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Respected and Protected

Syrians Working to Preserve Jewish Cultural Heritage

by FRANKLIN LAMB

Jewish Quarter, the Old City, Damascus

It’s always encouraging when one comes upon inspiring human phenomena here in Syria or elsewhere that refute the familiar and worn shibboleths and cliches about how this or that group or religion hates others and won’t cease targeting them until they are all destroyed and burning in Hell.

In Syria today there is much evidence to refute the often politically motivated claims that Jewish artifacts are being singled out for destruction during the current crisis by rabid anti-Semites.

One example being offered this week as evidence of an anti-Jewish campaign is the Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue in the neighborhood of Jobar on the outskirts of Damascus. For centuries Jobar has been inhabited by a peaceful mixed Muslim, Christian, Jewish community that sometimes attended events at the approximately 17 meters long and 15.7 meters wide Synagogue.

Reports this week in Zionist media about the destruction of the 400 year old (not the 2000 years old as claimed by Tel Aviv) Synagogue and the loss of all its contents are similar to reports over the past three years about the same Jobar Synagogue which turned out to be patently false. This observer has been waiting clearance to visit the site to learn exactly what happened there this week and to access its current condition and inventory of religious artifacts, which comprise part of Syria’s and the global cultural heritage of all of us.

One of the more virulent charges being heard this week, particularly from the colonial Zionist regime occupying Palestine, is the mantra about ‘see what the hatred of those Arabs for the Jewish people has done’. Admittedly it’s an effective fund-raising and intimidation tool for the Zionist lobby as it continues to labor to retain control of the US government as the American public is increasingly vexed by its actions and are pulling back from rubber stamping crimes of the apartheid regime.

It is undeniable that the location of the Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue, at a key crossroads in Jabor, a suburb of Damascus, which rebel forces have occupied since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, means that it was sure to be damaged. Each time there was shelling in the area over the past three years claims were made that the Synagogue had been destroyed by government forces. A couple of examples include false media reports, one on April fool’s day 2013, published by the Times of Israel and widely circulated by Zionist media outlets. The story claimed that “The 2,000-year-old Jobar Synagogue in the Syrian capital of Damascus — the country’s holiest Jewish site — was looted and burned to the ground by government forces.” This patently false report spread widely despite the fact that there have been no government forces in Jobar since the conflict began. Two copy-cat reports followed in 2013 but they were equally false. Nearly one year later, in March of 2014 media reports conceded that the Synagogue was still standing with only minor damage and its contents appeared to be in good condition or removed to protective vaults.

This observer has received credible reports about certain stolen artifacts including gold chandeliers from Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue being offered for sale. It is well known in Syria that certain militia and others finance themselves by selling this country’s cultural heritage whenever they get the opportunity. Security agencies in Syria and INTERPOL have been alerted to the thefts of Jewish property, just as with other antiquities and they periodically issue “watch for and confiscate” lists of stolen antiquities to eventually be returned to the synagogue.

In Syria, from this observers many personal experience, it’s not true that Arabs hate Jews although they would have plenty of reasons to were it not for the fact that, increasingly in the Middle East and globally, people are increasingly distinguishing between Jews as people of the book and basically like the rest of us and fascist Zionism which is being exposed as the greatest enemy and threat to Jews everywhere.

The latest, but so far unverified, information received by this observer from rebels sources claiming to have “contacts inside” the Jobar Synagogue indicate that some early 20th century artifacts and gold chandeliers and icons were stolen early in the conflict and the area surrounding the Synagogue has been shelled sporadically over the past nearly two years with modest damage to the exterior walls. This situation obtained as of last month. The condition of the Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue may well have changed this week. Other Syrian sources indicate that there has been interior damage with some scattered rubble in the nave and prayer rooms of the temple. But there has been no confirmation of claims of thousands of manuscripts; including Bibles were stolen from Jobar. On the contrary, many documents, including Bibles and other artifacts were transferred by the local Jobar Council with the full cooperation of the Syrian government to an Ottoman era Synagogue in the Old City of Damascus for safe keeping. The location where many Jobar Synagogue artifacts are today in storage, and which this observer visited, is one of the cultural heritage areas listed on the World Heritage List of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The site currently has around the clock government security that continues to guard the Old City of Damascus. It is also one of the 11 Synagogues that President Assad promised in 2011 to repair and restore and which the rebellion has put on hold.

With respect to all the unverified claims about the Jabor Synagogue, one is reminded yet again of the decade long US/UK War against Iraq with respect to false reporting about what happened to certain archeological sites and particular antiquities. Specifically one is reminded of the Iraqi Jewish artifacts that Ahmad Chalabi claims he was able to ‘rescue’ for the Coalition Provisional Authority back in 2004. Chalabi, of the ill-fated Iraqi National Congress, and the Bush administrations Coalition Provisional Authority, sought to gain some much needed good press for himself and pals Richard Perle, Nathan Sharansky, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld after mid-April 2003, reports of thousands of priceless ancient artifacts had been looted from the Iraqi museums, and these war planners were being castigated for their failure to protect Iraq’s cultural treasures from damage. It soon became clear that many of his pronouncements about the fate of Jewish artifacts were false and self-serving politically as were many of his other claims. Discredited, Chalabi’s party did not win any seats in the December 2005 election.

Some suspect similar political grandstanding motives in current reports about Jobar and it may be awhile until credible eyewitness accounts from the scene are gathered and then we will we know the truth about the fate of the Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue and the whole area of Jobar. A delegation that included a Jewish representative from Damascus, as well as this observer, has been trying to visit Jobar but armed conflict in the area and the continuation of the occupation of the Synagogue by rebels has prevented entering the area so far.

The people of Syria and their government have made herculean efforts to avoid what happened in Iraq and assure that their global cultural heritage, of which Jewish antiquities is an important pillar, is preserved.

One example of this protective instinct is the fascinating case of the Dura-Europus Synagogue which was discovered and excavated in 1932. It had survived in such good condition because its location in Dura-Europus was near a small Roman garrison on the Euphrates River. Parts of the Synagogue which abutted the main city wall were requisitioned by the Roman army and filled with sand as a defensive measure against northern and eastern marauders. The city was abandoned after its fall and never resettled, and the lower walls of the rooms remained buried and largely intact until excavated. The excavations discovered many Jewish wall-paintings and also from places of worship of Christianity Christian texts written in Hebrew. An interesting reference to Syria’s cultural heritage was the discovery of paintings in the Synagogue depicting limited aspects of Mithraism which was widely viewed as a mystery religion practiced in the Roman Empire between the first and 4th century. Named for the Persian god Mithra, from nearby modern day Iran, many Syrians followed the cult as did some Roman Senators and Generals who preferred paganism and resisted the ‘new’ Christianity.

Among the specific Jewish-Syrian-Global antiquities including paintings with themes from the Old Testament which this observer has verified are being preserved and protected by the people and government of Syria include, but are not limited to the following examples, a few from many thousands I was advised, which appear to be in excellent condition as of late May, 2014.

*The Torah niche from the ancient Synagogue of Dura Europus on which there are the drawings of the Prophet Abraham including the scene of his offering his son. Also beside them a drawing of the candle stick and the temple facade.

*A drawing of the Prophet Ezra reading a papyrus, Prophet Moses in the flames of boxthorn, the Ark of the Covenant in the hands of Philistines, and David anointed as a king by Samuel.

*Many Jewish-Syrian-Global antiquities including paintings with themes from the Old Testament

*Also a drawing of the pharaoh and Moses as a child and a beautiful painting of Abraham between the two symbols of the sun and the moon. A drawing representing the story of Mordecai and Ester and Elijah bringing life back to a baby.

Despite the current and legitimate focus on Jabor, the record of the Syrian people on preserving their entire cultural heritage, especially during the current crisis is admirable. Two weeks ago this observer visited the old city of Homs and spent a fair bit of time at the Um AL-ZENAR Church of Saint Mary Church of the Holy Belt which dates from 52 AD. Tradition has it that this seat of the Syriac Orthodox archbishopric contains a venerated relic which the Bishop told me about as he shoveled rubble from around the altar. The relic is claimed to be a section of the belt of St. Mary, mother of Jesus. These days it is said to be hidden near the underground spring which one arrives at by walking down a pitch black cold and damp long and very narrow set of roughhewn stone steps. The Holy Water is a small pond, now filled will fragments of stone and wood chunks from the fighting, according to tradition, has curing powers. I scooped up a couple of hands full and it was very refreshing but did nothing, so far, to cure my leg problem.

This observer was inspired by the number of parishioners and other volunteers from the neighborhood, mostly Muslims, one church official told me, as I watched many from the community work, covered in dust and soot from cleaning out the rubble.

In the courtyard in front of Al-Zenar’s this observer stoked a still smoldering heap of burned bibles and other church documents and icons which I was told rebels had torched as they prepared to vacate the compound earlier this month. Two days after I departed the old city of Homs, Um Al-Zenar Church, which these days is a partially burned out shell devoid of pews and religious artifacts, held its first Holy Communion since the conflict began.

Syrians, without exception from my experience are deeply connected with their cultural heritage and do not distinguish all that much among its origins. If fact it appears that all Syrians are proud to help others protect and rebuild their damaged religious and cultural sites and it’s a unifying factor among this besieged population. People this observer speaks with as he travels around Syria to visit archeological sites seem to blame both sides for the damage but focus more on the task of restoration of their heritage and archeological sites.
There are countless examples which limited space does not allow discussion. But mentioning again the subject of supposed Arab hostility to Jewish artifacts in Syria, my notes strongly refute this claim.

According to members of the Old City of Damascus Jewish community, and this observers friend, Saul, who claims to be the last Jewish tailor in Syria, as well as the lovely elderly ladies known as ‘the Jewish sisters’ whose apartment is near where St Paul, according to tradition converted to Christianity, this observer was served tea, Jewish cultural heritage in Syria in being respected, protected and preserved with the same care as Muslim, Christian and pagan antiquities. I believe them.

Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).