On a day to celebrate the coming of the Kurdish New Year, Sherzad Omer Mamsani placed his right hand on his front door and felt it explode. It was 1997, and Mamsani had just published his book on Jewish and Kurdish relations. The work sparked the ire of local Islamists, who responded to the offense with daily threats against its author that culminated with an attempt to end his life.
Thankfully, they failed. Nearly two decades later, Mamsani continues to eagerly share his passion for the rich, sometimes analogous histories of Jews and Kurds. The Islamists that tried to silence him were caught and executed by Kurdish security forces three years after the attack.
Other threats have since risen near the relative oasis of Iraqi Kurdistan, where Mamsani currently serves as the Kurdish Regional Government’s first director of Jewish affairs. Yet while the Islamic State’s shadow extends across and beyond the Kurdish territory, Mamsani remains undeterred from his mission of advancing Jewish-Kurdish ties. With the help of Mariwan Naqshbandy, the KRG’s director of religious coexistence, Mamsani overcame opposition, including from the Iranian and Palestinian envoys to the KRG, and was approved as the first director of his office last year.
The Iranian and Palestinian diplomats “put pressure on me personally, and they also put pressure on the government because they said I’m behind that [initiative],” Naqshbandy told The Tower. They wrote official letters to the KRG’s president, parliament, and prime minister in an effort to have him fired after 25 years of civil service, claiming that the KRG was making a mistake “by allowing the communities of religious minorities to have representatives, especially the Jewish one,” recalled Naqshbandy, who kept copies of their letters. “But the leaders of the Kurdish government, they didn’t listen to them, they kept me in my position and gave me freedom. But they told me to be sensitive…because we don’t want to stir [trouble].”
Naqshbandy held a referendum on social media and found overwhelming support for allowing Jewish Kurds to have a representative in the KRG. “One of the questions that I asked of all the Kurdish people was, do you want us to have a relationship with Israel, and all the votes came yes, yes, yes. They said we have the right to have a relationship with Israel and the Israelis are our friends,” he added.
Thanks to Naqshbandy’s efforts, Mamsani now serves as an official liaison between the KRG and the handful of families under its auspices that claim Jewish descent. Mamsani suspects that there are hundreds more Kurds that observe Jewish traditions, but are too afraid to do so publicly. He himself can relate—while growing up, his own Jewish identity was a family secret.
Mamsani was born in his mother’s hometown of Kirkuk, and claims his Jewish heritage from her. Although his father is a Sunni Muslim who once served with the Peshmerga, the Iraqi Kurdish military forces, he recalls a childhood filled with lessons of Jewish prophets and ways of worship. It was also one marked by frequent displacement, as Saddam Hussein’s forces ravaged Kurdish communities in northern Iraq and repeatedly forced Mamsani’s family and many others to flee.
“In that time, every village we moved to was destroyed,” Mamsani told The Tower. His family ultimately found refuge in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, after Hussein’s attacks intensified in 1988 with the seven-month Anfal campaign. Virtually 90 percent of Kurdish villages were razed, and an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Kurds were murdered or “disappeared” during this time, according to Human Rights Watch. The devastating operation, marked by the largest chemical attack against a civilian population in history, has since been recognized as a genocide by several Western parliaments.
Mamsani grew into adulthood in Erbil, where he first began exploring his roots and ultimately committed himself to advocating on behalf of Jews and the Kurdish people. As a KRG official, he is now tasked with helping Jews recover stolen possessions and lands, as well as restoring holy sites and carrying out interfaith educational initiatives. The cash-strapped KRG hopes these programs will help promote Jewish tourism and attract investment from abroad.
One of his goals is to open a community center for the study of the Hebrew language and religious tolerance. Another is to help raise awareness of a national identity card law that the Iraqi parliament passed in October, which Mamsani and Naqshbandy say threatens the future of Kurdish religious minorities if Erbil is never granted independence from Baghdad. Two provisions in the law—one mandating that the child of any non-Muslim parent who converts to Islam be registered as a Muslim, the second allowing non-Muslims to switch their religion to Islam, while Muslims cannot convert away from the faith—have sparked outrage in Erbil.
“If we stay under the Iraqi country, we need the pressure on the Iraqi government to change some constitutions and articles in their parliament. The other option is independence,” said Naqshbandy. He smiled as he indicated his preference for the latter option, but lamented that Washington has not applied much pressure on Baghdad either way. “Because of Obama, it’s like the U.S. is out of the picture. This is why it’s very hard for the Americans to put pressure on the Iraqi government.”
Despite this, Naqshbandy and Mamsani hold on to hopes of finding support for their efforts in Washington and other friendly capitals, including Jerusalem.
“While we have 23 Muslims and Arab countries around us, none of them recognized or supported the Kurdish existence, or the Kurdish idea, or the Kurdish identity. Only Israel. Only Israel in the whole of that region, from all the 23 countries, said we are supportive of the identity of the Kurds, and we are supporting and standing with them,” Mamsani explained.
“My wish is to see the embassy or the consulate of Israel open in Kurdistan and the Kurdish consulate open in Jerusalem. And have direct flights from Erbil to Tel Aviv,” he continued. His ministry’s commemoration of the exodus of Kurdish and Iraqi Jews to Israel in the 1950s drew around 200 Kurdish Muslims, Mamsani observed, even though invitations were only issued to a few people.
“They have love, and they have really a soft heart towards Israel, and also towards us as Jewish Kurds,” he said. It’s a tie that Mamsani believes stems from painful histories of persecution and extends to shared strategic interests in the Middle East.
Ultimately, he said after a pause, “we feel for each other.”