With the recent release of the last of the Western hostages held in Lebanon, the fate of other Middle East captives has faded from the news. Scant media attention is given to the 4,300 Jews trapped in Syria in the ghettos of Damascus, Aleppo, and Qamishli, the persecuted remnants of an ancient and once-thriving community which numbered 40,000 in 1947.
Judy Feld Carr of Toronto, the chairperson of Canada's National Task Force on Syrian Jewry and the world's leading advocate on behalf of the persecuted minority, is hoping to raise the Syrian Jewry issue on the international agenda to secure their release.
On March 14, thousands of synagogues across the world will hold sermons and special prayers in memory of the 1974 rape and murder of four Syrian Jewish teenagers-the three Zebbagh sisters and their cousin, Eva Saad-who were betrayed by their smuggler while fleeing to Lebanon. Their mutilated bodies were dumped on their parents' doorstep in Damascus.
Carr, 52, initiated the observance-known in Hebrew as Shabbat Zachor (the Syrian Jewry solidarity Sabbath)-17 years ago at Toronto's Beth Tzedec Congregation.
Captives in the wider Arab-Israeli conflict, the Syrian Jews are under constant surveillance by a special branch of the Mukhabarat-Syria's feared secret police-and forced to carry ID cards stamped in Arabic Mussawi:: follower of Moses.
The repressive regime of Syria's iron-fisted President Hafez al-Assad has placed a ban on their emigration, and their travel within Syria is limited, says Carr. Those caught trying to escape are routinely tortured and imprisoned.
Arbitrary arrest is a constant threat, she notes. Eli Swed, 30, and his brother, Selim, 49, both disappeared in November 1987. After repeated inquiries by Amnesty International, the Mukhabarat acknowledged the two were being held incommunicado.
In May, after being incarcerated for three and a half years without charge, the brothers were sentenced to six and a half years in Damascus' Adra prison-famous for its torture block. The charges against them were never disclosed.
The Sweds' lawyer, paid by a fund established in memory of Carr's late husband, Dr. Ronald Feld, was not permitted to be present in the courtroom during the in-camera trial, nor was he allowed to present a defence.
"The fund is a lifeline for the Syrian Jewish community," says Carr. But she won't discuss specifics for fear of compromising its work and contacts.
"You can't say what we really do. Not yet."
In June at the behest of External Affairs Minister Barbara McDougall, Canada's Ambassador to Syria, Martin Collacott, personally appealed for clemency for the Sweds to Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk a-Shara.
M.P. Bill Attewell, the Progressive Conservative representative for Markham-Whitchurch-Stouffville, raised the question in the House of Commons last May and became the founding chairman of the Canadian Parliamentary Group for Syrian Jewry. Fourteen senators and M.P.s signed on as charter members.
"We must organize officially so that we can put pressure on Syrian officials to end the abuse of human rights in their country and allow the Jews in Syria to leave," says Attewell. He points out that Syria is a signatory to the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of emigration. Syria's Ba'athist regime may now consider releasing its Jewish hostages because Syria has lost its backing as a client state of the defunct USSR, and is seeking to curry favor with Washington, he adds.
"Syria refuses to acknowledge this problem. But countries like this become embarrassed and even irritated by having these accusations repeatedly brought up on the world stage. A condemnation from Canada carries extra weight because of the good reputation we have earned at the United Nations."
Sensitive to Canadian criticism, the Canada-Arab World Parliamentary Association invited Jesse Flis, the Liberal M.P. for the Toronto riding of Parkdale-High Park and Tory M.P. Bob Corbett on a 10-day swing through Syria, Jordan and the West Bank in November. Flis never met any Syrian Jews while in Damascus but insists that claims that they are subject to state-sanctioned oppression are "a bit exaggerated."
Attewell has served as the chairman of the once very active Parliamentary Group for Soviet Jewry since December 1986. With the Iron Curtain rusted, Attewell would now like to lift the damask veil.
"We will be working together to put an end to this inhumane treatment. Our primary goal is to ensure that the Jews are given the chance to leave Syria and begin new lives in freedom."
Gil Kezwer is a Toronto based freelance writer.