Helping Syria War Victims Poses Special Challenges for Jews and Israelis

Fears of Doing More Harm Than Good Sideline Aid Groups

No Easy Task: Victims of Syria’s brutal civil war are languishing in camps inside and outside the country. Jewish groups and individuals want to help, but there are plenty of obstacles.
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No Easy Task: Victims of Syria’s brutal civil war are languishing in camps inside and outside the country. Jewish groups and individuals want to help, but there are plenty of obstacles.

By Nathan Guttman

Published May 21, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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“We’ve been kind of relegated to doing advocacy, not operational work,” said Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an organization dealing regularly with refugees worldwide. The Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which in the past has led the Jewish community’s international relief efforts, has also stayed away from the Syrian crisis, as have American Jewish World Service and the federation system.

Kahana, a 45-year-old Israeli-born entrepreneur, said he became active on the Syrian issue after thinking about his own family’s Holocaust experience. Local collaborators in Romania murdered members of his father’s family during the Nazi occupation. “People said: ‘So what? A few Jews were murdered in the street,’ and for me, I didn’t want people to say again: ‘So what? A few Syrians were killed.’”

Born in Jerusalem, Kahana lost his father at a young age and grew up in boarding schools. A self described “serial entrepreneur, Kahana came to the United States after his army service and settled in New Jersey. He launched a successful business career, first in online retailing, then in the film industry, and eventually he sold an idea to a national car rental company.

Early in his attempts to help he joined forces with opposition activists in the United States and turned to the Jewish community for support. At first, the money raised, a sum he estimates at more than $300,000, was mainly given through a small Israeli organization providing supplies to refugees along the border and even inside Syria. Activists involved in the work have been asked not to mention the group by name out of fear for the safety of its members.

Kahana visited Syria and the refugee camps several times. With the help of local opposition activists, he entered the city of Idlib through the nearby Turkish border and met with internally displaced Syrians, many of them from Aleppo. Kahana also worked with refugees that fled to camps in Jordan. “I said I am an American Jew,” he recalled, “and when they asked me about my accent, I said it was a Romanian accent.”

Kahana has no illusions that a few aid trucks and a word of encouragement will erase years of engrained animosity between Syrians and Israelis. But he does see it as part of his mission to show Syrians the other Israel. “I don’t think the kid that I helped will come with me to Tel Aviv tomorrow to eat shawarma, but at least he’ll know there are other Israelis,” he said during a recent interview on the sidelines of a conference hosted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Kahana, wrapped in a scarf bearing the symbols of the Syrian opposition flag, said that when speaking to Syrian friends in the United States he pulls out his phone and shows a photo posted on Facebook by his brother, a reserve medic in the Israeli army. It shows him treating an injured Syrian refugee in the Golan Heights. “I show it to my friends and tell them, ‘This is what we Israelis do,’” he said.

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