leave Syria over the course of the next 25 years. She also organised for a number of Torah scrolls, Torah covers, and antique printed Jewish religious texts to be smuggled out of the country. In 1977, 300 young Jewish women were given permission by President Assad to leave the country, as were another 500 in 1989.
In 1991 Syria, alongside Jordanian Lebanese and Palestinian delegates, entered negotiations with Israel at the Madrid Peace Conference. Following this Conference, and as a result of international pressure, the most severe restrictions on Syria’s Jews were eased. In 1992, President Assad finally permitted Syria’s Jews to leave the country, provided they did so on tourist visas with return tickets, forfeited their assets, and did not emigrate directly to Israel. Nearly 3,000 Jews left Syria immediately. In 1994, Jews were given permission to leave Syria with some assets, and by the end of the decade no more than one hundred Jews remained in the country. With the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, the majority of Syria’s remaining Jews fled, although under twenty opted to remain.