Fake news jolted Kurdistan Region officials, and Kurdish Jewish leadership

Brick details at the Citadel in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region. Credit: the author.

Disclaimer

This report is part of a series. For several years, the Kurdish Jewish leadership in Israel has tried to build constructively on their historic ties with the Kurdistan Region, but has been obstructed by a small group of impostors who rightly saw the actual Kurdish Jews as a challenge to their scheme. The impostors were led by publicity-seeking figures such as Sherzad Omar Mahmoud and Ranjdar Abdulrahman (under the aliases “Sherzad Mamsani” and “Ranj Cohen”), as well as Sherko Othman. These scammers pleaded in the media for visa cards and visa stamps — for themselves and their clients — under the false pretense of being forgotten and dispossessed Jews. The National Association’s press statement on this issue is available here.

Kurdish Jews surprised by Rabbi Daniel Edri, a.k.a “Pini Edri”

In April 2020, the Facebook page @rabbikurdistan — a.k.a. “Rabbi Daniel Edri Kurdistan” — posted to the world, “I am the Rabbi of Iraqi Kurdistan region.” This resurrected an earlier claim from the same account. “Hello my friends from all over the world,” began a post in 2017, quoted by the Times of Israel. “Its Kurdistan have new Rabbi after 70 years. Its the first time after 70 years a Rabbi can start in Kurdistan the new Jewish life.”

The account was managed by Rabbi Daniel Edri, who was neither Kurdish nor from Kurdistan in any way, and who was best known as the chief of Haifa’s rabbinical court according to the Jerusalem Post. His personal effort to assert his own authority over the Kurdistan was, unsurprisingly, not welcomed by actual Kurdish Jews.

“Impostors have suggested a non-Kurd with no relationship to Kurdistan could have any sort of Chief Rabbi or other religious leadership role over Kurdistan,” said the National Association in a statement. “However, the National Association considers it natural and fundamental that whenever consultations with a Rabbi are needed, that the Rabbi is of Kurdish descent.”

Rabbi Daniel was initially recruited in 2017 by Sherzad Omar Mahmoud (a.k.a “Sherzad Mamsani”), the former Jewish representative for the Kurdistan Region, but who Rabbi Daniel admitted he knew was not Jewish. When Sherzad was fired, Rabbi Daniel moved onto relying on Mariwan Naqshbandy for connections. When Mariwan Naqshbandy was released from his high-ranking role, then Rabbi Daniel started relying on Ranjdar Abdulrahman, a.k.a. “Ranj Cohen” — another impostor, like Sherzad.

Refuted documents from Rabbi Daniel Edri

“Edri claimed that Kamal Muslim … appointed him chief rabbi of Kurdistan,” stated Rabbi Daniel in a Times of Israel report from 2018, referring to the former Minister of Endowment and Religious Affairs. Rabbi Daniel updated his story in 2020, when he began to claim the current Minister, Dr. Pshtiwan Sadiq, also either appointed or re-appointed him.

However, the Ministry totally denied Rabbi Daniel’s claims. According to the Ministry, neither the former Minister Muslim nor the current Minister Sadiq had appointed Rabbi Daniel into any role at any time. According to Ministry officials, there was not a Chief Rabbi nor had there ever been one in the Ministry’s history.

Rabbi Daniel Edri circulated this letter, which officials determined was inauthentic.

Rabbi Daniel Edri circulated a letter of appointment to be Chief Rabbi, and claimed that it was from the Minister himself. The Ministry dismissed it as counterfeit. The Minister’s name was misspelled, the contact information traced back to Sherzad, and the author had idiosyncratically capitalized some Hebrew words in the same style as Rabbi Daniel himself.

It was deeply concerning that a Rabbi would overlook obvious indications that a document might not be authentic — or was at least somehow compromised — especially if rabbinical work on Jewish concerns in the Kurdistan Region would almost certainly entail vetting many more documents.

Rabbi Daniel’s mega-synagogue for himself, and injunctions against Kurdish Jewish leadership

Rabbi Daniel seemed undisturbed and pressed onward despite his claims of being “Chief Rabbi” being rejected by both the Kurdistan Region’s Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, and the Kurdish Jews’ National Association.

Undeterred, Rabbi Daniel Edri began to circulate plans to rent a villa in Erbil, and eventually work up to establishing a 100,000 square meter campus with a synagogue, school, rabbinical residence, and numerous other facilities. His proposed synagogue alone was 2,300 square meters, at the center of a 25 acre development. “This is only for the few people from the Jewish community that I am trying to establish,” stated Rabbi Daniel quixotically. The total estimated cost for this synagogue mega-complex amounted to well over $10,000,000 in the project description on documents distributed by Edri.

Costings circulated by Rabbi Daniel Edri for his supposed project.

Rabbi Daniel started issuing non-binding injunctions against the Kurdish Rabbis, claiming that their supervision of the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum was not valid. Adding insult to injury, Rabbi Daniel repeatedly distributed news reports of Ranjdar Abdulrahman (a.k.a. “Ranj Cohen”) which falsely claimed that the Shrine had been transferred to Aramaic Organization, which promoted itself as a long-lost (but fake) Jewish congregation.

Stubborn media figures gathered behind Rabbi Daniel, Sherzad Omar, and Ranjdar Abdulrahman

“It is not my job,” replied Safin Hamed, when asked to fact-check his stories about Kurdish Jews with the appropriate designee at the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs. “When I see something interesting, I take pictures.”

Again and again, journalists ignored the National Association, the Ministry, and common sense when publishing stories about the impostors. These media professionals did not check their facts before publishing, defying editors’ and audiences’ assumptions that such big stories had any integrity or basis in reality.

Worse yet, many media professionals responded rudely when contacted by the Kurdish Jewish leadership. In the Kurdish Jewish society, prominent figures wanted what was best for their long-persecuted community, but were treated as an unwelcome inconvenience, or — at worst — as some sort of enemy to be dispatched. “You should contact the Awqaf, not me,” was Safin’s reply to entreaties from the National Association. This attitude made the work of the Kurdish Jews and the Ministry very difficult.

The truth was sometimes hidden or surprising, but it was the responsibility of any journalist to avoid repeating unverified claims, and instead to practice due diligence in discovering and confirming the truth. In story after story about supposedly long-lost Kurdish Jews praying, celebrating, and visiting their heritage sites, journalists such as Safin failed to do that, although he excelled both in the quantity of his coverage and the callousness of his approach.

Even after Safin claimed he considered the issue “from all sides” he still refused to send even a single reply to the Kurdish Jewish leadership. To add insult to injury, he kept feeding the impostor’s fake news apparatus with additional coverage that was published on international outlets such as the BBC.

About the Author
Levi Clancy lives in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan Region in Iraq, and is the founder of Foundation of Ours, which supports Jewish expression in the Kurdistan Region, and provides platforms for reconciliation and coexistence between all communities. He was born in Venice, California and moved to the KRI in 2014, after which he became involved in cultural, social, and religious affairs in addition to his work as a software developer, photographer, and videographer.
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