Aaron Klein, Jerusalem bureau chief for the popular WorldNetDaily news website, was prevented last week from entering Syria, where he planned to interview officials from Syria, Lebanon and the U.S., as well as co-host ABC Radio's nationally syndicated "The John Batchelor Show," because, according to at least one official in the Syrian embassy, he's Jewish.
The move hit especially close to home for some within the Lubavitch community because Klein is a member of Chabad.
Klein, an American citizen whose family has resided in the United States for five generations, is currently working full-time for WND. He grew up in Pennsylvania, where he attended Lubavitcher Center of Greater Philadelphia. His personal rabbi is Chairman of the International Agudas Chasidei Chabad, Rabbi Avraham Shemtov.
Klein, ABC Radio's John Batchelor, along with Batchelor's producer Lee Mason, made arrangements to travel to Damascus with the Syrian embassy in the U.S., in advance of their trip.
All three were told last week by Ammar al-Arsan, the press attache for the Syrian embassy in Washington, that the applications for the visas were approved, and that Damascus had sent an approval letter that would permit them to enter the country from Amman, Jordan on Thursday.
However, when the trio arrived in Amman, they were told there was a problem with the application. They met with Eyad Alarfi, assistant to consul general in Amman, who could provide no information about what was holding up the visa. Later, Alarfi said visa approvals were granted for Batchelor and Mason, but not for Klein.
Klein was put on the phone with an official from the Ministry of Information in Damascus who declined to provide his name. At first he refused to suggest why Klein had been singled out and prevented from entering the country. Later, however, he asked: "What religion are you?"
Klein said he refused to answer.
"You know what you are," said the official.
Mason, who made the initial arrangements for visas with Syrian media representative al-Arsan, said a red flag was immediately raised when Klein's name was mentioned.
He reportedly told her it would be better if Klein did not go. She asked if it was because he is Jewish. Al-Arsan replied: "Yes, it is."
Batchelor and Mason decided to leave the Syrian embassy without their visas.
"It seems like it's 1938 and Czechoslovakia all over again," said Batchelor. "Aaron told me to go on to Syria and broadcast. But I told him that if I was to leave him behind, the enemy has won a victory. What we represent to the people of Jordan and Syria is that we don't separate people on the basis of race, color or creed."
Later, another official in the Syrian embassy told Klein he didn't think he was being singled out because he's Jewish, but rather because he is a Jerusalem-based correspondent.
However, Klein pointed out that other non-Jewish Jerusalem-based correspondents, including Fox News Channel's Jennifer Griffin, have recently been granted visas by Syria.
Imad Moustapha, Syria’s ambassador to the U.S., came on The John Batchelor Show in response to the incident, and said, "We are a sovereign country and we have the right to decide who enters and who does not."
Moustapha, though, refused to answer the one question Klein had for him.
"Will you issue me a journalist visa to enter Syria?" Klein asked.
Moustapha attempted to change the subject and Klein asked him again.
When Moustapha still refused to answer, Batchelor interrupted, "Mr. Ambassador, will you issue a journalist visa to Aaron Klein, yes or no?"
Moustapha's "That's not the question" drew a sharp response from Batchelor who told Moustapha he took his refusal as a no and terminated the call.
Klein told Shterum.net that Syria's rejection of him highlighted many of the values he learned growing up in a Chabad household.
Said Klein: "Too often, American Jews become overly comfortable with the secular attitude of the Western world. They forget where they come from and the kind of life they are supposed to live. Sometimes it takes a reminder from our enemies that not too long ago, six million of our people were killed simply because of their Jewish faith. Let's not forget it can happen again anywhere, and that there are unfortunately still plenty of places in the world, especially in the Middle East, where anti-Semitic attitudes still prevail."
"Interestingly, though, Chabad and Syria have one thing in common, although it is applied at polar extremes," Klein continued. "And that is both realize a Jew is a Jew. For Syria, it means I cannot enter their country, and for Chabbad it means I cannot be denied. I have seen throughout my life the way Chabbad accepts all kinds of Jews because, to them, like to Syria, all Jews are ultimately one and the same."
Klein's parents were brought up in secular homes. Just before they were married, they began attending classes led by Shemtov, who ended up officiating at their wedding and helping them to establish a traditional Jewish home.
Klein attended Orthodox Jewish schools his entire life from nursery at Beth Jaacob of Elkins Park, Pa., through high school at Torah Academy of Philadelphia, and college at Yeshiva University, where he served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.
Klein continues to petition the Syrian government for a visa.
Meanwhile, Lebanese leaders have blasted foe Syria's refusal of Klein.
Walid Jumblatt, a veteran politician and head of Lebanon's Progressive Socialist Party said, "This is absolutely ridiculous. Syria is out of control. There is no reason in the world Klein should be denied entry into Syria. He should sue the Syrian government."
Jumblatt said if Syria indeed banned Klein because of his Jewish faith, the move would represent "a new low for the Syrian regime. They are getting so desperate they would coddle (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon just to get out of their problems. Meanwhile they do this? (Rejecting Klein's visa) is just a stupid, stupid thing."
Lebanese parliamentary member Abdullah Hanna called Syria's rejection of Klein "a very irresponsible decision. It seems this is their policy, to not let certain people in. I hope there will be a day when these unfortunate things don't happen in our region."
A pro-Syrian Lebanese leader, who asked his name be withheld, commented, "Did Klein actually think they would let him in? Not only is he Jewish, but he's written articles against Syria."