"When the Safras met the Dajanis" - Syrian Jews, Refugees, and the Question of Palestine

By Orit Bashkin
Submitted to Session P2432 (Refugees in Syria (1915- 1948), 2010 Annual Meeting
In the decades following the 1948 War in Palestine, many members of the Syrian Jewish community arrived to Israel from their previous homeland. The aims of my presentation are twofold. First, I consider whether the term "refugee" applies to this community, by offering my analysis of the social realities facing Syrian Jews in Israel. Second, I look at the ways in which Syrian Jews, who had become Israeli citizens, reflected on their Syrian past[s]. Confronted with discrimination in Israeli society, Syrian Jews developed a sense of nostalgia for Syria, a county where they had held leading positions and enjoyed economic success. This nostalgia, sometimes bordering on a sense of exile, is commemorated in fictional texts written in Hebrew by Syrian Jews. I focus in particular on a novel by Amnon Shammosh, delineating the life of a Jewish Syrian family, "Michel Ezra Safra and Sons." Finally, I look at the writings of Alon Hilo, an Israeli writer who was born to Jewish Syrian parents, and his reflections on the connections between his Mizrahi-Syrian identity and the fate of the Palestinian refugees. I explore two historical novels of Hilo, one set in 19th century Damascus and another in Ottoman Palestinian, in order to unpack the complex meanings he ascribed to the experience of being a refugee.