Menarsha Synagogue in Damascus, Syria is Attacked, 1949
On This Day in Jewish History: August 5th, 1949
For centuries, Syria was home to a community of Jews with a history and culture rooted in the land. Now, there are no Jews in Aleppo, and only a handful in Damascus’s Jewish Quarter — the last reported number is 12, all unmarried, older Jews. Both cities have a rich Jewish history that dates back to at least the Second Temple period, and at its peak, Jewish life in Syria was spiritually, commercially, and culturally remarkable. After the Damascus Affair in 1840, a brief period of improvement in Syria was followed by a decline in economic conditions for Jews, particularly with the opening of the Suez Canal.
The 20th century saw dwindling Jewish life in Syria as many left Damascus and Aleppo for North and South America, Israel, and other countries in Southwest Asia like Egypt and Lebanon. Prior to 1948, it was better economic opportunities that drove Jews toward immigration and away from Syria, but the establishment of the State of Israel changed everything. By the late 1930s, pro-Palestinian sentiments and Arab nationalism were widespread in Syria, but when the United Nations General Assembly passed the resolution to partition British Mandated Palestine in 1947, the situation went from uncertain to dire.
In many countries across the Middle East, tensions led to violence against Jews, and Syria was no exception; in December of 1947, the Aleppo riots led to the destruction of cemeteries, homes, and most synagogues — including the Great Synagogue (that held the Aleppo Codex) — and nearly 100 casualties. The violence continued in the period after the War of Independence; in July and August of 1948, the Jewish Quarter in Damascus was frequently bombed, and many were injured and killed. At this point, Jews in Damascus were trying to escape the violence, and many left for Beirut, Lebanon.
On the evening of Friday, August 5th, 1949, hand grenades were thrown at the Menarsha Synagogue in Damascus, killing 12 and leaving 26 injured. The police later apprehended a former Syrian soldier from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and his two friends, and the president of Syria, Husni al-Za'im ordered their execution. The suspects were released due to lack of evidence after al-Za’im was killed.
In truth, the attack of the Menarsha Synagogue was just one of many, and to this day, it represents the deterioration of Jewish life in Syria — and life for most Jews in Southwest Asia and North Africa. Within the first few years following Israeli independence, approximately 850,000 Jews left countries throughout Southwest Asia and North Africa, and 600,000 of them went to Israel, nearly doubling the young state’s population.
By 1948, there were 10,000 Jews left in Aleppo; in the mid-1950s, there were 2,000. In 1948, there were 5,000 Jews in Damascus, and a mere thousand or so remained by 1968. While Syrian Jews have continued to maintain a vibrant cultural and community life in other places in and out of the Diaspora, remnants of their presence in Syria can be found in empty or destroyed synagogues — like the Jobar Synagogue in Damascus, destroyed in 2014 — and Jewish Quarters that are now home to Palestinian and Iranian refugees, and local Syrians.
Sources: Friedman, Matti. “A different history of displacement and loss.” The Times of Israel, May 2012, https://www.timesofisrael.com/a-different-history-of-displacement-and-loss/.
Masri, Zeinab. “Damascus’s “Jewish Quarter” devoid of its residents.” Enab Baladi, April 2020, https://english.enabbaladi.net/archives/2020/11/damascuss-jewish-quarter-devoid-of-its-residents/.
Sutton, David. Aleppo: City of Scholars, trans. by Isaac Kirzner. Mesorah Publications, 2005. “Syria Virtual Jewish History Tour.” Jewish Virtual Library.
https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/syria-virtual-jewish-history-tour. “Virtual Jewish World: Damascus, Syria.”
Jewish Virtual Library. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/damascus-jewish-history-tour#second.
Zenner, Walter P. A Global Community: The Jews from Aleppo, Syria. Wayne State University Press, May 2000.
Pictures: www.loc.gov/item/2006675853/ American Stereoscopic Company, Publisher. Damascus, interior of wealthy Jew's house, and his family.
New York: American Stereoscopic Company, July 17. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress. Two pictures of remaining parts of synagogue → http://www.lovedamascus.com/en/what-to-see/tourist-attractions/al-amin/002ta006/al-menarsha-synagogue. Destroyed synagogue → http://cojs.org/august-5-1949-jewish-refugees-from-arab-countries-syria/