sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

April 18, 2011

When Peaceful Coexistence Is in Vogue

Filed under: politics, society — Tags: , , , , , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 1:02 am

Anna Wintour is so five minutes ago.  You think she has her hands full pouring over pictures of mentally ill young women, but the Vogue editor still finds time to promote “first ladies” of tyrannies.  The Manolo comments on Vogue’s February snow job of Syrian dictatoress Asma (does her name sound like a disease or what?) Al-Assad (via Instapundit):

Here is the small, bitterly ironic taste:

Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young, and very chic — the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of Middle Eastern power but a deliberate lack of adornment. She’s a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement. Paris Match calls her “the element of light in a country full of shadow zones.” She is the first lady of Syria.

“The element of light in the country full of shadow zones.” the Manolo is sure that this must bring great comfort to the thousands of political prisoners languishing in Syrian jails.

But Asma al-Assad likes to help where she can:

The 35-year-old first lady’s central mission is to change the mind-set of six million Syrians under eighteen, encourage them to engage in what she calls “active citizenship.” “It’s about everyone taking shared responsibility in moving this country forward, about empowerment in a civil society. We all have a stake in this country; it will be what we make it.”

And now the Manolo includes this recent news video of ordinary Syrians participating in “active citizenship”:

You will notice that all across Syria the security forces of the first lady’s husband are engaging these young, active citizens in the spirited debate about the proper role of empowerment in Syria. As of this writing, perhaps as many as 300 active citizens have had their mindset permanently changed by violent death.

I went and checked out the whole feature to find this tidbit:

In the Saint Paul orphanage, maintained by the Melkite–Greek Catholic patriarchate and run by the Basilian sisters of Aleppo, Asma sits at a long table with the children. […]

Back in the car, I ask what religion the orphans are. “It’s not relevant,” says Asma al-Assad. “Let me try to explain it to you. That church is a part of my heritage because it’s a Syrian church. The Umayyad Mosque is the third-most-important holy Muslim site, but within the mosque is the tomb of Saint John the Baptist. We all kneel in the mosque in front of the tomb of Saint John the Baptist. That’s how religions live together in Syria—a way that I have never seen anywhere else in the world. We live side by side, and have historically. All the religions and cultures that have passed through these lands—the Armenians, Islam, Christianity, the Umayyads, the Ottomans—make up who I am.”

“Does that include the Jews?” I ask.

“And the Jews,” she answers. “There is a very big Jewish quarter in old Damascus.”

That quarter must be little Tel-Aviv, beaming with life and all.  Right?  Don’t worry Asma, Vogue will cover for you.

The Jewish quarter of Damascus spans a few abandoned blocks in the old city that emptied out in 1992, when most of the Syrian Jews left. Their houses are sealed up and have not been touched, because, as people like to tell you, Syrians don’t touch the property of others. The broken glass and sagging upper floors tell a story you don’t understand—are the owners coming back to claim them one day?

First, what’s up with the Umayyad Mosque?  It was built right on top of the John the Baptist church after the Muslim conquest of 634, so I’m not sure this qualifies as peaceful coexistence from a Christian perspective.  If Vogue were to sit down with the nuns in that orphanage, the fashion rag might have a different Syrian story.  But are they glamorous enough for Vogue?

This is the first time I’ve  seem anything other than the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem listed as the #3 Muslim holiest.  Asma can be a great Zionist source!  Speaking of Zionism, contrary to Vogue’s airbrushing of history, most Syrian Jews did not leave in 1992.  According to Jimena, in 1948, at the time of creation of the state of Israel, 30,000 Jews lived in Syria, 4,500 remained in 1976, and only 100 in 2001.

Jewish wedding in ALeppo, Syria, 1914.

Jewish wedding in Aleppo, Syria, 1914.

Following the Islamic conquest, Jews and Christians became subject to Dhimmi laws that allowed them to stay, but made them into second class citizens, subject to special taxation and humiliating regulations.  Nonetheless, the Jewish community was once wealthy and thriving.  By 1948, it was already decimated by declining economic opportunity (after the opening of Suez canal, traditional land routs through Syria declined in significance).  In addition, anti-Semitic pogroms already drove many out of the country.  This is the story of Syrian Jewry post-WW2:

In 1944, after Syria gained independence from France, the new government prohibited Jewish immigration to Palestine, and severely restricted the teaching of Hebrew in Jewish schools. Attacks against Jews escalated, and boycotts were called against their businesses.

When partition was declared in 1947, Arab mobs in Aleppo devastated the 2,500-year-old Jewish community. Scores of Jews were killed and more than 200 homes, shops and synagogues were destroyed. Thousands of Jews illegally fled Syria to go to Israel.1

Shortly after, the Syrian government intensified its persecution of the Jewish population. Freedom of movement was severely restricted. Jews who attempted to flee faced either the death penalty or imprisonment at hard labor. Jews were not allowed to work for the government or banks, could not acquire telephones or driver’s licenses, and were barred from buying property. Jewish bank accounts were frozen. An airport road was paved over the Jewish cemetery in Damascus; Jewish schools were closed and handed over to Muslims.

Syria’s attitude toward Jews was reflected in its sheltering of Alois Brunner, one of the most notorious Nazi war criminals. Brunner, a chief aide to Adolf Eichmann, served as an adviser to the Assad regime [the regime whose “first lady” Anna Wintour is promoting, –ed.].2

In 1987-88, the Syrian secret police seized 10 Jews on suspicion of violating travel and emigration laws, planning to escape and having taken unauthorized trips abroad. Several who were released reported being tortured while in custody.3

In November 1989, the Syrian government promised to facilitate the emigration of more than 500 single Jewish women, who greatly outnumbered eligible men in the Jewish community and could not find suitable husbands. Twenty-four were allowed to emigrate in the fall of 1989 and another 20 in 1991.4

For years, the Jews in Syria lived in extreme fear. The Jewish Quarter in Damascus was under the constant surveillance of the secret police, who were present at synagogue services, weddings, bar-mitzvahs and other Jewish gatherings. Contact with foreigners was closely monitored. Travel abroad was permitted in exceptional cases, but only if a bond of $300-$1,000 was left behind, along with family members who served as hostages. U.S. pressure applied during peace negotiations helped convince President Hafez Assad to lift these restrictions, and those prohibiting Jews from buying and selling property, in the early 1990’s.

In an undercover operation in late 1994, 1,262 Syrian Jews were brought to Israel. The spiritual leader of the Syrian Jewish community for 25 years, Rabbi Avraham Hamra, was among those who left Syria and went to New York (he now lives in Israel). Syria had granted exit visas on condition that the Jews not go to Israel.5 The decision to finally free the Jews came about largely as a result of pressure from the United States following the 1991 Madrid peace conference.

By the end of 1994, the Joab Ben Zeruiah Synagogue in Aleppo, in continuous use for more than 1,600 years, was deserted. A year later, approximately 250 Jews remained in Damascus, all apparently staying by choice.6 By the middle of 2001, Rabbi Huder Shahada Kabariti estimated that 150 Jews were living in Damascus, 30 in Haleb and 20 in Kamashili. Every two or three months, a rabbi visits from Istanbul, Turkey, to oversee preparation of kosher meat, which residents freeze and use until his next visit. Two synagogues remain open in Damascus.7

Although Jews are occasionally subjected to violence by Palestinian protesters in Syria, the government has taken strict protective measures, including arresting assailants and guarding the remaining synagogues.8

The last Syrian exodus makes fascinating Passover reading.  Come to think of it, Point of no Return is a good Passover blog.

Moses and Burning Bush icon, Sinai, c.12th century.

Anyhow, Asma’s little story about “the Armenians, Islam, Christianity, the Umayyads, the Ottomans—make up who I am” is ridiculous.  She’s a British-born and raised daughter of a (Syrian?) diplomat who’d vacation in Syria once a year until she married the dictator.  I want to know if this was an arranged marriage, and how many wives her husband has.  She sounds like an upper-crust London Arab in charge of putting a smiley on a fascist regime.

UPDATE 3/21/2012: Vogue has “disappeared” its profile of Asma Al Assad after this entry was posted.  The feature can be found here.  (Via Maggie’s Notebook.)



  1. Amazing piece, great job.

    You have to wonder why Syria wanted to keep the jews even though they treated them so horribly. You would think they would welcome their exodus. Does it have to do with showing the world their conquest of the jew?

    Comment by fleeceme — April 19, 2011 @ 11:32 pm

    • Thank you Fleece.
      I’m not sure why it was going on in Syria. In the Soviet Union they didn’t let us out for two reasons. First, it was incredibly embarrassing that so many people were voting with their feet. Second, we were an educated demographic.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — April 19, 2011 @ 11:47 pm

  2. […] new blog homie Sitting On The Edge Of The Sandbox brings us news on Asma al-Assad, the First Lady of Syria.  […]

    Pingback by Rehabing Syria’s First Dictatorial Lady « Blog de KingShamus — April 21, 2011 @ 11:09 pm

  3. […] the article from her website.  As a side note, I’m intrigued by Asma’s claim that the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus  is the third holiest spot in Islam.  The usual claim made by the Palestinian propagandists is […]

    Pingback by Fashion and Style Pick-Me-up: Maybe Fashion and Politics Don’t Mix, After All « sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue — February 11, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

  4. […] women in politics.  But Wintour’s record on political women can generously be called dicey, and in any event, men might buy Playboy for the articles, but that’s not why women buy […]

    Pingback by The Fashion Industry’s War on Women « sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue — June 11, 2012 @ 2:38 pm

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