Jewish History is Under Siege in the Middle East and These Volunteers Are Risking Their Lives to Protect It

David Gerbi
Libyan Jew David Gerbi prays inside the Dar Bishi synagogue in Tripoli, Libya on October 1, 2011. Gerbi and his family fled Tripoli in 1967 when an Arab-Israeli war stoked anger against the Jewish state and led to attacks on Jews in his neighbourhood. Gaddafi expelled the rest of Libya's 38,000 Jews two years later and confiscated their assets. Most Tripoli synagogues have since been destroyed or converted to mosques. After returning from exile in Libya, Gerbi attempted to restore it before locals made it clear he was not welcome. Suhaib Salem/Reuters

On a sunny morning in February 2016, Sami Solmaz, a Kurdish filmmaker from Turkey, took a ride with Kurdish forces from the Iraqi town of Sinjar to the front lines. He spent the day filming gun battles between Kurdish fighters and the Islamic State militant group for a documentary he was making on ISIS attacks against religious minorities. That afternoon, as he was heading back to town, he heard a soldier’s voice crackle over his driver’s radio: “Be careful! ISIS is firing chlorine bombs into Sinjar.”

The militant group had been launching homemade rockets filled with chemicals toward Sinjar since Kurdish forces pushed them out of the town in late 2015. Earlier in February, a chemical attack in Sinjar had left Kurdish fighters sick, and Solmaz knew it was best to stay away. The only problem: His driver’s car was in town, and so they decided to hurry back and retrieve it. “We were only there 10 minutes, but you could smell [the gas],” he tells Newsweek.

On his way out of Sinjar, Solmaz’s face began to swell and his throat started to burn as he drove toward the Iraqi city of Duhok, where he fell into a deep sleep at his sister’s apartment and awoke more than 20 hours later. When he was feeling better, he emailed Jason Guberman, the director of Digital Heritage Mapping, a nonprofit he’d been helping in New York, to apologize for slipping out of touch.

Guberman was relying on Solmaz, an atheist from a Muslim family, to document Jewish heritage sites—from synagogues and cemeteries to ruins of schools, houses and community centers Jews once used in the Middle East and North Africa. For years, his staff and a rotating cast of about a dozen interns and volunteers have been racing to create digital records of Jewish sites. The project’s name is Diarna, which means “our home” in Judeo-Arabic. As wars in the region destroy these sites, Guberman’s team is running out of time.

In his office near Manhattan’s Union Square, Guberman has created a “situation room” that has been stripped of cubicles and lined with marked-up maps of Yemen, Iraq, and the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Damascus. (The situation room is located in the office of the American Sephardi Federation, Diarna's partner in preservation; Guberman also serves as executive director of the Federation.) This enables the team to prioritize the most at-risk areas and dispatch researchers, like Solmaz, into the field when moments of peace create opportunities. To create realistic renderings of the sites, Diarna has recruited a network of volunteer photographers and paid researchers through social media and word of mouth in countries like Yemen, Syria and Iran. Most live and work in the region and can access dangerous areas more easily than Americans or non-Muslims.

Read more: How the new monument men are outsmarting ISIS

Back in New York, his staff uses SketchUp, a 3-D modeling tool, to transform photographs from the field into digital models of the ancient buildings and plot them, according to their coordinates, on Google Earth. They also look for people familiar with the sites—like former congregants of synagogues, or the architects who renovated them—who can recall details about their appearance. Their recollections about anything—from whether the flooring was made of tile, wood or carpet to whether the buildings were lit with stained glass, skylights or chandeliers—help Diarna researchers create more accurate 3-D images and descriptions of the sites. Diarna often shares the witnesses’ raw recorded testimonies to bring online exhibits to life. Unlike other organizations doing similar kinds of work, Diarna makes its 3-D models publicly accessible.

When Diarna launched, Guberman estimated his team would identify between 500 and 1,000 sites to plot on Google Earth; the number has now surpassed 1,600.

Solmaz, who was in Iraq to collect footage for his film about ISIS, offered to visit abandoned Jewish villages for Guberman. The two had met in the summer of 2014 at the Center for Jewish History in New York—Solmaz was there to inquire about using the building’s archives to research a documentary about Kurdish Jews, which he would be filming in Syria and Iraq. He wound up in Diarna’s office, where he and Guberman chatted about his interest in Jewish culture. Solmaz had grown up in Turkey’s southeast, and his grandparents had told him stories about the minorities who no longer lived there—Jews, Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians. By the time Solmaz was born in 1963, Ottoman and Turkish authorities had massacred or deported most of them in campaigns to “Turkify” the nation in its violent early days, a part of his country’s history that he thought about often in his work as a war correspondent and independent filmmaker.

Jewish Heritage An Israeli youth lies on an Israeli flag during the annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Yisrael Abuhatzeira in the southern Israeli town of Netivot in January 2015. Thousands of Jews mostly of Moroccan origin came to pray over the respected Kabbalist rabbi. Oded Balilty/AP

As Guberman listened, he realized he might be able to recruit Solmaz to help Diarna. But doing so would be dangerous. Syria’s civil war was in its third year, and ISIS was taking over major cities and towns in Iraq. Guberman worried that Solmaz could be captured, kidnapped or killed, especially if ISIS—or the Syrian regime—discovered his links to an American nonprofit with a Jewish cause. “We actually tried to discourage him,” says Guberman, “but he wanted to go.” The two men agreed to stay in touch.

What had started as a chance meeting in a quiet museum would soon become a vital partnership—spanning oceans and war zones—to preserve ancient history before it vanishes.

Midnight Marauders

A month after their first meeting, Solmaz returned to Guberman’s office with a file of photographs. The images showed the ruins of a Jewish village in the mountains separating Iraq from Turkey, near the headquarters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party; the insurgent group is at war with Turkey and the target of frequent Turkish bombing campaigns. Guberman hadn’t told him to go there because he’d assumed it was too dangerous. “Jason was shocked,” Solmaz recalled. “He said, ‘How were you able to get this?’”
 

Over the next two and a half years, Solmaz planned multiple trips to Iraq, northern Syria, Turkey, Israel and Greece, always allaying Guberman’s concerns about safety. “Jason, I can go there, I am Kurdish,” he’d tell him. Or “I’m a war correspondent, don’t worry.”

The arrangement has been mutually beneficial. Solmaz hikes mountains, cajoles locals and travels to war zones to find the endangered sites Diarna wants to preserve on the internet. In return, Diarna pays him for photographs, videos and reports, which Solmaz often finds useful for his projects.

03_03_JewishHeritage_01 A Diarna expedition photo shows the exterior of the Tomb of Nahum in Alqosh, Iraq. Diarna

When Diarna launched in 2008, most Jewish synagogues, schools and cemeteries in the Middle East and North Africa had been out of use for decades, and many had fallen into disrepair. Most of the estimated 1 million Jews who lived between Morocco and the Arabian Sea abandoned their homelands to escape anti-Semitic violence in the 1950s and ’60s. Now wars in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, along with the emergence of ISIS, which has been attacking ancient sites with pickaxes and dynamite, pose a real threat to preserving the Middle East’s ancient history.

As destroying sacred sites has become increasingly common in the Middle East, analysts, countries and even some militants have come to see the costs of destroying them. In September, an Islamist militant became the first person convicted of a war crime for destroying cultural and religious sites in Mali. At his trial at the Hague in the Netherlands, Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, who was sentenced to nine years in prison, urged other combatants to refrain from destroying cultural sites, saying such acts “ are not going to lead to any good for humanity.”

Experts on ancient cultures say there is universal value in preserving sacred heritage sights of any religion. “All cultures and societies have sacred sites, and these sacred sites are related to concepts of who we are, where we came from and where we are going,” says Richard Leventhal, the director of the Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. ISIS’s methodical destruction of holy sites serves a very important purpose for the group. “ISIS is not just trying to wipe people off the face of the earth by killing them,” says Leventhal, “they are also destroying their history.”

Under pressure from multiple enemies on multiple fronts, ISIS has been losing territory in Syria and Iraq. Their retreat is slowly revealing the extent of their destruction. The group has targeted religious sites from all faiths within the land it occupied. During the organization’s 2014 and 2015 rampage against symbols of “idolatry,” according to its corrupted version of Islam, the militants blew up the Mosque of the Prophet Jonah in Mosul. The mosque was one of several sites said to house Jonah’s tomb, an important monument for Muslims, Christians and Jews. “It seemingly should have been protected because it was inside a Sunni mosque, but they blew it up anyway,” Guberman says. “So at that point we knew that no site is safe.”

But Jews have an unusually deep level of experience with violent enemies doing all they can to wipe out their history. Guberman did not want what happened in World War II in Europe—the Nazis destroying hundreds of synagogues —to happen in the Middle East. Without physical evidence of Jewish culture, the world’s understanding of Jewish communities in the Arab world will disappear with the death of the last generation who can remember them.

Children of Abraham

Guberman sees a special significance in his work for the world’s Jews whose heritage begins in Iraq. “I mean, this is where all Jewish history comes from,” he says. According to Jewish tradition, all Jews trace their lineage to Abraham, the father of monotheism who was born in the Babylonian city of Ur, now in present-day Iraq. Religious scholars say that Abraham and his descendants began to disperse across the Middle East in the 19th century B.C. Population estimates show that the majority of the world’s Jews remained in the region through the Middle Ages. As recently as the early 1900s, nearly 1 million of the world’s estimated 15 million Jews were still living across the Middle East and North Africa, some in Jewish communities with roots in antiquity.
 

But Israel’s founding in 1948 led to violence from Muslim mobs and discriminatory policies implemented by local governments aimed at Jews in the Arab world, prompting almost all of them to leave. Most initially went to Israel, which spearheaded their mass emigration through a series of famous missions like the 1949 “Magic Carpet” airlift that spirited 50,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel, and a subsequent operation that nearly emptied Iraq of its Jewish population. The Jews left; their ancient synagogues remained.

In 2008, when Guberman was finishing his degree in political science at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, and wondering what to do next, only about 5,000 Jews remained in North Africa and the Middle East, outside of Israel. Without a Jewish community left to care for them, hundreds of sacred sites were converted into mosques, housing and other structures, or ignored as their roofs caved in and engravings faded.

03_03_JewishHeritage_02 A Diarna expedition photo shows a child's grave in a Jewish cemetery in Tangier, Morocco, in 2011. Joshua Shamsi for Diarna Geo-Museum

Guberman considered applying to law school, but he changed his mind after speaking to a friend who had recently returned from a trip to Morocco. “His wife is part Moroccan-Jewish…and they had just had a daughter. He was very concerned about how his daughter was going to connect with her Moroccan-Jewish heritage when she grew up”—because so much history had already disappeared, Guberman says.

His friend’s concern piqued his interest. Guberman had always been drawn to Mizrahi (or “Eastern”) Jewish history and he was surprised by how little attention it received compared with that of Jews in Europe—just a paragraph, he recalls, in a college textbook. Guberman and a small group of friends decided to devote themselves to its preservation.

Guberman’s “Bubbie” offered free food and internet to her grandson and his colleagues in Connecticut when they started. The group soon secured enough funding from Karin Douglas, a philanthropist and fellow Sacred Heart graduate, to move out of Bubbie’s house and launch Digital Heritage Mapping, which would fuel the Diarna project. By late 2008, Guberman’s small team was beginning to make renderings of sites in the precarious physical world to preserve forever on the internet. Guberman and his small team of researchers used Google Earth to map the ruins of Jewish villages that had dotted northern Iraq from antiquity through the early 20th century; an 800-year-old cemetery outside of Marrakesh, Morocco, nearly lost to a development project became a virtual exhibit online; Diarna’s website published photographs of the tomb of Judeo-Moroccan mystic Rabbi Yaakov Abuhatzera in the Nile Delta, before Egypt’s government banned an annual pilgrimage to the site in 2014 over tensions between locals and Jewish visitors.

03_03_JewishHeritage_04 Jason Guberman gives a lecture showing a 3-D rendering from the Diarna Geo Museum. Tracy Deer-Mirek/Diarna

Many places were still off limits when Diarna started its project, some three years before the Arab Spring uprisings toppled dictators in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Many of those autocrats clung to anti-Semitic policies. Libya under Muammar el-Qaddafi was particularly difficult to access for researchers working for a Jewish nonprofit. Qaddafi was notoriously anti-Semitic—canceling all debts owed to Jews, among other things—and Diarna’s efforts to recruit local researchers failed. Libyans were too nervous to be associated with a Jewish organization, Guberman explained.

But when the Arab Spring began in Tunisia in 2010, Diarna saw a unique opening.

A Synagogue Strewn With Trash

When fighting erupted in Libya, for example, reporters descended on the country, including one familiar with Diarna’s work. She contacted Guberman, offering to help him. Her only condition was anonymity.

In May 2011, Guberman sent her a map of the Hara Kabira, the old Jewish quarter in Tripoli, to help her locate the Dar Bishi synagogue, the most beautiful in the city when it opened in 1928. After Qaddafi took power in the late 1960s, the government seized and shuttered all Jewish property in Libya. Guberman hoped the reporter could find a way to survey it without raising the suspicion of the government, which was keeping an eye on foreign journalists in the city. Somehow, she slipped out of her hotel and made it there. She entered the crumbling structure through a hole in the back wall and took pictures of its gutted, columned interior, strewn with trash and vandalized by graffiti. She sent the photos to Guberman when she was safely out of the country.

03_03_JewishHeritage_09 The interior of the abandoned Dar Bishi synagogue in Tripoli, Libya on September 28, 2011. Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty

Guberman was cautiously optimistic that the rebels who ousted Qaddafi in 2011 might make it easier to access Jewish sites. A Libyan Jew named David Gerbi tested those expectations a few months later by returning to Tripoli from exile in Italy to restore the Dar Bishi synagogue. From New York, Guberman closely followed the news of Gerbi’s dramatic entrance to the holy site as the Libyan used a sledgehammer.

Guberman wondered how locals would react. He soon found out. A group of protesters opposed to the synagogue’s restoration gathered in central Tripoli with signs denouncing Zionism and some declaring “there is no place for Jews in Libya.” Fearing for his safety, Gerbi abandoned his project and returned to Italy, signaling to Guberman that the obstacles he faced researching Jewish sites under Qaddafi would likely remain. As he puts it: “We realized that probably nothing good is going to come of doing work in Libya.”

Guberman’s team published a 3-D model of the once-stately structure on Google Earth, using photographs and coordinates the female reporter had taken. They also used her photographs to make a video tour of the model.

The latter may turn out to be among the only proof the site ever existed.

Blocks of Bombed-Out Buildings

As governments collapsed across the region, threats to buildings multiplied. One of the higher-profile Jewish heritage sites lost to the fighting in Syria was the centuries-old Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in a suburb of Damascus. The synagogue is named for the prophet Elijah, whose appearance, Jews believe, will herald the coming of the Messiah. According to local tradition, Elijah anointed his successor on the site where the synagogue was built. Still well maintained when the war in Syria began, it appeared in photos published by The Daily Beast in 2014 as piles of rubble—its fine carpets, chandeliers and library of religious texts apparently gone.

Eddie Ashkenazie, a Diarna researcher from Brooklyn with roots in Syria, has been closely following the destruction. He felt a new determination in his work after watching aerial footage shot in the ancient Syrian city of Homs in 2015 that showed block after block of bombed-out buildings.

Ashkenazie has been scouting out Brooklyn synagogues with Syrian congregants whose memories of Jewish sites might still be fresh. “I tell them what I do, and they're like, ‘Oh, bring us your pictures tomorrow, bring us your maps,’” he says. “Just yesterday, after prayer services a group of men helped me [locate] synagogues in Damascus.” After the meeting, he returned to his office and added the synagogues to Diarna’s expanding database of sites.

A small number of Jews still live in Damascus, Syria’s capital, some of whom have helped Diarna document sites. But the material hasn’t yet been published due to concerns of drawing unwanted attention to the shrinking community and their lesser-known sacred sites. “Wherever there is a community,” Guberman says, “their lives take precedence over our documentary mission.”

 

 

The Future of the Past

Over the past few years, the last Jews in Syria—and much of the wider region—have left. In 2015, in a controversial operation, Israeli-American businessman Moti Kahana smuggled Aleppo’s remaining Jewish residents to Israel through Turkey. In 2016, the Jewish Agency for Israel airlifted a family that made up 19 of Yemen’s roughly 85 Jews to Israel. Tunisian Jews have migrated recently too, as attacks have made the country less safe. “When the last people leave,” Guberman said, “it is just a matter of time before the sites will be repurposed or destroyed.”

On a recent stopover in his native Turkey, Solmaz clicked through images on his computer, each one illustrating the precariousness of Jewish heritage in Iraq. In a stone synagogue in Gondik, a small village in the northern Kurdish region of Iraq, hay covered the floors to feed the livestock who now occupy it. In another picture, taken in Kirkuk, fresh bullet holes marked the walls of a Muslim family’s home whose central feature revealed its Jewish past—an elaborate niche built into the wall for a Torah.

Solmaz plans to return to Iraq once Kurdish and Iraqi forces push ISIS out of Mosul, another city that was once home to thousands of Jews. More recently Mosul was home to tens of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities who fled their homes ahead of ISIS’s advance. For his own work, Solmaz will document the damage the jihadis have caused to the city’s non-Muslims and the architecture they left behind. For Diarna, he will look much further back in time, for evidence of a small Jewish community that endured for centuries in Mosul before fleeing persecution in the early 20th century.

“To understand the present,” Solmaz says, “you have to know your past.”