Listen to Sandy Rashty and JC Foreign Editor Orlando Radice discuss this amazing story on the JC Podcast, below
They came for the last Jews of Aleppo early in the morning.
The first that the 88-year-old mother knew of them were the powerful knocks on the front door, a sound that sent her and the rest of the Halabi family cowering in the darkest corners of their Aleppo home.
She was sure Bashar al Assad had come for them all as the three men entered the house. The men shouted that they were being taken away.
Petrified, they were told they had seconds to pack one bag each with their most personal possessions.
The women put on their hijabs and the family was bundled into a white minibus waiting outside.
Only then did the truth dawn on them.
The raiders who had burst in with such force had come to save their lives.
The JC can today tell the extraordinary story of how the last Jews of Aleppo in Syria were smuggled out of their home in a daring rescue mission earlier this year.
We also reveal how the Jewish Agency — the body charged with bringing Jews to Israel — refused to allow all members of the Halabi family into Israel (see box below).
Months before the raid, a relative had told them that a rich man in America had a plan to help the family escape their home city, where thousands have been killed in three years of bombing raids, sniper fire and shelling. But the family had vacillated. They tried to postpone the rescue, terrified of leaving their house.
The American in question, business tycoon Moti Kahana — who has extensive links to anti-Assad rebels in the region — had been told that Daesh was closing in on the Halabis' home. If the Islamist terrorists found out the women were Jewish, they would be instantly killed — or worse. He decided to organise their escape.
Speaking from New York, Mr Kahana says: “Of course the family did not want to leave, because it is so dangerous. So how do you get them out? You scare the s**t out of them.”Moti Kahana, who organised the rescue, with one of those saved, right
Once they were in the minibus, one of the men produced Syrian passports for each member of the family: the mother, Mariam; her two daughters Sara, in her 60s, and Gilda, in her 50s; Gilda’s Muslim husband, Khaled; and his three children.
To allay their fears, the driver told them they were being taken to New York. But the family did not feel reassured.
The route towards Turkey — a safe haven for millions of Syrians — took the bus through a fiercely contested area, where sniper fire between government and opposition forces was a daily occurrence.
To minimise the danger, the family’s rescuers waited until midday, when all sides stop fighting for the call-to-prayer, before making a dash out of Aleppo.
It proved to be a life-saving move and the minibus escaped without attracting any bullets.
Inside, the adults tried to stay calm as the terrified children sat silently in the back. They had been told that there would be no time to stop for food, and had brought pitta and labneh yoghurt with them for the journey.
The original plan had been to drive around the most dangerous checkpoints, which meant taking a long, circuitous route.
Then horror struck. A new checkpoint appeared before them after a dusty bend. It was manned by Al Nusra, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.
A bearded man with an AK47 slung low across his body casually signalled for the bus to halt. He leaned against the window, eyeing the family in the back.
According to Mr Kahana, the Halabis tried to appear calm, terrified of revealing their Jewish identity.
The driver told the checkpoint gunmen that his passengers were refugees from Assad’s armies, heading for the camps in the north.
After a long, frightening pause, it became clear that the fighter sympathised with their plight.
Remarkably, he then telephoned fellow gunmen at checkpoints farther along their route, telling them that they should let the minibus pass.
After a 36-hour journey, the bus passed the metal fence that divides Syria from Turkey. The family got out of the minibus, and paused for a photograph with their handler. They smiled: they were safe.
They were then taken to a rented house in Istanbul, where they met Mr Kahana.
Speaking of the rescue, the Jerusalem-born businessman says: “I got the last Jewish woman out of Aleppo. I feel very emotional when I think about it. It makes my hairs stand on end.”
The family wanted to move to America, where they have relatives. But, he says: “I told them, ‘It is easier to go to Israel than America’. Also, I am Israeli and I think that if you are Jewish, you should go to Israel. “They were willing to go to Israel — even the Muslim guy.”
But the story did not have the ending Mr Kahana had hoped for.
In Turkey, he informed the Jewish Agency (JA) of the escape in order to secure safe haven for the whole family in Israel. According to Mr Kahana, ten days after the family arrived in Istanbul the JA told him they would handle the situation from now on. “I was financing the house and the food until the Israelis took it over. I thought: ‘That’s it!’”
For one month, JA — or “Sochnut” — officials visited the family. They looked at marriage certificates and asked questions to verify the Halabis' identity.
Mariam and Sara, who has never married, were given safe haven in Israel, and they now live in Ashkelon. But for Gilda and her family, things took a turn for the worse.
JA officials — who are charged with verifying a person’s religious identity — decided that Gilda had converted to Islam to marry Khaled around three years ago. They said she could not make aliyah under the law of return.
“The Sochnut took the 88-year-old elderly woman and her non-married daughters to Israel, and they left the one who married a Muslim guy in Turkey,” says Mr Kahana.
“The lease on the house I was renting for them expired. They had no money, no food, they had nothing in Turkey."
Frightened, Gilda and her husband felt they had no choice but to return to Syria — where they remain. “By the time I got her on the phone, she was already in Syria,” he added. “They did not want to be in a refugee camp.
“I am so frustrated with the Sochnut. They said she is not Jewish enough for us. The Israelis have been trying to hide this story. They screwed up.”
He added: “I help Muslims and Jews — I help humanity. Of course I get really excited when I save a Jew, my own people, but I will still save a Muslim kid.”
Mr Kahana is trying to convince Gilda and her family to leave Syria again. He claims that the JA offered to reimburse him for the escape of Mariam and Sara, but not Gilda and her family. “I told the Jewish Agency: ‘You can go f*** yourself.”
JA official Ariel Di Porto stood by the decision. She said: “Gilda is not Jewish any more because she married a Muslim and converted to Islam. The law of return in Israel says that if she converted, it is not halachah, she cannot make aliyah.” She added that the Ministry of Interior was responsible for the decision.
Names of the Syrians have been changed to protect their identities.
In response to this story, a Jewish Agency spokesman said:
"There are some very fundamental errors in the article. Most basically, The Jewish Agency has no authority to “refuse to allow” anyone into Israel. We are tasked with helping determine individuals’ eligibility to make Aliyah in accordance with the Law of Return. Ultimately, the determination of Aliyah eligibility, along with permission or refusal of entry into Israel to anyone who wishes to enter the country, is made by Israel’s Ministry of the Interior.
"That the individual in question converted to Islam is beyond dispute. It was not the Jewish Agency officials who “decided” that she had converted – she provided documents stating that she had, and copies of those documents were then passed along to the Ministry of the Interior, as are all relevant documents of any applicant for Aliyah from anywhere in the world. The Law of Return states explicitly that an individual who converts to another faith is not eligible to make Aliyah (see Law of Return [Amendment No. 2] 5730-1970: http://bit.ly/1GNgkNx). It is not The Jewish Agency’s prerogative to either accept or reject Aliyah applicants who have converted to other faiths – it is the law, which we are tasked with helping to implement.
"The individual in question submitted an application for an Aliyah visa for which she was not eligible in accordance with the Law of Return. Jewish Agency officials then suggested that she apply to the relevant Israeli consular authorities for a tourist visa to Israel and sort out the matter upon arrival, which she refused to do. The anonymous Syrian American community leader’s charge that The Jewish Agency should now “grant [the woman] asylum” is nonsensical. We have no authority to grant or deny political asylum to anyone – that is entirely the prerogative of the Government of Israel, of which we are not a part and to which the individual in question has not, to our knowledge, applied for asylum seeker status.
"Mr. Kahana’s personal feelings about The Jewish Agency notwithstanding, there are laws in Israel and it is certainly not “controversial behavior” to abide by them. Our representatives went above and beyond to assist the individual in question, even going so far as to suggest alternatives that would have enabled her to join her family in Israel despite her ineligibility to make Aliyah under Israeli law."
Listen to Sandy Rashty and JC Foreign Editor Orlando Radice discuss this amazing story on the JC Podcast