My heart is breaking for Aleppo

By Emma Klein, July 24, 2014
Follow The JC on Twitter

The advent of Isis into the scenes of turmoil in Syria and Iraq has intensified the all-too- prevalent scenes of death and destruction.

Joining the anti-Assad forces in Syria, Isis has clashed fiercely with rival rebel groups and recently crucified eight men in a town near Aleppo. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the men had been executed for being too moderate.

A new revelation from Hard Choices, Hilary Clinton's recently launched memoir, indicates that the former US Secretary of State was in favour of arming the moderate rebels at the start of Syria's civil war, but was overruled by Barack Obama. Weary of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Western powers preferred to absent themselves from the conflict, which started more than three years ago when protesters against the Ba'ath dictatorship were violently put down by government forces. Subsequently, with a death toll of some 150,000 and millions of refugees, and with the rebels taken over by Islamist extremists, the conflict has escalated enormously,.

Viewing the constant killing and destruction on the television news is horrendous. And for me, personally, when the location of destruction is Aleppo, it is particularly painful.

The Codex arrived in Israel in a washing machine

Aleppo has always held great resonance for me, since my paternal ancestors found refuge there in 1492, after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. The city was part of the Ottoman Empire, a centre of great tolerance which became a refuge for many communities. My family remained there for 300 years before leaving for India, which had just become part of the British Empire and must have offered great potential for prosperity.

Jews had been settled in Aleppo since Biblical times and the name Douek was well known. Our family name was Douek Cohen and there are still some relatives bearing that name today.

During the visit of one of my cousins to Aleppo in the early 1960s, she met members of the Jewish community who were living in great fear. Very recently I met a young man, Rob, whose family had fled Aleppo a few years later. One of his ancestors was also called Douek.

The family had been well established in Syria, until things changed with the founding of the state of Israel. Rob's grandfather used to go round Aleppo before Shabbat, giving money to the poor. His mother was educated by nuns. Their relatively grand house was partly taken over by the Syrians.

During the Six Day War, Rob's mother recalled that they were given refuge in the Italian Mission Hospital, run by nuns who were subsequently beaten and raped for helping Jews. By then, too, Rob's grandfather was frequently tortured on his way home from synagogue and Syrians would enter Jewish homes in the middle of the night to ensure no Jew had escaped. The family's eventual flight from Aleppo in 1971, via Beirut, where they stayed for several months, was quite dramatic.

The Aleppo Jewish community believed that what had protected Aleppo's Jews for centuries was the Aleppo Codex. Written in the 10th century, this bound manuscript of the Hebrew Bible is considered by many as the most authoritative version. It was consulted by Maimonides himself, and it is believed that it was brought to Aleppo in 1375 by one of his descendants who thought that it would be the safest place for this religious and scholarly gem. There it remained, until the synagogue where it was kept was burned down by rioters, following the UN decision in 1947 to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. Eventually it was smuggled, in a washing machine, into Israel in 1958 by a Syrian Jew, and presented to the Israeli president. It was discovered that some pages had been lost, and more disappeared in Israel.

Christians, too, made up part of the Aleppo mosaic of communities. One distinguished clergyman, the 17th century scholar, Henry Maundrell, served in Aleppo for six years until his untimely death in 1701. In 1697 he travelled from Aleppo to Jerusalem and his book, Journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem at Easter AD 1697, is considered a minor travel classic.

Today, Aleppo's Christians live in great fear and most who could afford to, have fled. Antoine Audo, bishop of Aleppo for 25 years, wrote recently of the "daily dose of death and destruction" and pointing out while there are 45 churches in Aleppo, the Christian faith was "in danger of being driven into extinction".

In 2006, Aleppo won the title of Islamic Capital of Culture. Today, thousands of years of history are in danger of being reduced to little more than a huge pile of rubble. Had the Western powers intervened, as they did in Libya, where, of course, there was oil, they might have saved this outstanding location of refuge, scholarship and culture from destruction.

    Last updated: 1:00pm, July 24 2014