The stunning tale of the escape of Aleppo’s last Jews
|Cathryn J. Prince|
How Israeli-American businessman Moti Kahana arranged a secret operation to transport the Halabi family from Syria to Turkey, and why one member is ineligible to make aliyah alongside her mother and sister
Last winter, under cover of darkness, the Halabi family closed the door of their home and piled into a minibus. Behind them lay a Jewish presence dating back thousands of years. Ahead lay 36 hours of perilous travel to Syria’s border with Turkey. The last Jews of Aleppo were bound for safety.
Moti Kahana, an Israeli-American businessman living in New York, orchestrated the covert operation. But, as he stresses in a conversation with The Times of Israel this week, it was a team effort, necessarily kept secret until now to protect the safety of all those involved.
“Moti Kahana did not go in all Special Forces and put them on my back and take them out,” said Kahana, 47. “It was good Syrians who did it. It’s really important to understand that – it was the Muslim people who helped save the Jews.” (The Jewish Agency, the Ministry of Absorption and the Israel Flying Aid NGO also assisted in the rescue.)
Israeli-American businessman Moti Kahana (courtesy)
The northern Syrian city of Aleppo had one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities. According to local lore, one of King David’s generals is said to have personally laid the foundation for the city’s great synagogue. Until last winter, in spite of years of tribulations, the Halabi family — the name means “of Aleppo” — neither knew nor wanted any other home.
“They’ve lived there their whole lives. It’s their country and it’s not easy to leave,” Kahana said. “Then they were losing water and electricity. But still it was like being in a box – you don’t really know anything that is going on outside the box. But we did.”
What they knew was Islamic State was closing in and with them the threat of being kidnapped or killed increased exponentially. One of Mariam Halabi’s relatives, who lives in Brooklyn but declined to speak with The Times of Israel, contacted Kahana.
A rescue is staged
Drawing on his links to opposition forces in the region, Kahana organized the Halabi family’s escape. In the middle of the night the Halabis awoke to the sound of fists pounding on the door. Outside stood two men. But much to the family’s relief, they weren’t agents of President Bashar Assad. Rather, they had come to conduct them to safety.
One by one, said Kahana, the Halabis climbed into the waiting minibus: Mariam, 88, and her two daughters Sara and Gilda. Gilda’s husband Khaled, a Muslim, and his three Muslim children from a previous marriage were included in the transport. Once en route, the men handed each family member an original, authentic Syrian passport.
They drove toward Turkey. The driver planned a long and winding route designed to avoid checkpoints, Kahana said. And they did, except once when, unexpectedly, the minibus happened upon a checkpoint manned by a member of the Nusra Front terrorist group.
Nusra Front fighters in Syria (YouTube screen capture/al-Jazeera)
The minibus driver said the Halabis were fleeing Assad’s armies. The fighter believed the story and allowed the vehicle through. Finally the dust-coated minibus reached the border. Once in Turkey the Halabis were shown to a house in Istanbul that Kahana had rented.
Kahana is not alone in his work in aiding Syria’s Jews. The New York-based Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations has a subcommittee dealing with Jewish communities at risk worldwide. With the Jewish population in all of Syria now numbering just over 20, the organization is doing what it can to assist.
“We were aware of the operation but it’s a very delicate situation. We don’t have a presence on the ground; we try to offer expertise in various situations,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the organization’s executive vice chairman and CEO.
While the Halabis wished to relocate to the United States, Kahana knew relocating them to Israel would be easier. At least that’s what he thought.
No room at Israel’s inn?
Kahana had alerted the Jewish Agency to the situation, hoping to secure refuge for the family in Israel. Mariam and Sara made aliya — officially immigrated to Israel — some six months ago and have since settled in Ashkelon.
However, because Gilda provided documentation that she had converted to Islam before her marriage to Khaled, a Muslim man, the Jewish Agency refused her family an aliyah visa as the Law of Return specifically speaks to such cases in which a Jew voluntarily converts to another religion.
According to a 1970 amendment to the Law of Return, “The rights of a Jew under this Law and the rights of an immigrant under the Nationality Law… are also vested in a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a ew, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his religion.”
Therefore, in implementing the Law of Return, the Jewish Agency could not issue an aliyah visa, but suggested she pursue a different route into the country.
Syrian young women carry books as they walk amid the rubble of destroyed buildings following a reported airstrike by Syrian government forces in the rebel-held area of Douma, east of the capital Damascus, on October 29, 2015. (Sameer al-Doumy/AFP)
“In an effort to assist her nonetheless, Jewish Agency officials suggested that she apply to the relevant Israeli consular authorities for a tourist visa to Israel and sort out the matter upon arrival, which she refused to do,” said the Jewish Agency in a press statement that also clarified its purview in the aliyah process.
“We have no authority to grant or deny political asylum to anyone – that is entirely the prerogative of the Government of Israel, of which we are not a part and to which the individual in question has not, to our knowledge, applied for asylum seeker status,” said the Jewish Agency.
Today, lacking other resources, Gilda, Khaled and the three children are back in Syria, but, afraid for their safety, Kahana didn’t want to provide more details.
‘Never Again’ is now
Kahana grew up in Jerusalem, the son of Romanian Jewish parents. He was two when his father died and in time, his mother married again, this time to a Druze man. He lived on a farm with Palestinians, Druze and Jews.
“To me all people are the same. I don’t care if you pray three times a day, five times a day, or not at all,” he said.
But it was his visit to Yad Vashem three years ago that kindled his desire to help Syrians. Though he’d visited the museum several times as a child, it was visiting as an adult – a husband and father – that made him emotional.
In one exhibit he learned the story of the pogrom in Iasi, his father’s village in Romania.
“Fourteen thousand people were murdered by their government and their next-door neighbors,” Kahana said of the 1941 massacre. “I got emotional. In Israel we grow up learning ‘Never Again.’ Not just for the Jewish people, but for everybody.”
Helping the Halabis might be the most spectacular thing Kahana’s done to date, but it isn’t his first foray into the region’s politics. He donated cellphones to young people in Libya so they could film government abuses. Then the Syrian civil war broke out. Even before there were refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey he started bringing humanitarian aid to women and children fleeing the fighting.
Recently he’s turned his efforts to raising money for opposition forces fighting the Assad regime.
“I’ll do anything I can for the Syrian people,” Kahana said.