A post by CAMERA Arabic.
On November 6th the BBC Arabic website reported Vladimir Putin’s reference to Russian aid he purportedly directs at Jews who still remain in Syria and their properties (“Putin helps the Jews of Syria, but where are they?”). The report included a timeline of Syrian Jewry, whose history spreads well over two millennia. This is how it was introduced to the readers (translation by CAMERA Arabic):
“The San Francisco-based JIMENA website, interested in documenting the history and heritage of oriental Jews in the Middle East and North Africa, summarizes the history of Jews in Syria as follows:”
In fact, the timeline is not directly taken from any of JIMENA’s three relevant webpages – two brief summaries elaborating on the history of Syria’s Jews in English and Arabic, and one timeline in English – but it is apparently based on all three. In comparison to JIMENA’s original webpages, the BBC’s version is heavily edited; its anonymous writer added entries that did not appear in any of the three webpages but removed other historical events that were mentioned in all three. For instance:
- The BBC added Paul the Apostle’s successful attempt to convert a large group of Damascus Jews to Christianity in 49 AD.
- The BBC added the Mongol capture of Aleppo in 1260, resulting in the slaughter of many Jews.
- The BBC removed JIMENA’s description of the Aleppo Codex’s arrival to Aleppo, allegedly in 1375.
The BBC’s cherry-picking of historical details – which goes against basic principles of trustworthy quoting and its own editorial guidelines – could have been quite unnoticeable had it been limited to antiquity and medieval times. However, once modern era entries were altered, the history of the Jews of Syria was distorted to such an extent that anyone even slightly familiar with Jewish history of the 19th century could notice at least some of BBC’s edits. For example:
- The BBC removed JIMENA’s account of the 1840 Damascus blood libel, a true landmark of 19th century history of the Jewish people as a whole. To quote the original JIMENA timeline (originally in English, in-bracket remarks by CAMERA Arabic): “1840 –Eight members of the Jewish community were falsely accused of ritual murder of a Christian monk during the Damascus Affair. The men were tortured, killed and forced to convert to Islam [all tortured, and some of them were either killed or forced to convert]. The Jewish synagogue of Jobar is destroyed [its interior was pillaged and vandalised by an angry mob]”. Notably, the affair influenced not only the Jews in Damascus (and the Ottoman Empire which controlled it between 1516-1918) but was also pivotal to world Jewry – operating globally to protect fellow Jews in a way that was unbeknown to remote communities until then. To get a better idea of just how gross of an omission it is to remove the Damascus blood libel from a chronicle of Jewish history in Syria, it should be emphasised that it appeared not only in all of JIMENA’s three webpages, but also in many other online chronicles of the history of Syrian Jews.
- The BBC kept the following entry in place: “In 1850, many Jewish families leave Syria for Egypt, then [depart] from it to England”. However, it removed JIMENA’s phrase that made a connection between the departure and the blood libel, thus creating the false impression that it was spontaneous or due to an unknown reason.
- The BBC added an entry, stating that “in the 1800s Jews were granted a legal status known as ‘Dhimmis’, and they were required to pay the head tax [Arabic: Jizya جزية]”.
In fact, the Dhimmi legal status, historically granted to members of some religious minorities who were subjected to Muslim rule, as well as the obligatory Jizya tax that was imposed on them along with it, are both thought to be almost as old as Islam itself; a few of the most ancient Islamic texts (in the case of Jizya, even the Qur’an) refer to them. Specifically regarding the Jews of the areas which now consist modern Syria, their designation as Dhimmis who owe mandatory tax to the state was in effect up to 1856, under the Ottoman Empire as well as under the Muslim rulers that preceded it. Between 1856-1909 Jizya was replaced with a different tax, “Badal Askari”, that Jews and Christians paid in order to become exempt from military service. However, at least some of them considered the new tax as “Jizya with a new name”.
The way BBC chose to assemble the part of its timeline that deals with the 20th century, based on JIMENA’s webpages, is also misleading and far from perfect. The report made absolutely no mention of several violent attacks against Syrian Jews that JIMENA’s English timeline and summary do document.
- The 1947 government-encouraged Aleppo pogrom, killing 75 local Jews and displacing around 7,000 (the BBC timeline counted this group along with the Jews who left Syria in the late 1940s following state-sanctioned persecution: dispossession of properties and dismissal of all government jobs).
- The 1949 Damascus synagogue bombing, carried out by a militant group composed of Syrians, Egyptians and Palestinians, killing 12 Jews.
- The 1974 rape and murder of four Jewish women – the three sisters of the Zeibak family and their cousin, Eva Saad – who tried to flee Syria in disguise. Their mutilated bodies were discovered in a cave near a town adjacent to the Lebanese border, along with the bodies of two young Jewish men who were murdered there earlier – Natan Shaya and Kassem Abadi. All bodies were returned to their families by the Syrian police shortly after the discovery, apparently with no further investigation ever conducted.
By editing out hostilities and atrocities carried out against the Jews of Syria by some of their neighbors and fellow citizens, often with the indirect support of local authorities, the BBC’s timeline whitewashes these ugly episodes from the country’s history. Specifically, by removing the Damascus blood libel from the chronology, BBC also knowingly avoided an opportunity to combat one of the Arab world’s, and particularly Syria’s, most common and venomous antisemitic myths.