The last of Aleppo’s Jews were sneaked out of Syria recently, according to a report published in the Jewish Chronicle last week. The Halabi family had been lying low since war broke out in their country more than four years ago and as thousands in their city were killed or forced to flee. But when American business tycoon Moti Kahana learned through contacts with rebel groups in the area that militants were nearing the Halabis' home, he decided it was time to facilitate their escape.
He organized handlers to burst into their house and order the family into a minibus. At first, the family of eight thought it was soldiers with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army there to arrest them. But in the bus, a driver told them they would be taken to New York City in hopes of easing their fears, as another handed out fake passports for each of the family members. At a checkpoint operated by the al Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front, the driver said they were refugees seeking to reach refugee camps in the country’s north. In total, the journey took 36 hours.
“I got the last Jewish woman out of Aleppo. I feel very emotional when I think about it. It makes my hairs stand on end,” Kahana said.
Syria's Jewish community dates back millennia. Although the community had a rich culture in the country, their comfortable status was upended in the lead-up to the establishment of Israel. In 1948, when Israel was established, there were 40,000 Jews in the country. But just several thousand remained as of 1967. Jewish communities once existed around the Middle East, but in recent decades, most of the Arab world's Jews have traveled to Israel or Western countries. A few small pockets of Arab Jews remain around the Middle East, including a fading Syrian Jewish community in southern Turkey. The largest Jewish populations in the Middle East outside of Israel are in Turkey and Iran.
But events did not go as Kahana had planned. When it was learned one of the women, Gilda, in her 50s, had converted to Islam when she married a Muslim man, the Jewish Agency said it could not help resettle them in Israel. The Jewish Agency helps facilitate immigration and settlement for Jews to Israel. Neither Gilda nor her husband was eligible by Israeli law to immigrate to Israel under the country's law of return, while at least one couple made it to Israel, and now live in Ashkelon.
“The lease on the house I was renting for them expired,” Kahana said “They had no money, no food, they had nothing in Turkey."
“I told the Jewish Agency: ‘You can go f--- yourself,” he said.
The couple and their children, with no work or connections in Istanbul, decided to return home to Syria.