Jewish Agency’s Yigal Palmor Slams Media Accounts of Aleppo ‘Rescue’

An amazing story of the clandestine rescue of one family, the very last remnants of Aleppo’s ancient and large Jewish community has appeared in Israeli and Jewish media outlets in recent days, starting with The Jewish Chronicle, followed by Haaretz, Times of Israel, Yediot Achronot and Arutz Sheva, among others. The fascinating story contains all of the elements of a gripping tale: unknown men pounding on the door late at night, the daring flight of an elderly woman and her grown daughters from ISIS, the family’s charming of Al-Nusra terrorists at a checkpoint, ingathering of the exiles, the closing chapter of hundreds of years of glorious Jewish history in Aleppo, a faraway hero in New York who makes it all happen, and a surprise ending: Israeli bureaucracy, courtesy of the Jewish Agency, which allegedly prevents one sister who converted to Islam from coming to Israel.
Against this backdrop, Yigal Palmor, director of public affairs at the Jewish Agency, has harshly criticized the coverage of the operation to bring the “Halabi” family out of Syria. He charges that most of the articles are derivative of the original Jewish Chronicle account, and that journalists did not question or fact-check the sole source consulted for the story: Israeli-American businessman Moti Kahana of New York, who engineered the whole operation.
There are some minor variations between the articles. Arutz Sheva, for instance, initially bizarrely asserted that it was elite Israeli soldiers who whisked the family out of its Aleppo home in the dead of night. (Following communication from CAMERA, that entirely false assertion was corrected.) But given that the articles for the most part follow the same story line, and the first to publish was the Chronicle (“Revealed: How the Last Jews of Aleppo Escaped” by Sandy Rashty), the following excerpts summarize the story of 88-year-old “Mariam;” her two daughters “Sara,” in her 60s, and “Gilda,” in her 50s; Gilda’s Muslim husband, “Khaled;” and his three children from a previous marriage.
The first that the 88-year-old mother knew of them were the powerful knocks on the front door, a sound that sent her and the rest of the Halabi family cowering in the darkest corners of their Aleppo home. . .
The women put on their hijabs and the family was bundled into a white minibus waiting outside.

Only then did the truth dawn on them.

The raiders who had burst in with such force had come to save their lives.
The American in question, business tycoon Moti Kahana— who has extensive links to anti-Assad rebels in the region — had been told that Daesh was closing in on the Halabis’ home. If the Islamist terrorists found out the women were Jewish, they would be instantly killed — or worse. He decided to organise their escape.
Speaking from New York, Mr Kahana says: “Of course the family did not want to leave, because it is so dangerous. So how do you get them out? You scare the s**t out of them.” . . .
After a 36-hour journey, the bus passed the metal fence that divides Syria from Turkey. The family got out of the minibus, and paused for a photograph with their handler. They smiled: they were safe. . .
The family wanted to move to America, where they have relatives. But, he says: “I told them, ‘It is easier to go to Israel than America’. Also, I am Israeli and I think that if you are Jewish, you should go to Israel. “They were willing to go to Israel — even the Muslim guy.”

But the story did not have the ending Mr Kahana had hoped for.

In Turkey, he informed the Jewish Agency (JA) of the escape in order to secure safe haven for the whole family in Israel. . . .

Mariam and Sara, who has never married, were given safe haven in Israel, and they now live in Ashkelon. But for Gilda and her family, things took a turn for the worse.

JA officials — who are charged with verifying a person’s religious identity — decided that Gilda had converted to Islam to marry Khaled around three years ago. They said she could not make aliyah under the law of return.

The Chronicle article contained a number of egregious factual errors, which editors apparently declined to correct. Instead, turning questions of fact into “he said/she said” arguments, editors subsequently appended a response from the Jewish Agency at the end of the article. It states, in part:
There are some very fundamental errors in the article. Most basically, The Jewish Agency has no authority to “refuse to allow” anyone into Israel. We are tasked with helping determine individuals’ eligibility to make Aliyah in accordance with the Law of Return. Ultimately, the determination of Aliyah eligibility, along with permission or refusal of entry into Israel to anyone who wishes to enter the country, is made by Israel’s Ministry of the Interior.

“That the individual in question converted to Islam is beyond dispute. It was not the Jewish Agency officials who “decided” that she had converted – she provided documents stating that she had, and copies of those documents were then passed along to the Ministry of the Interior, as are all relevant documents of any applicant for Aliyah from anywhere in the world. The Law of Return states explicitly that an individual who converts to another faith is not eligible to make Aliyah (see Law of Return [Amendment No. 2] 5730-1970: It is not The Jewish Agency’s prerogative to either accept or reject Aliyah applicants who have converted to other faiths – it is the law, which we are tasked with helping to implement.

“The individual in question submitted an application for an Aliyah visa for which she was not eligible in accordance with the Law of Return. Jewish Agency officials then 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. . .

The Haaretz and Times of Israel articles fared better than The Chronicle‘s. They both noted that the Jewish Agency suggested alternative solutions for “Gilda” such as traveling to Israel on a tourist visa given, that as a Jewish convert to Islam, she was no longer eligible to immigrate under the Law of Return. (Haaretz tweets on the subject, though, were wrong and misleading.) Also, the two Israeli media outlets, unlike the British Chronicle, stated as fact that she converted to Islam, instead of depicting her conversion as merely a JA determination.
Nevertheless, the Jewish Agency’s Palmor insists the Israeli journalists relied solely on The Chronicle without any independent research. In an exclusive to CAMERA, he writes that in the
original piece the author indicates that the names of the Syrians have been changed for their safety. So “Halabi” is not the real family name. It just means “from Aleppo” in Arabic. And the first names are also fictitious. All of which is fine, but funnily, in all the follow ups, whether they credit the JC or not, the invented names appear as the real names, without the necessary indication that they are made up.
While The Chronicle does note that the names are aliases, the other media outlets do not.
Furthermore, Palmor charges:
What the report missed is, of course, the real enticement behind the hasty journey: the family was living as Muslims among Muslims. That’s why all their relatives, who have left long ago and established themselves in the US, have cut all contact with them. Kahana promised them to take them to America, where they hoped to reunite and reconcile with the rest of the family.

Once in Istanbul – surprise! Kahana tells them it’s better to go to Israel? Why? The question has not been raised by any journalist. Kahana tries to get the converted woman reconverted to Judaism by a local Rabbi. But in Turkey, tempting a Muslim to convert to another religion is illegal. So the Istanbul community, probably scared by the mere idea, turns its back on Kahana and the Syrians.

That’s when Kahana drops the family on the Jewish Agency, presenting all sides with a fait accompli: no America for you! The JA official determines the eligibility of two women for Aliyah. They go to Israel (where they have no friends and no family), because they have no other choice. The third woman is clearly non-eligible for Aliyah visa (the Law of Return is very clear on this). The JA official cannot alter the law, but suggests the woman apply for a tourist visa, so that she can go to Israel and work things out with the Interior Ministry. This offer does not concern at this point the husband, an Arab Muslim regarding whom the Shabak has reservations due to his enrollment in the Assad regime’s security forces. Nor does it concern his three children from a previous marriage who have accompanied him (on a presumed trip to America, let’s not forget). The woman refuses to apply for any Israeli visa, touristic or humanitarian, and she and her husband leave Istanbul, probably returning to Syria.

Kahana blames the JA for preventing the woman’s entry to Israel, and even tries to cast doubt on her conversion (which she herself never denied!). Instead of seeing Kahana for what he is (a dangerous fraud and unreliable Aliyah vigilante), reporters are quick to tell their outraged readers the JA “banned,” “barred” or “prevented” the woman from coming to Israel when they know full well it was her choice not apply for entry visa after all.

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