Reclusive Syrian Jews Denounce Hebron Eviction

By Michael Orbach

Published December 24, 2008, issue of January 02, 2009.
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The recent eviction of Israeli Jewish settlers from a contested building in Hebron has provoked a loud and angry retort from the usually publicity-shy Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn.

In a December 17 gathering that attracted some 300 Syrian Jews, including the community’s leading rabbis, speakers rallied around one of their own: a local women’s shoe wholesaler named Morris Abraham, who has played an unlikely role in the Hebron controversy.

“We have created a nation of suicide peacemakers,” Abraham told the crowd gathered at Congregation Ahaba Ve Ahva, off Ocean

Parkway, referring to the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and its supporters. Repeatedly, Abraham asserted his claim to have purchased the Hebron building from a local Palestinian.

It is Abraham’s claim that now lies at the center of the controversy. And the government’s treatment of his claim appears to have produced this rare public outcry from his insular community — one of the quietest, most conservative and wealthiest in New York.

“Morris is a very popular person in our community,” explained Charles Dweck, a Brooklyn Syrian Jew who, like Abraham, works as a wholesaler.

The Syrians’ harsh reaction could have implications for elections scheduled in Israel this February. The community is known as an important source of political contributors for hawkish Israeli political parties, as well as to Shas, a Sephardic Orthodox party.

Abraham, who is 40, says that together with his father, he bought the contested property in Hebron — called the House of Peace by Israeli West Bank settler supporters — through a middleman in 2004 for, he says, $1 million. Other reports in the press cite a price of $700,000.

The deal was midwifed by the Hebron Fund, a Brooklyn-based group that provides financial aid to Israeli settlers in Hebron. Its executive, Yossi Baumol, also spoke at the rally.

With Israeli settlers in Hebron asserting a right of permanent Jewish rule over the overwhelmingly Palestinian city, in part through land acquisitions, Palestinians who sell properties to Jews face the possibility of execution by other Palestinians. After settlers moved into the Hebron site in 2007, its Palestinian owner went to court in Israel, claiming the alleged sale was fraudulent. Abraham presents a video and documents that purport to confirm his purchase.

Last month, Israel’s Supreme Court gave the government custody of the property, pending resolution of this suit. And on December 4, Israeli security forces evicted the settlers and took control of it. The evicted settlers proceeded to riot and commit arson against the town’s Palestinian residents as the security forces stood by, an event Olmert condemned as “a pogrom.” Seventeen Palestinians were reported injured.

Abraham, an unpretentious man with a black velvet kipa and mild Brooklyn accent, told the audience at the synagogue, “Because there were young rioters doesn’t mean the government can take land away that was bought legally.”

Abraham said he was motivated to purchase the Hebron property as a religious Jew. According to the Hebrew Bible, the ancient city was King David’s original capital before he moved it to Jerusalem. Hebron is also home to the Cave of the Patriarchs, a site holy to Jews and Muslims, where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives are said to be buried.

Abraham claimed a personal connection to the city, as well. He said his grandfather lived there and escaped a 1930 massacre by Arab residents that killed 68 Jews, many of them members of Hebron’s long-settled Sephardic community. He said the alleged purchase was also a business investment; the 40,000-square-foot property was to be renovated to fit 30 apartments to be rented for $300 to $500 per month each, he said.

In a community that reveres its rabbis’ words as holy writ, close to 20 community rabbis and leaders attended the rally, most notably Syrian Chief Rabbi Saul Kassin.

The atmosphere was rife with disgust for what speakers declared was the anti-religious nature of the government. Parallels were drawn between the fight for the Hebron property and the Soviet Jewry struggle.

“We are more into business than politics,” said Abraham Dayan, a silver haired gentleman with a heavy accent whose wife waited for him in a blue BMW as he discussed the quiet nature of the Syrian community. “But we are very Zionistic, one of the most in the world. [The community] has taken to heart what the government did and considers it unjust vis-à-vis religion and Judaism.”

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