Heights Of Ambivalence

Heights Of Ambivalence

It was 22 years ago that Chava Katz and 12 other young Jewish women were permitted by the Syria government to leave their homeland and travel to the United States to find a Jewish husband. Now, with Israel and Syria talking peace, she has mixed emotions.

"I hope they do it," she said of the peace negotiations. "But I don’t trust any Arab countries. Would I ever go back? Never! Even my husband asks me that. But I would never return because times there were very tough."

Katz, who was 20 when she arrived in Brooklyn from Damascus, was one of several Jews of Syrian ancestry interviewed here this week about the Israeli-Syrian peace talks.

She recalled her bitter experiences in Syria, saying her parents were barred from working for the Syrian government and that Jews were not permitted to travel more than three miles from Damascus. "When I used to go to high school, they would follow us," said the mother of four of Syrian authorities. "It was tough. That’s why I haven’t forgotten it."

Although Syria is demanding return of the Golan Heights as the price for peace, Katz said she hoped Israel would not agree because with the "Arabs on top and the Israelis on the bottom, the Arabs could shoot them easily."

But Jack Avital, whose parents were born in Syria, said he trusted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to ensure the safety of the State of Israel. And he said he also trusted Syrian President Hafez Assad. "If he is willing to make peace, you can trust him," said the wealthy businessman and former honorary chairman of the Salute to Israel Parade.

Avital said he was looking forward to traveling to Syria because of the history it holds for Jews around the world.

"Jews lived in Damascus for 3,000 years," he said. "King David was there and all the great rabbis and philosophers. Our Jewish tradition is from there."

Jacob Kassin, the son of the Syrian chief rabbi, Saul Jacob Kassin, said Syrian Jews around the world are hoping the peace talks will succeed. "The divisions have to be bridged because we are not going to go through another century of hatred," he said. "We have all lived through turbulent seas and now we want to live in tranquil waters with our neighbors."

Asked about the Golan Heights, Kassin said most Syrian Jews do not want to see Israel give it up, "but we want to make peace, concessions have to be made and negotiating for the Golan Heights appears to be the only solution for now."

There are about 60,000 Jews of Syrian ancestry living in Brooklyn and Deal, N.J. Most moved here about 100 years ago from Damascus and Aleppo, and about 5,000 arrived in the last five years.

Kassin said the Syrian Jewish community longs for peace with Israel and that most would like to visit their ancestral home and see the Jewish cemeteries.

"We are waiting to embrace our Muslim brothers in Syria," he said. "We all came from the same father and we have a genuine friendship and feeling for them. … In the next decade we expect to do tens of billions of dollars [worth of business with Syria]. I believe the entire region will come to terms with Israel and recognize that it is a friend and not an enemy."

But Joseph Frager, a co-organizer of the Conference of National Jewish Organizations, representing about 10 ultra-nationalist groups here, said Assad is "not interested in peace, only land grabbing. Ultimately, he will use the Golan Heights from which to launch a new offensive [against Israel] with a modernized army and air force that will be using American weaponry. He wants billions in military aid as part of the [peace treaty with Israel]."

He said his organization is gearing up to convince members of Congress not to provide the money the peace treaty is expected to hinge on. "Israel is so desperate for peace that [its leaders] are willing to disgrace themselves just to have an agreement on paper," Frager added. "My feeling is that Ehud Barak is looking for a trophy for his trophy chest, which is not the way to approach peace in the Middle East. … We intend to do rallies in behalf of the great pioneers of the Golan Heights."

On the other hand, Mark Rosenblum, founder of Americans for Peace Now, said it is a "foregone conclusion that Israel is going to withdraw from a substantial part of the Golan Heights, [and Israeli leaders] have demonstrated that they do not play loose and fancy with their countryís security." He said a withdrawal would require "comprehensive, compensatory security arrangements on the ground, require the demilitarization of the Golan Heights, and limits on the type of military hardware that can be placed near the Golan Heights.

"The real threat to Israel (tanks and missiles) will stay where they are and Israel wants a further redeployment from the Golan Heights of heavy Syrian military weapons," said Rosenblum. "We believe there is the possibility of creating a more secure military arrangement, even at the cost of significant territorial withdrawal from the Golan Heights."

Israel’s Justice Minister, Yossi Beilin, said he believes that 75 percent of American Jews would support an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria.

"Most of us understand that we have to give away part of the land to get peace," he told a meeting here of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "We are approaching the moment of truth. … We intend to make peace in 2000 and put an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict."

Beilin said it was Barak’s pledge to withdraw Israeli troops from southern Lebanon no later than next July 7 that brought Assad to the peace table. The troops have been there since 1978 to combat Hezbollah terrorists who were shelling civilians along Israel’s northern border. Syria controls Hezbollah and was using it as leverage in any peace deal.

"It created a new momentum that had not been there before," he said of Barak’s withdrawal pledge.

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