How ‘Sherzad Mamsani’ and ‘Ranj Cohen’ impersonated and fought Kurdish Jews

Sherzad Omar Mahmoud — a.k.a “Sherzad Mamsani” — often used symbols of Freemasonry alongside his posts about Jewish and Israeli topics. The Saddam regime had promoted the conspiracy theory that Freemasonry was a Jewish or Zionist principle. Credit: Sherzad Mamsani's official accounts.

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 men 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.

The fabricated Jewish past of Sherzad Omar Mahmoud, a.k.a. “Sherzad Mamsani”

Sherzad insisted that he was born Jewish, but at different times claimed three entirely different backstories: in one version, he had Jewish parents who raised the family as Jews; in another, he had Jewish parents who raised the family as Muslims; and in yet another, he had two Muslim parents, but with unsubstantiated Jewish ancestry on his mother’s side.

“My two grandmothers were Jews,” stated Sherzad in an interview where he explained that both of his parents were Jewish. “We celebrated Jewish holidays very secretly” and “never learned about Islam at home” explained Sherzad in another interview. However, his level of knowledge indicated otherwise. “Clearly his first,” remarked an unimpressed Rabbi about a religious dinner attended by Sherzad overseas. “Hanukah is the Jewish New Year,” explained Sherzad incorrectly in a television interview.

But at other times, Sherzad stated that his whole family “lived as Muslims” — and on this, there seemed to be some agreement. Sherzad’s brother Azad clarified that Sherzad came “from a family of Muslims” and offered photos of the family observing Ramadan, and doing the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Sherzad weakly suggested in a report that his father and brothers became Hajjis as a ruse and that they secretly were observant Jews.

But elsewhere, Sherzad completely reversed claims about having two Jewish parents. “Yes, my father is Muslim,” he boasted, in this alternative family history. Sherzad explained he had a “Kurdish Muslim father” and “takes pride in his mixed background” according to an interviewer, but he still insisted on having a Jewish mother. However, he variated his story again when explaining that his mother was not exactly Jewish, and was in fact a Muslim woman with some Jewish ancestry — or a “Ben Jew” for short. Did his mother agree? “She will not admit it,” explained Sherzad about his mother’s denial of his claims that she was Jewish, ironically stating to the press that she was discreet as a security precaution.

Ultimately, authorities in Israel investigated and concluded that Sherzad was not born Jewish, nor did he observe Judaism.

Sherzad’s claims of religious persecution

Sherzad claimed a long life of religious persecution — claims which were not only unsubstantiated, but in fact refuted by his former colleagues in the Kurdistan Region. He said the persecution began in 1997, when he supposedly published a book about the Kurdistan Region’s ties with Israel, at the age of just 20 years old.  The book, like his claims of Jewish origins, never materialized.

According to Sherzad, local Islamic fundamentalists attacked him three times after this purported book: once in 1997, when he said a bomb blew up at his doorway, which was his backstory for his missing hand; again in 2000, when a sniper with a silencer allegedly shot out his knee; and finally in 2003, when a bomb was placed under his car but detonated too early, thus sparing him but sending the car flying, according to his description of the event.

“Violent religious extremism had hurt everyone,” stated a 2017 report in Forbes about the Kurdistan Region’s religious representatives. Sherzad’s story about his hand was at the top of a list of violent incidents that Ezidis and Christians — actual ones, not impostors — had experienced for their respective beliefs.

However, Sherzad did not belong in that list of victims. He was an interloper, driven by avarice. For a non-Jew to abduct the role of Jewish representative was a result of — not in spite of — the violent religious extremism that had given him a cleared-out path away from rightful contenders. Furthermore, when analyzed, Sherzad’s misuse of the role for covetous and greedy purposes was in itself a religious abuse: his actions were a degradation of Judaism, of Jewish people, of Jewish ethics, and of Jewish law.

“Sherzad Mamsani” became the Jewish representative

Sherzad was not only appointed as the Jewish representative. He lobbied for the law which established that very position, and once the law was passed, then he was quickly placed into the newly created role, along with Sherko Othman Abdallah. However, Sherko remained mostly inactive except for a few rare interviews.

“In 2014, my Kurdish Jewish friends and I wrote a plan to bolster religious tolerance and help religions defend themselves,” stated Sherzad Omar in a Times of Israel report. “We first presented the plan to the communication and co-existence minister, Mariwan Naqshbandy, and then to the government.”

Article Five allowed any religious community to seek representation. The plain meaning of the law did not allow non-Jews to insert themselves as representatives as Jews. However, the impostors abused the law as a means to an end.

In a post from government official and public figure Mariwan Naqshbandy (center) that was dated to October 2015, Sherzad Omar, a.k.a “Sherzad Mamsani”, (left) and Sherko Othman Abdallah (right) celebrated their appointments as so-called Jewish representatives. Credit: Mariwan Naqshbandy’s official accounts.

Perhaps the most well-known event of Sherzad’s tenure was his memorialization of the Holocaust. This earned him substantial goodwill, which seemed to overshadow misgivings many had about him. This followed the tradition of other impostors around the world such as Bruno Dössekker and Laurel Rose Willson.

“Jews have been depicted in a bad light through education, through religion, through culture and media,” stated Sherzad in an interview with Times of Israel where he seemed to talk the talk, although his posts about Jewish cabals controlling the world, especially about Freemasonry, showed he did not walk the walk.

Sherzad was eventually fired

After being appointed in 2015, Sherzad went on trips around the world, he visited Israel, he spoke to US congress members, and enjoyed other perks. In 2017, his fraudulent behavior crumbled under scrutiny, and  he was dismissed from the Ministry.

“Would any rational person in Kurdistan, with radicals threatening them, say he is Jewish and risk his family’s lives?” remarked Sherzad to the Times of Israel. However, that was exactly what he had done, having made claims that as the Jewish representative he was working on entitlements to land, heritage sites, and funds.

Oddly, a familiar enabler named Mariwan Naqshbandy chimed in to deflect, claiming to the media that Sherzad had been dismissed based on pressure from Baghdad, instead of for being a fraud, although Mariwan confessed knowing “for some time” that Sherzad was an impostor — but insisted that was not why he had been fired as the Jewish representative.

Sherzad fled in disgrace to Germany, under accusations of serious misconduct, and multiple reports from Germany claimed he was continuing to pose as a Jew, this time requesting benefits as an asylum-seeker.

Sherzad maintained a small retinue of supporters for the several years he was in office as the Jewish representative for the Kurdistan Region (2015 – 2017) and for several years after while he was in Germany. There were some foreigners, including a Rabbi, who had expressed interest in helping and guiding Sherzad even after he was fired. However, he was not interested in their authentic path for him to pursue a Jewish life, and ultimately alienated them.

Ranjdar Abdulrahman, a.k.a. “Ranj Cohen”, began as a frequent but marginal presence

Ranjdar Abdulrahman, a.k.a. “Ranj Cohen”, at a cultural event in Erbil. Credit: the author.

Ranjdar Abdulrahman started his career as an impostor as an assistant to Sherzad. They went to official meetings and events together, where Sherzad introduced Ranjdar as a Kurdish Jew. From the beginning of his career as an impostor, Ranjdar went by the alias “Ranj Cohen” instead. After Sherzad was fired, Ranjdar began introducing himself as the Jewish representative in the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, although the Ministry denied that he ever had any role.

“Ranj Cohen” lacked any evidence of being Jewish, and inadvertently provided authorities with evidence to the contrary. He shared photos from a visit to the Jewish Museum of Turkey, but it was his claims of having been registered as Jewish generations earlier — claims that were easily disproved — which stood out, along with photos with a Rabbi and a Jewish woman, to whom he falsely claimed he was engaged.

“Ranj Cohen” and his fake congregation went straight to the media

Apparently rejected by conventional authorities after initial steps forward, and unable to follow the same pathway as Sherzad, Ranjdar circumvented the authorities by beginning to promote himself as the leader of a long-lost Jewish congregation.

Ranjdar (left) and Ari (right) celebrated their new organization. Credit: Aramaic Organization’s official accounts.

The “Aramaic Organization for the Development of Social Peace” (ڕێکخراوەی ئارامیک بۆ پەرەپێدانی ئاشتی کۆمەڵایەتی) was registered in September of 2019 as a regular non-profit organization through the Department of NGOs.

Ranjdar complained in a Times of Israel report that his submissions to the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs had been rebuffed, and to circumvent that obstacle, Ranjdar undertook a sleight of hand by registering a humanitarian organization and introducing it to the press as a religious congregation. The media described it as “Aramaic Organization, the Kurdish Jewish Organization” when interviewing Ranjdar.

On social media, Aramaic Organization’s official Facebook page signed its posts as “The Association of Jews from Kurdistan, Aramaic Organization” (کۆمەڵگەی جووەکانی کوردستان رێكخراوی ئارمیك) and similar variants. In some places, they dropped “Aramaic Organization” entirely and instead signed their posts simply as “The Association of Jews from Kurdistan” (کۆمەڵگەی جووەکانی کوردستان). They sometimes used “Kurdistan Jewish Community Aramic” as a shorthand, in broken English.

“Ranj Cohen” launched this congregational persona with a Hanukah-themed event in 2019 at the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum, apparently misunderstanding that generations ago, the Jewish community had done pilgrimages for Shavuot, not Hanukah.

The Shrine was a construction site that was locked and fenced when large banners for Aramaic Organization were draped over the walls, at least half a dozen flags were jabbed into sections of ancient mortar, a giant hanukyah in the Chabad style (but with a Magen David added) was dragged onto an unrestored portico, and members of the press were brought to photograph misplaced and discordant fragments of rituals.

Although this was the first such event, Ranjdar claimed to the press that his fake congregation of miscellaneous associates (all exclusively male) did annual pilgrimages. ”Ranj Cohen, a Kurdish Jew who participated in the festival, explained … that the Jewish community from the Kurdistan Region celebrates the ceremony annually at the final resting place of their prophet Nahum,” stated Kurdistan24. 

However, Ranjdar could not get his story straight, and said to AFP at the same event that it was “the first time we are celebrating Hanukkah in Iraqi Kurdistan.” On social media, he posted that it was the first time “after more than seventy years” that Hanukah had been celebrated at the Shrine. In another interview, he switched back to his original claim. “Nahum is our prophet, the prophet of the Jews,” stated Ranjdar in a Rudaw story. “Every year, we hold our religious ceremonies here because this shrine is holy to us.”

Ranjdar began to stage celebrations of other holidays, and collaborated several times with AFP and Getty Images correspondent Safin Hamed (a.k.a. Safin Hamid). Their initial collaboration on the Hanukah-themed event went viral. They followed it up with a Shabbat-themed photo shoot, and a spooky walk through abandoned homes which Ranjdar claimed were Jewish assets belonging to his community. Ranjdar was using social and traditional media to make his own facts.

As the photos went around the world, many people found ways to interpret them as positive news. Obvious errors in the rituals were overshadowed by the conclusion that there was bravery and resilience in even trying at all. The alternative conclusion, which was that these errors were because it was a fraudulent scheme, was so unsavory that many people wrote it off as too shocking to be true.

Misusing the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum to sow misinformation

“Do you have a synagogue in the Kurdistan Region?” asked one curious Rudaw reporter.

“We have a synagogue in Alqosh,” replied Ranjdar, referring to the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum, “and we do our prayers and worship there.” In that interview, he reiterated in Kurdish several times that the Shrine belonged to his fake congregation. 

“We are currently practicing our rituals mostly in the shrine of Prophet Nahum in Alqosh,” stated Ranjdar in a Shafaq interview. However, the site remained closed because it was an active construction site, for the safety of visitors and preservation of the work, and any suggestion to the contrary was verifiably untrue.

In another interview, Ranjdar stated that he had taken over the renovation, and had transferred responsibility away from the authentic Kurdish Jewish leadership.

These claims were totally baseless, but Ranjdar kept working to litter the public record with his assertions about the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum and other issues. However, his petitions were deemed unacceptable by both the authentic Kurdish Jewish leadership as well as the Kurdistan Regional Government. Officials with the keys to the Shrine felt he should no longer be allowed to even visit.

Ranjdar at the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum, which he said then belonged to his fake Jewish congregation. Credit: Aramaic Organization’s official accounts.

A less-than-committed fake congregation

Ranjdar gave an interview to Shafaq where he stated that the names of supposedly Jewish families in Kurdistan were now “in the Israeli Immigration and Displaced Ministry’s possession” and ready for aliyah. This was untrue, according to Israeli officials.

But who exactly was in this fake congregation? When following up with those who were interviewed or appeared in photos, these impostors confessed they were less than committed to their previous claims. It emerged that they were a ragtag crew of various men (exclusively men) who, aside from Ranjdar’s own brother, generally fell into two categories.

Some claimed to have distant Jewish ancestry and incorrectly thought this automatically conveyed Jewish status and a pathway to immigration. Others were just interested in Jewish topics. However, Ranjdar had presented them as an authentic and ancient Jewish community that was coming out from the shadows.

Aramaic Organization pounded the pavement

Aramaic Organization quickly began an outreach campaign. After the viral Hanukah-themed event, Aramaic Organization staged visits to many places including the Shrine of Be Hezane in Amedi, and Ranjdar made sure never to forget a tallit and a kippah to use as props.

Credit: Aramaic Organization’s official accounts.

Aramaic Organization posted photos of “a visit to Lalash Temple to consolidate the relationship between Yazidis and Kurdish Jews” on behalf of Aramaic Organization. Another dialogue with Ezidi figures was described as a “visit of the delegation of the Jews of Kurdistan” which featured Ranjdar front and center along with many of the same impostors from the fake Hanukah.

Mariwan Naqshbandy, who had supported Sherzad, showed his support for Ranjdar and Aramaic Organization on social media, with comments like “Great work!” and other encouragement. This was odd behavior, as Mariwan explained in interviews for this report that Ranjdar “only pretends to be a Jew” yet continued supporting him even after making those remarks.

Ranjdar and Ari Sewar Ismail

From December through March, Ranjdar was inseparable from his associate Ari Sewar Ismael, who had made earlier splashes in the media as an impostor claiming to be a Jewish Peshmerga.

“Meet Ary Ismail, the high-ranking Jewish commander of Kurdistan’s Peshmerga,” boasted an interview with Ami Magazine. “It was during one his harshest battles that he resolved to live out the rest of his life as a proud Jew if he survived.” The story tugged at one’s heart strings.

Like Ranjdar, at first Ari had just engaged in interviews and other attention-seeking behavior here and there. However, at the end of 2019, the two organized together and commenced on a high-visibility media plan in which Mariwan Naqshbandy seemed to be the only other recurring figure.

However, just a few months after the viral Hanukah event, Ari was arrested as part of a criminal investigation. Ranjdar generally appeared alone after that.

Dangerous paranoias presented as facts

Sherzad, Ranjdar, and Aramaic Organization indulged in paranoias about Jews and Israel that ranged from geopolitical theories to claims that Prime Minister Netanyahu himself supported the impostors.

At one point, Aramaic Organization and Ranjdar circulated a “Greater Israel” map about a supposed Israeli plan to apply sovereignty from the Nile to the Euphrates, a common but incorrect belief in the Islamic world which was frequently used to justify continued aggression against the tiny country. At another point, Ranjdar posted a cartoon featuring Nazi-style caricatures with a caption about the “advantage” that Jews had.

Whether about Freemasonry, Israeli expansion, or Jews having direct lines to global control, these paranoias were dangerous, but all related to power, control, and fear. Sometimes they were spread through public posts, and other times through conversations and group chats. The impostors leaned heavily on bluffing that Jewish cabals existed, and that they shared the same deck.

The Mossad logo (left) was the basis for the Aramaic Organization logo (right). Credit: Wikipedia; Aramaic Organization’s official accounts.

Ranjdar Abdulrahman co-opted the mythology about Israel and Mossad for Aramaic Organization, both in personal introductions and in the organization’s logo, which copied the seal of the State of Israel and the arrangement of the intelligence agency’s emblem. By portraying Aramaic Organization not only as a Jewish organization, but also as a Mossad front, Ranjdar made a move that was ignorant and dangerous.

The problem was not about Israel nor Mossad. The problem was about how dehumanizing and degrading it was for Jews and Jewish congregations — even fake ones — to be viewed by the public as proxies. For many thousands of people in Kurdistan, their first impression of a local and supposedly Jewish congregation confirmed antisemitic assumptions that circulated in popular media.

The goal seemed to be to leverage conspiracy theories about Israel and Mossad having near-limitless power, as well as to engender incorrect assumptions that such brazen behavior was proof of official authorization.

Pretending to be Jewish was harmful and zero-sum

“False claims of being Jewish in fact only serve two things: to degrade Jewish tradition and Jewish law; and to push away the community of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Kurdistan who are striving for reconciliation,” said the National Association of Jews from Kurdistan in Israel, in a statement.

The impostors tried to establish themselves as representatives, but represented only themselves. A Venn Diagram of the impostors and the authentic Kurdish Jews would be two totally separate circles. Furthermore, the impostors wanted to erase  the second circle: they treated the authentic Kurdish Jewish leadership as competition to be excommunicated.

“While previous generations exiled the Jews from Kurdistan, such impostors seek to repeat this expulsion in spirit,” said the National Association in a statement.

Lying and fabrication was not standard behavior for people with benevolent goals. It was standard behavior for interlopers driven by avarice. The sob stories they shopped around were rapacious and deceitful.

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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