Impostors, claiming to be long-lost Jews, appear in Kurdistan

Sunset in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Credit: the author.
Sunset in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq. 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.

2010: Israel-Kurd Magazine

The current impostor phenomenon began in 2010, when Israel-Kurd Magazine was founded in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq by Mawlud Afend, Dawud Baghestani, Hawar Bazyan, and Sherzad Omar Mahmoud (a.k.a. “Sherzad Mamsani”).

Israel-Kurd Magazine was published in Kurdish, and was a turning point in the Kurdistan Region regarding visibility for Jews, Judaism, and Israel. However, the individuals behind this venture were neither Jews nor Israelis, and antisemitic conspiracy theories were sometimes published as established facts. Overall, Israel-Kurd Magazine showed a lack of understanding and awareness on behalf of the publishers regarding Jewish and Israeli identity.

The magazine lasted for just over a year, until its co-founder Mawlud Afend returned to Iran, and continued with a career in journalist. According to one person closely linked to the magazine, the closure was primarily due to political pressure. “It was clear that pro-Iranian agents in the region played in the matter,” wrote one of the founders in an interview for this report. “KRG and Kurdish security services recommended we close this sensitive line.”

A proposal to Mariwan Naqshbandy: Origins of the impostors’ plan

Israel-Kurd Magazine’s founders had traveled to Israel on a well-publicized visit. Media coverage of the visit lent them just enough credibility in Kurdistan for some to begin presenting themselves as Jews. In this manner, a trend began of impostors claiming to be Jewish, thereby going from advocates to interlopers.

“I began to wear Jewish clothing, looking like any other Jew,” stated Sherzad in a Times of Israel interview. “I and all my Jewish friends wear kippahs now.”

In 2014, the impostors began working with Mariwan Naqshbandy, an official at the Ministry of Endowment of Religious Affairs in the Kurdistan Region. Together, they developed a law for granting representation in the Ministry to all religious groups. Parliament passed the law in 2015 as Article Five, and just weeks later, Mariwan nominated Sherzad Omar and Sherko Othman as religious representatives for Jews. The Minister quickly confirmed the nomination.

It is important to note that when challenged, Sherzad and others like him were unable to produce a shred of evidence that could confirm — or even lend credence — to their claims of being Jewish. Later, Mariwan admitted that the Ministry made these nominations without conducting any due diligence,such as consulting with authentic Kurdish Jewish leadership in Israel, or evaluating the claimant’s credentials.

With the confirmation letters in hand, Sherzad, Sherko, and Mariwan cheerily posed for a photo which Mariwan published to his followers. These nominations of non-Jews into positions of leadership over Jewish issues in Kurdistan stunned the Kurdish-Jewish leadership in Israel.

The Kurdish Jewish leadership in Israel pushed back

“Not even one Jew [is] left in Kurdistan,” said Siman-Tov Abraham, the former chairman of the National Association, in a Jerusalem Post report.

“There is no Jewish community in Kurdistan,” added Dr. Mordechai Zaken, who in addition to representing the National Association, is also head of Minority Affairs at the Ministry of Public Security.

The Kurdistan Region’s elevation of non-Jewish impostors to oversee Jewish affairs in the Kurdistan region may not have been deliberately ill-intentioned, but it was not a benign act. It was an insult heaped upon the injury of the Jewish expulsions decades earlier. “This is dishonest, degrading, and connected to antisemitism,” emphasized the National Association in a statement. 

And Sherzad would merely be the first in the pageantry of individuals who claimed to be long-lost Jews over the ensuing years. In every case, the Kurdish Jewish leadership examined the background and credentials of each individual and concluded that not only were none of them Jewish, but each of them also had personal, self-serving reasons for the impersonation.

“Impostors serve nothing except usurping goodwill toward Jews, in order to attempt to gain personal benefits,” stated the National Association.

The impostors sought to change government records

Once Sherzad Omar was in office as a Jewish representative, he and Mariwan Naqshbandy stated in the press that they were working together to register the impostors as Jews in government records.

Strangely, in some interviews, Mariwan was not shy to admit he knew the impostors were not Jewish. “There is no Judaism now in Kurdistan as a religion,” Mariwan confessed, explaining that the impostors overall were “undesirable people in Kurdistan” and that Ranjdar “only pretends to be a Jew.”

However, Mariwan was not protecting Jewish concerns from intrusions by the impostors. 

Mariwan applied a loose standard only to Jews and no other religious groups. “No one can claim that there are no Jews in Kurdistan,” explained Mariwan Naqshbandy to me when I raised complaints about Ranjdar, “because the law in Kurdistan gives every person the right to declare his religion.”

“The matter is different with the Jews, because there is no official rabbi in Kurdistan, so anyone can claim that he is a Jew,” stated Mariwan. He added that this was “according to the Kurdish laws issued by the Kurdistan Parliament.”

Although Kurdish law permitted a Jew to be recognized as Jewish, Mariwan argued that it also allowed non-Jews to not only be recognized as Jewish but in fact supplant actual Jews.

The impostors eyed an imagined windfall, and immigration

In their still-unsuccessful bid to change government records, the impostors aimed to have standing to petition the government for an imagined windfall.

In a Times of Israel report, Sherzad listed various entitlements for Jews, including “lands, buildings and farms” and even “compensation from the Kurdish government.” As an afterthought, he added, “Additionally, any man is free to practice his religion.”

Revealingly, Sherzad had listed farmland before freedom of religion. Over the course of several years, the impostors kept repeating the idea that there existed a valuable windfall concerning abandoned assets linked to Jews.

There was no such windfall that really existed, but the impostors seemed sure that there was something, somewhere. Although private residences have since been taken by new families, Sherzad Omar stated his plan included “synagogues, cemeteries, and the tombs” and that “even the graveyards” were under consideration. Sherzad summarized at one point that “money” and “property” were among the Jewish rights open to be claimed.

“I have a lot of construction plans for Jewish cultural sites,” stated Sherzad to the Times of Israel. In a BasNews article quoted by the Jerusalem Post, Sherzad stayed on-message and mentioned a plan to prepare plans for “abandoned” heritage sites such as synagogues.

However, these places were not exactly abandoned. The Kurdish Jews were alive and well in Israel, and although they had been locked out of the Kurdistan Region for decades, they still dreamt of conserving their heritage sites in the land of their forefathers. They thought a new dawn of reconciliation might finally allow them to make that dream a reality. Instead, they were being locked out for a second time, this time by Sherzad, who was displacing and excommunicating them, and abducting their heritage for his projects.

Following Sherzad, another impostor named Ranjdar Abdulraham (a.k.a. “Ranj Cohen”) set his sights on any “Jewish property” which he glibly added was “throughout Iraq,” in an interview with Shafaq. In multiple interviews with the media, Ranjdar repeated familiar claims regarding compensation, reparations, and immigration.

Both Sherzad and Ranjdar seemed to want these outrageous claims to become a matter of public record, and ultimately to be accepted by authorities and the public. They seemed to think that some official would eventually take their bait. And along the way, they caused damage to the Kurdistan Region’s reputation in the Jewish world.

A perfect storm

A perfect storm facilitated the impostors’ claims. 

First, an outward embracing of religious minorities in the Kurdistan Region presented a welcome contrast to the sectarian violence — and then-ongoing war with the Islamic State — which was fracturing communities in greater Iraq. By appointing a “Jewish” representative, the Kurdish leadership could publicly show the international community that Kurds were different.

Second, the Kurds have continually faced existential threats. To compensate for rising awareness of his inauthenticity, Sherzad sought to make himself as useful as possible by advocating for the Kurdistan Region as a symbol of coexistence. Nowhere was this more evident than when Sherzad, unsurprisingly accompanied by Mariwan Naqshbandy, spoke at a 2016 event organized by the Kurdish American Caucus  at the Capitol in Washington D.C.

Third, there was a systematic ignorance — across the breadth of Kurdish society — about Jewish customs, laws, and culture. This ignorance was a result of the expulsion of the region’s Jews decades earlier. Many in the public genuinely believed that having a Jewish ancestor, or claiming to be Jewish in public, was sufficient under Jewish law to be Jewish. Perhaps this was because the public was most familiar with Islam, where the entry point was a declaration of belief. In Judaism, unlike in some other faiths, such a declaration was insufficient. The impostors’ claims to be Jewish meant nothing under Jewish customs, laws, and traditions.

Unfortunately, at the worst, these circumstances created a dynamic where many Kurds considered any criticism of the impostors to be an act of opposition against religious freedom or against the Kurdistan Region itself. The impostors’ supporters on social media frequently made such points directly, and severely, to any detractors.

It was not an attack on religious freedom to doubt someone’s claims of being Jewish, in a semi-closed religion such as Judaism. On the other hand, it absolutely was an attack on religious freedom to silence Jews for following and supporting the Jewish definition of Jewishness. Also, the impostors and their supporters were only making an inevitable scandal grow larger and ultimately cause greater harm to the reputations of Kurdish authorities.

Impostor Number One: Sherzad Omar Mahmoud, a.k.a “Sherzad Mamsani”

As described above, Sherzad Omar was the first impostor to achieve widespread recognition. However, at the same time he was publicly celebrated, he was engaging in a private battle with the Kurdish Jewish leadership, which he seemed to view as competition.

Casting a wide net, Sherzad solicited funds and “encouraged Jews living abroad to donate money” according to a BasNews article quoted by the Jerusalem Post. If he had been Jewish, that was perhaps a heartfelt plea. If he were not Jewish, it was clearly a scam.

Ultimately, Sherzad was dismissed as Jewish representative in 2017, after being exposed as an impostor. However, he maintained many supporters until Ranjdar supplanted him as impostor-in-chief.

Impostor Number Two: Ranjdar Abdulrahman, a.k.a. “Ranj Cohen”, and Aramaic Organization

In 2019, Sherzad’s former assistant Ranjdar exploded into the public consciousness, with a viral story about a Jewish congregation called Aramaic Organization holding a Hanukah candle lighting in the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum, which at the time was off-limits and fenced for renovation work. The media portrayed Ranjdar and Aramaic Organization as a long-lost community emerging from decades in the shadows.

The problems that happened with Sherzad Omar, were now repeating in almost exactly the same way but with Ranjdar Abdulrahman instead, who was — as usual — accompanied by Mariwan Naqshbandy.

In an endless series of articles and television interviews, Ranjdar essentially repeated the same ambitions that Sherzad had previously stated about the transfer of abandoned Jewish property and heritage sites. Lacking the governmental role that Sherzad had, Ranjdar registered a humanitarian organization which he called Aramaic Organization and promoted it as a Jewish congregation linked to Mossad and the State of Israel. He claimed his fake congregation was preparing for a mass aliyah to Israel.

Ranjdar was more than happy to give credit to Mariwan’s advocacy for the legal basis of his claims.

“Kurdistan’s Parliament’s Article Five of the year 2015, gave the right to practice religion and to conduct religious rites freely,” stated Ranjdar. “One of the religions licensed by the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs is Judaism.”

Ranjdar failed to mention that those may be the rules, but that he was not Jewish and so this law did not apply to him, despite Mariwan’s eccentric interpretations to the contrary.

The Kurdistan Region’s Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs prevented worse harm

“We are trying to open a temple in consultation with Kurdistan’s regional government,” stated Ranjdar in a Shafaq interview which also featured Mariwan Naqshbandy.

Despite Ranjdar trying to rope in the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, the Ministry was trying to stop these men. While Mariwan had been able to guide Sherzad into a role at the Ministry, the Ministry did not want to repeat this mistake again with Ranjdar.

However, these men used shadowy loopholes to circumvent the Ministry. For example, Ranjdar had been unable to register an actual congregation, so he went to a different governmental agency where he registered Aramaic Organization as a civil organization, but still promoted it to the press as a congregation with a “delegation” of Kurdish Jewish members.

To compensate for their shortcomings, the impostors needed media coverage in order to insert fake facts into the public record. They established a powerful media narrative, and Mariwan abused his position as a well-respected Ministry official to enthusiastically support the coverage despite knowing the men were impostors.

“Mr. Mariwan Naqshbandy told me,” was the source given by a journalist who covered the impostors. “For journalists, when it comes to religious affairs, it is Mariwan who is the superstar,” stated another journalist, describing Mariwan’s role in his own similar article.

Once journalists had covered the impostors in a favorable light, correcting themselves on the record would require an embarrassing retraction that none were willing to undertake. Instead, they leaned on Mariwan’s larger-than-life persona — in USA Today, he was even compared to Dr. Martin Luther King — and his strategic support carried tremendous weight despite his own conflicting statements.

At one point, Mariwan conveyed to the Kurdish Jewish leadership that he would “take Ranj away” from Jewish concerns. However, he followed up a few days later by sending over an interview of his alongside the impostors, followed by yet another supportive video a few weeks later. Also, Mariwan was sharing content about the impostors on social media, and was quick to appear on the impostors’ posts. “Great work!” added Mariwan on an Aramaic Organization post that claimed Ranjdar was the leader of a “delegation of the Jews of Kurdistan.”

While the Ministry was struggling to find a framework to confront the impostors, Mariwan was undermining the Ministry by giving his blessings as an official. Sherzad, Ranjdar, and Mariwan were clearly and publicly the primary leaders of the agenda to put impostors in charge of Kurdish Jewish representation.

The authentic Kurdish Jewish leadership was blocked

Apparently eager to “get the word out” about Kurdish Jews, gullible local media repeatedly highlighted the impostors. For the sake of their own reputations, the impostors had to keep the real Kurdish Jewish leadership silent, and severely misguided their contacts in the media. The dawn of supposed inclusion for Kurdish Jews became a period of renewed discrimination. 

Kurdistan24 and Rudaw, the two largest local channels in the Kurdistan Region, both decided to block coverage of the authentic Kurdish Jewish leadership. The Director General of Rudaw emphatically relayed a message to the National Association that there would be “no interview, no documentary, or anything” with the Kurdish Jewish leadership, even on cultural topics. However, the channels still covered the impostors.

The blocks may have been for political or practical reasons. After covering the impostors, it would be difficult to retract years worth of stories. The Kurdish Jewish leadership in Israel was offered no opportunity to give input nor corrections regarding the false stories that were published.

However, the goodwill of the broader Kurdish society was very real. This genuine goodwill meant that no matter how bad things seemed, there was a long and difficult but ultimately certain road to reconciliation. With this report, hopefully the situation improves.

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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