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!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • 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.