Rabbi sees his people flee the land of Syria: Robert Fisk in Damascus meets a minister who has high hopes for tomorrow's summit in Geneva

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The Independent Online
CHIEF Rabbi Ibrahim Hamra's beard is streaked with white but he still makes an impressive figure in his blue and red yamulka beneath the portrait of a smiling President Hafez el-Assad. In a classroom of the Ben Maymoun school in Damascus, he looks every inch a headmaster: thoughtful, a teacher as well as a leader of his country's rapidly declining Jewish community. He orders coffee for his visitors, your correspondent and a courteous if ubiquitous official from the Ministry of Information.

When Rabbi Hamra was born in 1948, there were 25,000 Jews in Syria, more than half in Damascus. Since he met President Assad in 1992 - to congratulate the Syrian leader on his fourth term as President - two-thirds of the community have been given visas to leave. Some 110 have returned to Syria after discovering that Brooklyn was less amenable than Damascus. But the shuttered shops of the old Jewish quarter in al-Amin street tell their own story. At this rate, the Chief Rabbi of Syria will soon have no more community to lead. Already there are so few that Rabbi Hamra knows every Syrian Jew by sight. There are 1,000 in Damascus; 250 in Aleppo and Kimishli. The Jewish school in Aleppo has been closed for want of pupils, the two Damascus schools merged.

The Syrian authorities are issuing exit visas for Jews at the rate of 30 a day. Only 250 of the 1,250 Jews in Syria have yet to receive visas and they will be given them next week. Six synagogues have been closed and only three rabbis remain, one of them Rabbi Hamra.

'It makes me very sad,' he says. 'But I do what makes my community happy. If they want to leave, I am happy for them. If they want to stay, I am happy for them.'

Syria's Jews make no secret of the restrictive measures taken against them before the 1970 Assad revolution, nor of the American pressure - encouraged by Israel - to open the doors for them to leave Syria over the past 10 years. Until Rabbi Hamra's 1992 meeting with the President, Syria's Jews could travel abroad, but not with their families. Their passports were valid for only one journey in 12 months rather than the current multi-visa, six-year passports issued today. When Mr Assad waived the rules, the Jews of Syria flocked to Brooklyn.

Rabbi Hamra claims he knows of none who continued to Israel, although two Syrian Jews - the Sueid brothers - who secretly visited Israel after travelling to the United States in 1986, were later sentenced to four years in prison, released only after the 1992 meeting. 'There are Jews from Syria and Lebanon and Iran in Brooklyn,' he says.

Syria's Jews do not speak Hebrew. At their government school, they are taught only to pray in Hebrew. 'If we wanted to change the system now, we would need experts to teach us the language,' Rabbi Hamra says. 'Let's suppose that in this Sunday's summit at Geneva (between Presidents Assad and Clinton), there is a substantial step forward in the peace process and that after that we wanted to teach Hebrew, we would not have the people to do it. But there is a proverb which says that 'As many languages as you speak, you are as many men.' Here, when we read the Torah, it would be easier for us if we knew Hebrew, it would be easier to communicate with God.'

Yet conversations with Rabbi Hamra can be frank as well as elliptical. Ask him if he would like to visit Israel after a peace treaty between Syria and Israel, and he replies: 'Of course. In Israel, we Jews have many, many holy places, especially in Jerusalem, which is a holy city for all three religions. I think also there will be many people in Israel who will want to visit Damascus, especially the Syrian-born Jews who left here before 1948.'

The remaining handful of Syrian Jews are, for the most part, merchants. But, like every other Syrian, a Jew who leaves his or her country is, according to the Chief Rabbi, allowed to take only dollars 2,000 (pounds 1,360) in currency. Jews may sell their property, but they cannot take the proceeds out of the country. Syrian Jews are not allowed to join the army - their military service is officially 'delayed'.

Rabbi Hamra speaks fulsomely of tomorrow's Geneva summit and it is clear that Syria's Jews will be among the most attentive to its results. Real peace would close a chapter of suspicion between two religions. 'We must turn swords into ploughares,' Rabbi Hamra said. 'The wolf and the lamb must sit down together.' He knew his Scriptures. But as he recited them, he spoke to us in Hebrew.

(Photographs omitted)