Rescue of Syrian Jews from Aleppo ends in dispute

Jewish Agency, American businessman at odds over aliya of woman who converted to Islam.

A site hit by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar Assad in the al-Myassar neighborhood of Aleppo this week. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A site hit by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar Assad in the al-Myassar neighborhood of Aleppo this week.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The evacuation of the last Jews of the Syrian city of Aleppo earlier this year has resulted in a conflict between the Jewish Agency and the American- Israeli businessman who engineered their journey.
London’s The Jewish Chronicle revealed last week that earlier this year, Moti Kahana had arranged for an early morning “raid” in which a minibus suddenly appeared to collect members of the Halabi family from their Aleppo home.
The family was reported to have been terrified that those banging on their door were representatives of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, but were quickly told that they were being evacuated and that they had to pack their possessions and leave immediately.
According to the report, the Halabis had been informed several months prior that Kahana intended to bring them out, but they had wavered and attempted to push off the rescue.
Once in the minibus, the Halabis – 88-year-old Mariam, her 50- and 60-something daughters, her Muslim sonin- law and grandchildren – were told by their driver that their ultimate destination was New York.
“Of course, the family did not want to leave, because it is so dangerous. So how do you get them out? You scare the **** out of them,” Kahana told the Chronicle.
After passing through a series of Al Nusra Front roadblocks, they made their way to Turkey where Kahana pushed them to make the move to Israel.
Citing Kahana, the Jewish Chronicle article asserted that once in Turkey, however, the Jewish Agency “refused to allow all members of the Halabi family into Israel,” prompting an angry response from the Zionist body.
Only Mariam and one of her daughters ended up making aliya, while the other daughter, her Muslim husband and children were not permitted to immigrate.
“The [Jewish agency] took the 88-year-old elderly woman and her non-married daughter to Israel, and they left the one who married a Muslim guy in Turkey. The lease on the house I was renting for them expired. They had no money, no food, they had nothing in Turkey,” Kahana was quoted as saying.
The Jewish Agency was quick to respond, telling the paper it had no authority to refuse anyone entry to Israel and that by converting to Islam and marrying a Muslim, the daughter left in Turkey was no longer eligible for an aliya visa under the Law of Return.
In a statement to the Chronicle, the Agency said the daughter had provided documents proving she had converted.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, Kahana said that given that there is currently a 60 percent intermarriage rate in the United States, he wondered how Israel would react to a crisis there that required the evacuation of Jews.
“What happens to families in the United States where they marry non-Jews and have a Christmas tree. What do you do in that case,” he asked.
Responding to assertions by critics that he lied to get the family to leave Syria, Kahana said that once they were in Turkey he suggested that as Jews they try to go to Israel but that he also offered to help them go to the United States.
He went on to claim that the woman left behind had not actually converted to Islam, stating that just because she signed papers to that effect did not mean “she actually converted.”
“What was the big deal,” he asked. “That, maybe, she will go back to being Jewish? What is better, to send them back to Syria or to bring them to Israel and she can go back to being Jewish [as] she never went to Islam anyway? “The Jewish agency doesn’t like me because I’m doing their job,” he continued.
An Israeli source familiar with the situation, however, told the Post Kahana “endangers people” and that “he made false promises” and “lured” the family.
The olim, now in Israel, “hardly talk” and “are terrified,” the source said.
The family members left behind in Turkey eventually moved back to Syria.
Asked about the controversy, a senior Jewish Agency official told the Post Kahana had “gone on a solo Lone Ranger mission against all the professional advice of people who know better” and that he had called on the Agency to clean up his “mess.”
“He ignored all the obstacles and the facts that made it impossible, and tried to force his way on the State of Israel.
So blame the Jewish Agency, why not?” the official said.