In the course of expanding a study (into two studies) of the practice of “rescue”-by-purchase of looted antiquities, I traced out a case, that I mentioned before in the context of fake conflict antiquities, that intertwined destruction and looting in Syria; behaviour of law enforcement agencies in source and transit countries and businesses in market countries; the politics and economics of the war in Syria; and propaganda within Syria, across the region and around the world.
State propaganda around the world
During the civil war in Syria, first artefacts from the synagogue of Jobar in Damascus were largely removed by the Islamist militia Failaq al-Rahman (or removed by the local administration and entrusted to Failaq al-Rahman, cf. Associated Press, 2018), then the building was largely destroyed in fighting between the regime and rebels. Since then, it has become an instrument for market exploitation, as adverts for legal objects have used the site’s cultural significance and such objects’ ever-increasing rarity value to increase prices (Blitz, 2014a; 2014b). It has also become an instrument for national politics and international relations.
Sources have reported the possession of vulnerable objects by both rebels who were ‘safekeeping’ the objects (and the site) as a ‘confidence-building measure’ with Israel and jihadists who were negotiating to exchange the objects for prisoners from the Assad regime (Issacharoff, 2013). Ultimately, it is possible that both sources were correct and the differences in descriptions were dependent upon the political needs of the describers, as Failaq al-Rahman was both an element of the Free Syrian Army and an ally of Jabhat al-Nusra.
Sources have also raised the possibility that the objects were only ‘cheaper copies that were switched for the originals in the 1990s, when it is rumoured they were smuggled to Israel’ (e.g. Griver, 2018; see also Associated Press, 2018, where the rumours were repeated by Maamoun Abdul-Karim, the former director of antiquities for the service under the control of the Assad regime).
Syria has officially accused ‘terrorist groups’ and ‘Turkish and Israeli intelligence services’ of ‘loot[ing]’ and ‘smuggl[ing]’ ‘artifacts and manuscripts’ of Jobar, from Syria through Turkey to the United States (cited by Roth, 2018; see also Welayet News, 2018). Israel has officially decried the accusation as a ‘distract[ion]’ (cited by Roth, 2018). Inexplicably, Israel does not appear to have explicitly denied the accusation as a fabrication (e.g. Eichner, 2018; Roth, 2018; Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 2018; Vos Iz Neias, 2018). In terms of the participants, it would resemble previous operations that have since been attested by sources in Israel (cf. Estrin, 2014; Jerusalem Post, 2016). In terms of the route, it would resemble the rescue operations that have been claimed by non-governmental organisations (e.g. Amaliah, 2016).
Like seemingly every other element of contemporary conflict, these narratives are being spread through social media, as evidenced by pro-Assad blogging (e.g. Wood, 2017), social networking (e.g. Issa, 2018) and artificial amplification of one query: “Has Israel stolen [robbed] the synagogue of Jobar?” There, a self-proclaimed ‘Syrian soldier from the Republican Guard’, Wassim Issa (2018), presented a ‘tunnel’ that had allegedly been ‘dug by Jaish al-Islam… to search for treasures’ and the ‘books and manuscripts’ that had allegedly been stolen by Failaq al-Rahman, who allegedly ‘destroyed’ the synagogue ‘to hide their crime’. Contrarily, Syrian activist Hassan al-Dimashqi asserted that the local Haroun al-Rashid Brigade of Jaysh al-Islam had ‘protected’ the site (cited by Associated Press, 2018). Then, Issa (2018) asked: ‘Has Israel stolen the synagogue’s treasures from [with] the terrorists?’ In fact, the synagogue was ‘destroyed’ – ‘flattened’ – by the Syrian Arab Army of the Assad regime, then looted (Rogin, 2014).
Non-state propaganda around the world
Following a nondescript report of the seizure of a supposedly ‘ancient leather-bound bible’ (which was a poor-quality fake) from four men (two Syrian citizens, one Iraqi citizen and one Turkish citizen) in Turkey, where the provenience of the object was explicitly stated to be a ‘mystery’ (Russia Today, 2018), insecure information was spread through unknowing consumers and lurid propaganda was spread by religious activists.
The initial information from İhlas News Agency (İhlas Haber Ajansı) was translated into English by a regional analyst. ‘Turkish police’ had allegedly seized ‘stolen ancient Torah scrolls from Jobar Synagogue’ (which were equally poor fakes) and ‘[t]hree of the thieves were fighters with Faylaq al-Rahman who previously controlled Jobar’ (al-Assil, 2018). More detailed reports spread in Arabic (e.g. Al Arabiya, 2018) and Hebrew (e.g. Ben Ari, 2018).
The ‘Torahs that were claimed to have been stolen from the Synagogue of Jobar in Syria [Bulunan Tevratların Suriye’deki Cobar Sinagogu’ndan çalınmış olduğu iddia edildi]’ were immediately debunked as ‘poorly-prepared works of forgery [kötü hazırlanmış bir sahtecilik eseri]’ (soL, 2018), including in the language and media of the source country (albeit in reports that introduced other incorrect information into public discussion, as they asserted that ‘the historic synagogue had been destroyed by jihadists in 2014 [Tarihi sinagog 2014 yılında cihatçılar tarafından yok edilmişti]’). Inevitably, the misinformation continued to spread anyway.
Combining the two threads of supposed information – and they are combined with no more coherence or competence than that – supposed journalism reported that now-‘satanist Torah[s]’ had been seized, which indicated that ‘Judaism is Satanism’. Indeed, there were ‘more [supposed] Torahs found in Syria in 2018’ with ‘more Satanic symbolism such as the demon Baphomet, [the] Illuminati triangle with the all seeing eye’, accompanying pins, which supposedly ‘confirmed’ the ‘blood libel’ – which, if it had been proved, would not be a libel, which reinforces that the text was written with keyword-searching readers rather than history in mind – plus ‘serpents, kabbalah hand signs, owls and many other things’ (European Union Times, 2019).
The commonalities in design and exploitation highlight the commonalities in ideology between the forgers and the propagandists and suggest that the forgers and the propagandists are targeting the same community of consumers – anti-Semitic Christians (who support the Assad regime that supposedly ‘liberated’ Jobar), as they decry ‘these people [who] crucified Jesus Christ and still reject Him to this day’ (European Union Times, 2019; see also Christians for Truth, 2019).
As I noted when archaeologist Michael Press (2020) highlighted yet another, yet poorer, fake: ‘Misrepresented/misreported seizures of forgeries of antiquities in Turkey and elsewhere are also a problem because they are increasingly facilitating anti-Semitic propaganda and other dangerous conspiracy theories that are spreading in conflict zones’ (Hardy, 2020).
Fuelling of an illicit market and financing of political violence in Syria
The chairman of the heritage committee of the Damascus Jewish Community Association, Eliahou Hasson, has stated that he was (or they were) twice offered artefacts from the synagogue, before and after its destruction. They appear to believe that the ultimate receiver of revenue from any transaction would be (or at least could be) the militia. By Hasson’s own account, they wanted to ensure that ‘would not be open to prosecution for financing a terrorist group’, yet ‘the deal collapsed because [the intermediary] wanted the money up front without giving [them] the chance to see and verify the authenticity of the items’ (Griver, 2018).
This story is further complicated by the reality of comparable events, from the “rescue” of the “Crowns of Damascus” – Torahs that were ‘smuggled out’ – from Syria by the Mossad in 1993-1995 (Estrin, 2014) to the “rescue” of a Torah (in the process of the transport of members of a Jewish community) from Yemen by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the State Department of the USA in 2016 (Jerusalem Post, 2016).
A note on forgery and policing
With regard to the mechanisms of these crimes and their policing, although the style of policing/reporting is unhelpful, I do not believe that ‘people [are] being framed’, even though ‘you might be suspicious when you read the same story, time and time again’, where law enforcement agencies ‘seem to always seize “coins” and de rigeur a “metal detector”‘ (Barford, 2020). I believe that the image of the operations is being framed.
There is an increase in production of forgeries of art and antiquities in Turkey, including specifically forgeries of texts of religious minorities that are attributed to Syria (Barford, 2019). Lots of these various materials are shifted together, from genuine antiquities to fake antiquities to fake art (cf. Antakya Gazetesi, 2019).
Sometimes, when law enforcement agencies identify crimes-in-progress, they conduct undercover operations. The criminals, who necessarily target clients who have more money than sense, believe they have found marks. After all, the law enforcement agents try to convince the criminals that they have found marks. (And, when the marks are not undercover cops, they believe that they are clever enough to outwit the criminal and turn a profit on the enterprise, yet are stupid enough to want to buy visibly poor forgeries.) So, the criminals ask for a ridiculously high price.
Then, as soon as the criminals have attempted to sell illicit cultural goods (whether by trying to sell looted antiquities or stolen artefacts or by trying to fraudulently sell fake objects), they are detained by the law enforcement agents. The agents do not bargain the criminal down; they simply wrap up the sting, then register the claimed object and the desired price (e.g. Cumhuriyet, 2020).
In a circle jerk that is beneficial to everyone except those outside it, the agency, the state and the media collude in advancing the narrative that these serious economic and political crimes are being effectively policed.
Al Arabiya. 2018: “سرقة مخطوطات أقدم كنيس يهودي في سوريا [theft of manuscripts from oldest synagogue in Syria]”. Al Arabiya, 13th May. Available at: https://www.alarabiya.net/ar/arab-and-world/syria/2018/05/13/بالفيديو-سرقة-مخطوطات-تعود-لأقدم-كنيس-يهودي-في-سوريا
Al-Assil, I. 2018: “Turkish police find the stolen ancient Torah scrolls from Jobar Synagogue (Damascus). Three of the thieves were fighters with Faylaq al-Rahman who previously controlled Jobar. Opposition armed groups continued the regime’s tradition of looting Syria’s treasures.” Twitter, 11th May. Available at: https://twitter.com/IbrahimAlAssil/status/995032503399473153
Amaliah. 2016: “Jewish life”. Amaliah, no date. Available at: https://amaliah.org/preservation-of-syrian-jewish-heritage
Antakya Gazetesi. 2019: “#Suriye’den yasa dışı yollarla getirdikleri tarihi eserleri #Reyhanlı’da satmaya çalışan 3 şüpheli gözaltına alındı. Evde yapılan aramada, aralarında balta ucu, bronz çan, sikke ve el yazmalı Tevrat ile Picasso imzalı resimlerin de bulunduğu 21 parça eser ele geçirildi. #Hatay. [3 suspects, who tried to sell in #Reyhanlı antiquities that they had brought illegally from #Syria, were detained. During the search of the home, 21 works were seized; an axe head, a bronze bell, a coin and a handwritten Torah as well as a painting with the signature of Picasso were among those that were found. #Hatay.]” Twitter, 9th March. Available at: https://twitter.com/antakyagazete/status/1104274644582969344
Associated Press. 2018: Jewish artifacts disappear from Damascus in fog of Syria war. Hürriyet Daily News, 18th June. Available at: https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/jewish-artifacts-disappear-from-damascus-in-fog-of-syria-war-133452
Barford, P. 2019: “The ‘Golden Brownies’ Turkish Fake Manuscripts”. Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues, 17th February. Available at: http://paul-barford.blogspot.com/2019/02/the-golden-brownies-turkish-fake.html
Barford, P. 2020: “Torah and ring seized by Turkish security forces in the eastern province Muş”. Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues, 31st March. Available at: http://paul-barford.blogspot.com/2020/03/torah-and-ring-seized-by-turkish.html
Ben Ari, B. 2018: “נמצאו ס”ת עתיקים מבית הכנסת ‘אליהו הנביא’’ בפרברי דמשק • צפו [Ancient manuscript from the Prophet Elijah Synagogue in the suburbs of Damascus were found]”. Haredim 10, 13th May. Available at: https://www.ch10.co.il/news/435991/
Blitz, A. 2014a: “The case for Jobar: Syria, synagogues and subterfuge”. The Times of Israel, 17th January. Available at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-case-for-jobar-syria-synagogues-and-subterfuge/
Blitz, A. 2014b: “Damascus hide and seek: Synagogues and Sotheby’s”. The Times of Israel, 17th May. Available at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/damascus-hide-and-seek-synagogues-and-sothebys/
Christians for Truth. 2019: “Turkish police recover stolen Jewish Torah scrolls decorated with satanic illuminati symbolism”. Christians for Truth, 25th November. Available at: https://christiansfortruth.com/turkish-police-recover-stolen-jewish-torah-scrolls-decorated-with-satanic-illuminati-symbology/
Cumhuriyet. 2020: “Bursa’da 2.5 milyon dolarlık Tevrat ele geçirildi [2.5 million-dollar Torah seized in Bursa]”. Cumhuriyet, 27th January. Available at: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/bursada-25-milyon-dolarlik-tevrat-ele-gecirildi-1716614
Eichner, I. 2018: “Syria accuses Israel of stealing artifacts from ancient synagogue”. Ynet News, 24th March. Available at: https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-5193044,00.html
Estrin, D. 2014: “In the beginning, there was a dispute over Hebrew bibles… There still is.” The Independent, 9th December. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/in-the-beginning-there-was-a-dispute-over-hebrew-biblesthere-still-is-9913609.html
European Union Times. 2019: “2000 year old satanist Torah discovered in Turkey after police arrests smugglers”. The European Union Times, 31st October. Available at: https://www.eutimes.net/2019/10/2000-year-old-satanist-torah-discovered-in-turkey-after-police-arrests-smugglers/
Griver, S. 2018: “Amid Syria’s destructive civil war, Judaica is being plundered and sold for thousands on the black market”. The Jewish Chronicle, 6th July. Available at: https://www.thejc.com/news/world/amid-syria-s-destructive-civil-war-judaica-is-being-plundered-and-sold-for-thousands-on-the-black-m-1.466761
Hardy, S A. 2020: “Misrepresented/misreported seizures of forgeries of antiquities in Turkey and elsewhere are *also* a problem because they are increasingly facilitating anti-Semitic propaganda and other dangerous conspiracy theories that are spreading in conflict zones”. Twitter, 27th March. Available at: https://twitter.com/conflictantiq/status/124348845845220966
Issa, W. 2018: “Has Israel stolen the synagogue of Jobar? The Syrian soldier from the Republican Guard, Wassim Issa documents the organized theft and destruction of the oldest Jewish Synagogue of its kind in Jobar/Eastern Ghouta.” Syriana/Syria-Between the Lines, 4th April. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/1465009143773506/videos/2034646870143061/?v=2034646870143061
Issacharoff, A. 2013: “Syria’s ‘destroyed’ ancient synagogue is still intact”. Times of Israel, 22nd December. Available at: https://www.timesofisrael.com/syrias-destroyed-ancient-synagogue-is-still-intact/
Jerusalem Post. 2016: “Some of the last Jews of Yemen brought to Israel in secret mission”. The Jerusalem Post, 21st March. Available at: http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Report-Some-of-the-last-Jews-of-Yemen-brought-to-Israel-in-secret-mission-448639
Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 2018: “Syria accuses Israel of stealing valuable artifacts from ancient Damascus synagogue”. Ha’aretz, 25th March. Available at: https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/syria/syria-accuses-israel-of-stealing-artifacts-from-ancient-synagogue-1.5939447
Press, M D. 2020: “The fakes that Turkish police seize [and] then are reported in Turkish media as busts of illegal antiquities trafficking keep getting more [and] more ridiculous. Take a look at this ‘ancient Torah’ — yours for only $1.25 million!” Twitter, 26th March. Available at: https://twitter.com/MichaelDPress/status/1243236293750018049
Rogin, J. 2014: “Syria’s oldest synagogue, destroyed by Assad”. The Daily Beast, 27th May. Available at: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/05/27/exclusive-pictures-syria-s-oldest-synagogue-destroyed-by-assad.html
Roth, D J. 2018: “Syria accuses Israel of removing Jewish artifacts from Damascus temple”. The Jerusalem Post, 22nd March. Available at: https://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/Syria-accuses-Israel-of-removing-Jewish-artifacts-from-Damascus-temple-546896
Russia Today. 2018: “Turkish police confiscate ‘ancient’ bible during routine traffic stop”. Russia Today (RT), 8th April. Available at: https://www.rt.com/news/423513-ancient-bible-confiscated-turkish-police/
soL. 2018: “Bilecik’te yakalanan ‘tarihi’ Tevrat sahte mi? [Is the ‘historic’ Torah that was caught in Bilecik fake?]” soL, 14th May. Available at: https://haber.sol.org.tr/turkiye/bilecikte-yakalanan-tarihi-tevrat-sahte-mi-237448
Vos iz Neias. 2018: “Damascus – Syria accuses Israel of removing Jewish artifacts from Syrian synagogue”. Vos iz Neias?, 22nd March. Available at: https://www.vosizneias.com/294029/2018/03/22/damascus-syria-accuses-israel-of-removing-jewish-artifacts-from-damascus-synagogue/
Welayet News. 2018: “Teröristlerin Çaldıkları Tarihi Eserler İsrail’de [antiquities that were stolen by terrorists are in Israel]”. Welayet News, 20th June. Available at: https://www.welayetnews.com/content/2507
Wood, M. 2017: “Enraged Israel bombs Syria, pimps takfiri Moti Kahana”. Syria News, 30th October. Available at: https://www.syrianews.cc/enraged-israel-bombs-syria-pimps-takfiri-moti-kahana/