Jewish History

Abraham is said to have stopped in Syria on his journey to the land of Canaan, sharing his goat’s milk with the poor. Haleb or Aleppo, means “he milked” and it’s said the city was named after Abraham’s visit there. Jews are believed to have had a continuous presence in Syria since the days of King David (1000 BCE), when Judea’s military commander Joab, took control of the ancient town of Aleppo. The indigenous Jewish community who lived in Syria since biblical days where known locally as must’arabia, or “would-be-Jews.”

In 635 AD, when Damascus fell to the Muslim Umayyads in the Arab Conquest Jews began to experience a period of significant growth, as they had previously suffered under Christian domination during Roman and Byzantine rule. During the Abbasid Dynasty (eight to tenth centuries), Jewish life in Syria flourished with the Great Synagogue being built in Aleppo and Syrian Rabbis leading Jewish spiritual practice and scholarship of the time. During this period Maimonides wrote his famous work, A Guide for the Perplexed as a letter to his Aleppan colleague, Joseph Ben Judah. In 1375, a descendent of Maimonides brought the Aleppo Codex from Egypt to Aleppo, where it would be cared for and protected for 600 years.

With the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, Spanish Jews fled and immigrated to many Eastern Mediterranean countries, including Syria. While the local must’arabia Jews of Syria accepted and welcomed the Jewish refugees from Spain, initially the two communities existed separately. Overtime the communities joined until few distinctions remained. Under Ottoman rule Aleppo became a hub of trade, and life for Jews, in both business and spirituality.

The 1800’s signaled a change for the Jews of Syria. In 1840 during the Damascus affair, Jews were accused of conducting ritual murder, and again in 1860 outlandish claims were made about Jews being criminals. As a result, beginning in 1850, Jews left Syria for Egypt and later for England. In 1908 a large community of Syrian Jews immigrated to New York, where the largest Syrian Jewish community lives today.

By 1943, 30,000 Jews resided in Syria, most of whom where located in Aleppo. In 1946, the French Colonial Mandate of Syria ended and a wave of Arab Nationalism spread throughout Syria. Following the 1947 U.N. partition of Palestine, mobs of rioters took to the streets burning and looting Jewish community sites, Jewish homes and businesses, and sacred artifacts and manuscripts including the Aleppo Codex. The political and economic situation became even more unmanageable when Jews were discharged from all government positions and Jewish bank accounts were frozen. Until 1992, when the Syrian Jewish community was finally granted exit visas, Jews suffered severe human rights abuses. Freedom of movement was severely restricted, forcing many to flee in-danger, undercover. In May 2012, it was reported that only 22 Jews still lived in Syria, all of them elderly and living in Damascus, in a building adjoining the city’s only functioning synagogue.