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.
getty images
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 4)

“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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.