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Ahmad, a 28-year-old internet activist who fled to Turkey in August, described to me how the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his father and predecessor in office, Hafez al-Assad, created a society permeated by an anti-Israel enmity that spilled over into many areas of life. He recalled a grammar school history lesson during which he once asked a question about Israel that resulted in the interrogation and harassment of his entire family because he referred to the country by its name rather than as “the Zionist entity.”
“I hadn’t realized it would be such a big deal,” he said, “I was just a kid, but it put my parents at risk of being accused of being Israeli spies.”
This accusation, espionage for Israel, is the most severe allegation that one can be charged with in Syrian society. Years later, Ahmad told me, agents of Syria’s National Security Agency tortured him — sticking needles under his nails before ripping them out with pliers and forcing him into stress positions and extreme sleep deprivation — when he returned home from an American-certified computer science program in Qatar with an envelope that was related to the program and was marked “ISL.” The envelope had come from America, and Ahmad had no idea what the acronym was. The security agency claimed it stood for “Israel” and said it meant he was a spy.
In Aleppo, Hassan, an FSA commander who is known commonly as the General, shared his family’s personal connection to the Jews of Aleppo and his inherited knowledge of Aleppo’s vibrant past.
“My father said Jews were a major part of this city,” the General recalled during an Eastern Mediterranean dinner of mixed meze, or small dishes of hummus, eggplant and similar fare. He claimed that his father’s uncle had been married to a Jewish woman and that the government had rounded up their entire family during an escalation of tensions with the early Zionists of Palestine. They were subjected to a rough interrogation, threats and the brief imprisonment of one of his brothers on suspicions of Zionist espionage, he said. The uncle and his Jewish wife fled to Turkey and then to Latin America after this incident, the General recounted.
“It just got worse in 1948, so most of them left,” he explained. “Those that couldn’t lived under all sorts of discrimination and suspicion until they were basically no longer considered Syrian.”