In Iraqi Kurdistan, a Jewish Past Comes to Life

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The Kurds are the world’s largest ethnic group without a state of their own. As they prepare for possible independence, they are reaching out to both Israel and their own Jewish community.

Prayers were said, speeches made, and candles lit in memory of the six million Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust. It seemed like any other remembrance service held on Yom HaShoah. Yet it was anything but ordinary. It was history in the making. For the first time, the Holocaust was being marked by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq.

The Jewish Remembrance Day for Victims of the Holocaust in Kurdistan was organized by the Office of the Jewish Representative, a special department within the Kurdistan Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, as part of a wider push by the KRG to foster a climate of peaceful coexistence between people of different religious backgrounds.

In a region torn apart by endemic sectarian violence and just a few miles away from where the KRG’s Peshmerga army is engaged in a brutal fight with the genocidal terrorist organization ISIS, the KRG is a sanctuary of religious pluralism. While Islamic extremists indiscriminately slaughter, torture, and enslave the young and old for being a Yazidi or a Christian, the KRG has taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and other parts of Iraq, many of whom belong to persecuted ethnic and religious minorities.

But that is not the end of the story. The KRG offers more than just clean water, hot meals, and a roof over the heads of refugees. Last year, the government passed the Law of Minorities and appointed official representatives for all religious communities in Iraqi Kurdistan, including Jews, Mandaeans, Baha’is, Kaka’is, Shi’a Muslims, and Zoroastrians. Previously, only Sunni Muslims and Christians had representation. This is an unprecedented initiative by a Muslim-majority government in the modern Middle East, where minorities are often systematically persecuted or worse.

“Nowhere in the Islamic world do religious minorities enjoy the same rights they enjoy in Israel and Kurdistan.”

Sherzad Omar Mamsani, the KRG’s first Jewish representative, has been tasked with a monumental challenge—the revival of Kurdistan’s ancient Jewish history and culture, which was suppressed 70 years ago. When anti-Jewish discrimination and persecution reached unprecedented levels after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the vast majority of the 2,800-year-old Iraqi Jewish community was forced to flee the country. Culminating in a series of airlifts between 1950 and 1952—known as Operation Ezra and Nehemia—nearly 130,000 Iraqi Jews, about three-quarters of the community, were evacuated to Israel. Those who remained had to worship in secrecy or convert to Islam. The total number of people of Jewish origin living in Iraqi Kurdistan today is unknown, but it is estimated to be in the thousands. The KRG speaks of at least 300-400 families with Jewish roots.

In Mamsani, the government has chosen a veteran campaigner for Jewish rights who is deeply committed to restoring the ancient bond between Kurds and Jews, something he quite literally embodies. Born in 1976 to a Kurdish Muslim father and a Jewish mother, he takes pride in his mixed background. Before joining the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, he was involved in an organization called Israel Kurd and published a local magazine under the same name. But Mamsani paid a high price for his courageous activism. After the release of his book on Kurdish-Jewish relations in 1997, he received death threats and eventually lost his right hand in an attack carried out by Islamic extremists. Religious fanatics have physically harmed him three times since. Though they succeeded in mutilating his body, they failed to take away his commitment to the cause. When ISIS captured large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014, Mamsani, despite his disabilities, volunteered to fight with the Peshmerga before accepting the role of Jewish Representative in October 2015.

What makes Mamsani’s appointment unique is the nature of his mandate. Even Iran, the world’s leading sponsor of anti-Semitism, has representation for its Jewish population. The difference, however, is that the KRG has given real powers to the Office of the Jewish Representative. Mamsani is more than a token appointment. He is not just an instrument that serves the sole purpose of rejecting accusations of anti-Semitism to further the political schemes of a rogue regime. “Unlike [Iran], we see Israel and Kurdistan as the two countries in the Middle East where people of all religions and identities can come together and coexist peacefully,” Mamsani told me. “Religious freedom in the region is severely restricted, and nowhere in the Islamic world do religious minorities enjoy the same rights they enjoy in Israel and Kurdistan.”

Since his appointment, Mamsani and his team have been busy translating words into action. “Our main goal is to establish strong ties between Kurdistan and religions of all kinds, not just on paper but in practice,” he explained. The Jewish Remembrance Day for Victims of the Holocaust in Kurdistan was held in the garden of Mamsani’s office in the Kurdish capital Erbil, alongside a small exhibition in which the crimes of the Holocaust were illustrated to the local population. The American, French, and Russian consulates sent diplomats, and high-ranking Kurdish officials were joined by members of the Assyrian Christian Church. Also in attendance were Kurds of Jewish heritage, something many of them had never before acknowledged in public.

The event revolved around the theme of genocide, an experience shared by Kurds and Jews. As many as 180,000 Kurds lost their lives during the genocidal al-Anfal campaign, carried out by Iraqi Ba’athists under the leadership of Saddam Hussein. Between April 1987 and August 1988, approximately 250 Kurdish towns and villages were exposed to poisonous gas—the first time a regime used chemical weapons against its own population. The consequences of the al-Anfal campaign are felt to this day: In the town of Halabja in northern Iraq, Kurdish babies are still being born disabled and disfigured because of chemicals passed on by their parents. “The Kurdish and Jewish people are tied together by their experience of genocide,” Mamsani believes. “We never want to see another Holocaust. We never again want to see chemical weapons used against innocent Kurds and Jews.”

The Office of the Jewish Representative is making concrete efforts to compensate Kurdish Jews for the crimes committed against them. Acknowledging the injustices they have suffered was first on the agenda. On November 30, 2015, the mass exodus of the Jews from Iraq was commemorated in a groundbreaking ceremony in Erbil, on the same day that the state of Israel marks the departure and forced expulsion of Jews from Arab lands. Over 400 people attended the event, including leading Kurdish imams. Mamsani was pleased with the result, but says more work needs to be done.

Photo: Sherzad Mamsani

Sherzad Mamsani lights a candle at a ceremony to commemorate the Holocaust. Photo: Sherzad Mamsani

According to Article 58 of Iraq’s constitution of 2005, measures should be taken to reverse the Arabization process that the Hussein regime imposed on minorities, which led to homes and properties being seized and language, culture, and religious customs outlawed. The constitution calls on the government to return the homes (or provide compensation) to people who were deported, expelled, or who emigrated; provide them with employment opportunities; and allow them to determine their own national identities and ethnic affiliations.

Mamsani explained that Kurds of Jewish heritage are covered under the provision and can petition the central government in Baghdad for what is rightfully theirs in the form of money, property, and the right to return to their homeland under a valid Iraqi passport. But the reconciliation process has been impeded by ongoing tensions between the KRG and the central government over land and oil revenue, as well as the fight against ISIS. “The Iraqi government so far has refused to act upon this policy, and thousands of Kurdish families are still waiting for compensation,” Mamsani told me. “This provision is not only of significance for Kurdish Muslims but other religious minorities like Yazidis, Christians, and Jews.”

But giving up is not in his vocabulary. A large set of issues require his office’s attention, and the question of compensation is just one component of the complex mandate he has been entrusted with. Since most Jewish cultural heritage and the community’s entire religious infrastructure were destroyed under the iron grip of the Ba’athists, Jewish life in Iraqi Kurdistan needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

Mamsani’s dedication to the Jewish community has not been impeded by the regional upheaval that has shaken Iraqi Kurdistan.

Soon, people from all ethnic and religious backgrounds can learn about Judaism and the region’s rich and ancient Jewish history in Iraqi Kurdistan’s first Jewish cultural center, one of Mamsani’s flagship projects. The center will also provide opportunities for Kurds of Jewish origin to practice Judaism by receiving religious instruction from a rabbi. Many of them are not familiar with the traditions and customs of their own faith due to the persecution under the Ba’athists that went hand in hand with the Arabization and Islamization of the country.

Mamsani’s dream is to eventually open a synagogue in “every town,” an idea that was unspoken for many decades. He has also been given permission by the KRG to invest in the construction of Jewish infrastructure, including burial sites and the restoration of historical Jewish landmarks such as the tombs of the prophets Nahum, Daniel, and Eliezer.

Most projects funded by the KRG have been put on hold due to the acute financial crisis facing the Kurdistan region, a result of the mass influx of refugees and lack of monetary assistance from Baghdad and the international community. The KRG currently hosts two million internally displaced people, mostly from the provinces of Anbar and Mosul, and some 250,000 refugees from Syria. Together, they make up an astonishing 35 percent of the total population of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The dire situation has impeded but not stopped Mamsani’s work. Making a difference does not necessarily require a lot of money; chutzpah can be a currency just as valuable. With the Office of the Jewish Representative leading by example, Kurds of Jewish origin have found the courage to wear religious symbols in public for the first time in decades—a sight only their grandparents can remember. Tears were shed when they saw their grandchildren shaking off a taboo that had an immeasurably destructive impact on their identity for the better part of their lives. Those moments make the risks and hardship of his job worthwhile, Mamsani says.

He himself wears a knitted kippah, typically signifying someone’s support for the Zionist movement, something Mamsani is aware and proud of. Crucially, he is not just a friend of the Jewish people; he is also an unapologetic advocate for the Jewish state. “I am not a politician, but I believe that Kurdistan cannot go without the help of Israel and that Israel has a partner in Kurdistan for its greater good,” he told me.

Sherzad Mamsani meets with Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. Photo courtesy of Sherzad Mamsani

Sherzad Mamsani meets with Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. Photo courtesy of Sherzad Mamsani

Mamsani has visited Israel several times in a private capacity, freely sharing pictures of himself with IDF soldiers, Orthodox rabbis, and prayers at the Western Wall on social media. “In Jerusalem, I smelled the scent of thousands of years of ancestry—it was like a rebirth,” he recalled. “I sensed that the Israelis have a deep appreciation for the Kurdish people.” For Mamsani, Israel is a symbol of indomitable fortitude and endurance. “It was a huge surprise to see how a tiny state, surrounded by enemies, developed into an advanced society in just over 65 years and into a democracy that should serve as an example in the region,” he said, adding “for me, Israel is like a beautiful flower that grew in a dry desert.”

Returning for the first time since taking on the role as the KRG’s Jewish representative, he visited Israel in March 2016 as part of a Kurdish-Yazidi delegation. The group took a guided tour of Yad Vashem and the Old City, participated in a Shabbat dinner, and held meetings with Knesset members. His team is committed to building bridges between people. But they also want to strengthen formal ties between Israel and the Kurdistan region, a mutually beneficial partnership.

So far, Jerusalem and Erbil have followed a policy of caution; the decades-long relationship between Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan takes place mainly through secret diplomacy. The KRG, as the government of a non-Arab, Muslim-majority region in the Middle East, is at the center of extreme political and social forces, making a partnership with Israel a risky proposition. While the Kurds have little appetite to enter into open confrontation with their Arab neighbors, Israel has been wary of undermining Washington’s stubborn insistence on a unified Iraq at the expense of Kurdish independence.

But times have changed. As ISIS threatens the stability of Iraq and Israel reassesses its foreign policy due to the breach with the Obama administration over the nuclear agreement with Iran, both Israel and the Kurds have reconsidered their relationship with each other. Several factors that had previously inhibited improved relations have now disappeared.

As a result of the fight against ISIS, the Kurds have expanded their territory in northern Iraq, including the strategically valuable city of Kirkuk that, with its large oil wealth, could make an independent Kurdish state economically viable. The KRG has openly signaled its intention to hold a referendum on independence in the near future, and leading Israeli politicians have voiced their support for the move, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former president Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.

The Kurds, Netanyahu said, “are a fighting people that has proved its political commitment, political moderation, and deserves political independence.” Peres lauded the democratic nature of the Kurdistan region: “The Kurds have, de facto, created their own state, which is democratic. One of the signs of a democracy is the granting of equality to women.” Shaked insisted that “it is time to help them,” adding that the Kurds are “peace-loving people that have never attacked any country.”

Israel has traditionally been wary of embracing Kurdish independence, but the region’s recent shifts could provide an opportunity for both sides to further embrace.

Israel could well be among the first countries to recognize a Kurdish state, should Erbil declare independence from Baghdad. In return, the KRG is likely to establish ties with Israel. The Kurds have never been in conflict with Israel, nor do they harbor any enmity towards the Jewish people. In fact, Iraqi Kurdistan is notable for its lack of anti-Semitism.

“Israel can offer much in the way of friendship and support to Kurdistan, a forlorn and oppressed nation with shared values, geography, and history. In return, Kurdistan can offer support for Israel’s democracy and economy, and stand by its side in the face of our shared enemies,” Mamsani said. “[We hope] to create a mutual alliance against terror and genocide. This is not just my own view, but a sentiment shared by Kurdish politicians and intellectuals alike.” Mamsani’s statement was echoed by his colleague Mariwan Naqshbandi, official spokesperson of the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, who told Haaretz, “Kurdistan has no problem with other cultures and religions. Kurds love Israel, and Israel supports our state. If Israel ever opens an embassy in Baghdad, it will open a second one in Erbil.”

Since it is unlikely that either Mamsani or Naqshbandi, and certainly not both, would make such bold statements without the blessing of their superiors, the KRG seems to have renounced its previously passive approach in favor of exercising a more vocal position on Israeli-Kurdish relations. The move comes at a time when Israel provides discreet but essential financial assistance to the KRG in the fight against ISIS.

Between May and August 2015, more than a third of all oil exports from the Kurdistan region were shipped to Israel via the Turkish port of Cevhan. That means Israel imported more than three-quarters of its oil from the KRG, the equivalent of 19 million barrels worth $1 billion, according to data obtained by the Financial Times. Unsurprisingly, the trade was condemned by the central government in Baghdad. Like the majority of countries in the Middle East, Iraq refuses to recognize Israel and views it as an enemy state.

Ironically, it is precisely the magnitude of the hostility toward Israel that makes it a natural ally of the KRG. “Israel is surrounded by enemies; likewise, Kurdistan is surrounded by foes. In the Middle East, there exists no stronger friendship than that between Kurds and Jews,” Mamsani told me. Both people have suffered greatly at the hands of the Arab nations, and both Kurds and Jews are entrapped in an existential battle for their homeland as non-Arabs in an Arab-dominated region. “Having a two-way relationship between the countries—political, economic, military, cultural, and religious ties—can help to bring about a more stable and peaceful Middle East,” Mamsani concluded.

The revival of Jewish life in Iraqi Kurdistan is a brave and courageous undertaking in a region characterized by the systematic persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, and lethal anti-Semitism in particular. The KRG faces a unique challenge, but also a substantial opportunity, to demonstrate that Muslims and Jews are not destined to live in perpetual conflict.

Banner Photo: Wikimedia