Remembering the Jews of Damascus

By Faedah Totah
Submitted to Session P4874 (Excavating Memories of Minorities in the Middle East, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ethnic Groups;
In the early 20th century the Jews in Damascus were a vibrant community and an essential component of the urban social mosaic of the Old City. However, the turmoil following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, rise of Zionism, and the creation of Israel in 1948 resulted in the migration of Jews from Syria. In this paper, I focus on the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Damascus where in 2016 only a dozen Jews continue to live. While other groups have moved into the quarter, it retains its Jewish identity. Prior to the war in Syria, the quarter was witnessing urban revival with the opening of hotels and art galleries in previously owned Jewish homes. As a UNESCO Heritage Site the Old City was becoming a destination for cultural tourism that renewed interest in the Jewish presence in Damascus. Based on ethnographic and archival research, this paper will address the ways in which the Jewish minority became part of the official narratives on tolerance and co-existence. The regime has promoted itself as the protector of ethnic and religious minorities in Syria and the heritage industry in the Old City depicts the historic site as an example of social urban diversity and harmony. I will begin with a brief overview of Jews in Damascus during the 20th century and describe the contentious relation between the nascent Syrian state and its religious minority. I focus on how the decline of the Jewish population has only increased interest in their historical presence in the Old City by the heritage industry. In conclusion, I will demonstrate how certain minorities, even when they were no longer present in the nation-state, can still serve the purpose of the regime in its official policies.