Note: This post is the first in a series about how I found myself targeted for my Jewishness by a cell of antisemites, and the collective indifference that allowed a small handful of people to cast a large shadow of danger across the entire Kurdistan Region.
Like anyone who grew up in a Jewish family in the United States, I learned about the Holocaust from an early age. A question was burned into my mind: How could people be so cruel?
In Jewish life, that question is never very far away. And when I moved to the Kurdistan Region in 2014, it kept visiting me in new ways when I learned about atrocities that my friends had lived through under the former Iraq regime, the Islamic State, and other entities.
Of course, I tried to find answers to The Question in the usual narratives about racism, extremism, fundamentalism, disaffection, tribalism, and colonialism.
Ultimately, I never found the answer on my own. Instead, the answer found me.
First, I was targeted by an antisemitic association in the Kurdistan Region that plotted to kill me for my Jewishness. Then, officials turned a blind eye and left me on my own.
The first tragedy was that anyone would want me dead. It destroyed so much of the security and happiness that I had once enjoyed in the Kurdistan Region. Visiting is fairly safe for anyone Jewish, but living here and finding myself on an antisemitic list is altogether different. Every time I go anywhere, pleasant thoughts mingle with gruesome risk assessments.
I have to be constantly hyper-vigilant. The stress is intense. My friends notice I am different. And the more risks I have to assess, the more likely I am to pause and wonder that same old question from my childhood: How could people be so cruel?
But the second tragedy — the fact that officials turned a blind eye and let the threat continue — still makes my chest feel particularly tight and heavy. It makes me ponder something slightly different: How could people who I trusted turn out to be so cruel?
“There are no recorded cases of antisemitic abuse or threats in the history of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq,” said a recent statement from an office which had received complaints of antisemitic abuse or threats against at least three people, including myself, in addition to complaints about antisemitic abuses that were not pointed at specific individuals.
In a fairer world, then when an antisemitic network planned to kill me, there would have at least been steps made to effectively contain the conspirators and make a clear statement about the boundaries placed against antisemitism. This was actually the standard practice in related incidents against other religious communities, such as a case of anti-Christian hate speech from several years earlier.
To this day, it is hard for me to grasp the level of indifference — or, more likely, outright prejudice — that I encountered when raising my case to officials in the Kurdistan Region. Even the most polite people left me to face the conspirators alone. Not one official lifted a single finger.
For anyone facing antisemitism, the popular belief that antisemitism does not exist can be very hard to change. Ultimately, it places any steps towards my security as a Jewish person in the Kurdistan Region at the opposite end of many people’s understanding of their own society.
For the conspirators of my attack, this was a very useful fact to lean into. At every turn, they exercised a degree of discretion and obfuscation. So long as their public behavior was within polite boundaries, nobody was willing to believe that something far more sinister was behind their façade, because that would mean acknowledging the horrifying reality that a Jewish person in Erbil in the 21st century was forced to face life or death for his Jewishness.
So how exactly did the attempt on my life come into existence and evade intervention?
Consider the tragedies of the greatest magnitude, and you start to see a statistical pattern. Usually, there were only a few hundred Nazis working at the concentration camps of the Holocaust. However, there were many thousands of collaborators who helped identify and deliver the Jews who wound up there. Many of these collaborators were motivated by personal gain, such as the plunder of Jewish property.
Even without a Saddam Hussein or an Adolph Hitler in power, there are still people with the mentality of a collaborator. That was how the conspirators behind my attack seemed to behave. They were all driven by personal gain. After one conspirator was allegedly convicted of homicide and locked away, the rest continued to collaborate with his associates in their pursuit of antisemitic legends about Jewish wealth and Jewish privilege.
Unfortunately, officials in the Kurdistan Region seemed to believe that antisemitic attacks must involve someone whose primary goal is the “cleansing” of Jewish people from society. Frankly, this is a ridiculous perspective because there are no Jewish people remaining, except a few expatriates who are countable on one hand. There is no Jewish community being “rounded up” like a scene from the Holocaust, because there is no Jewish community.
This outdated perspective on antisemitic violence in the 21st century has created a tremendous blind spot. Without any vigilance, the potential for violence has festered. The conspirators simply had to choose a course of action that avoided the most crude and sophomoric stereotypes of antisemitic behavior.
It was not just the Kurdistan Region’s officials who were unprepared. With the rise in visitation to the Kurdistan Region, many foreigners (and even Jewish people and Israelis) have come to the Kurdistan Region for short periods, experienced no serious problems, and then returned to their homes abroad. As a result, based on their own brief but enjoyable visits, many people shunned the possibility that someone in Erbil might be hunted for their Jewishness. Yet here I am, forced to wake up every morning with the possibility that I will not live to see the next day.
But still, for many people, the idea that an antisemitic plot is underway in the Kurdistan Region is beyond the limits of comprehension — or, perhaps, beyond the limits of compassion.
When I explained to people that I was targeted for an antisemitic killing, they would typically ask me what I thought the conspirators were trying to achieve. I did not have to speculate, because the conspirators had actually been very candid about sharing their motives to the public. However, people were surprised that the motives were less ideological and more financial, such as urban legends about supposed Jewish riches abandoned after the Farhud.
As a result, people would then argue with me that either my case was antisemitic, but not an attack; or that it was an attack, but not antisemitic.
For example, they would say it was antisemitic, but that I had absolutely nothing to worry about, even after the FBI called me to tell me that my life was indeed in very serious danger.
Or alternatively, they would say it was violent and horrible, but if the conspirators were driven to single out a Jewish person for personal gain rather than holy war, then I was “sounding very Jewish right now” by describing it as antisemitic.
It must have been more manageable to downplay the scenario. The other option would be to open a can of worms involving an antisemitic plot that had been unfolding and escalating in plain sight of so many officials and others — or even with their public support — in the Kurdistan Region, of all places.
It is really very simple,
- For an antisemitic attack to be antisemitic, it must intentionally target a person or place because of a connection to Jewishness.
- For an antisemitic attack to be an attack, it must involve the use of force against a person or place.
People should not be shocked that an antisemitic attack might occur. They should be shocked by how many situations could then be understood as antisemitic attacks.
I felt cornered. I felt trapped. I was surrounded by four walls: indifference, misunderstanding, conflicts of interest, and — of course — outright prejudice.
The people behind the plot against me were a network of men who had emerged over the last few years with false claims of being long-lost Jews, with two of them even securing roles as representatives in the Kurdistan Region’s government. Additionally, they received support from outside of the Kurdistan Region from those who had their own motives.
Smartly, the conspirators did not publicly disagree with the popular narrative about coexistence. In fact, they decided to harness it by claiming that they themselves were in fact long-lost Jews. They ran to the media and made many headlines. It was a catchy story. This provided a level of impunity for increasingly disastrous behavior.
At every opportunity, the conspirators issued false but self-perpetuating claims to the media that there was a very large Jewish community in the Kurdistan Region that hovered around 400 families — but which was, in fact, non-existent. The motives were fairly limited,
- Most of these men just wanted to be in the business of organizing hotly-desired visas, either for aliyah to the State of Israel, or asylum to Europe, which they thought would be very easy to obtain by claiming to be Jewish.
- Many of them wanted control over real estate connected to Jewish heritage sites, or thought that there was a vault somewhere containing piles of Jewish gold. They would break into Jewish heritage sites to stage photo opportunities, and follow YouTube recordings that played in the background to reenact occasional holidays for the press.
- A few thought that claiming to be Jewish would help them obtain one-off opportunities such as scholarships from Jewish organizations or some sort of entry into a Masonic cabal.
The whole thing reeked of antisemitic stereotypes, but it was impossible to get any sort of official response on these grounds alone. To my shock, trying to kill me for my Jewishness was still insufficient. At that point, I realized how violence was enabled — there was no point where any official attending to religious issues simply said “that is enough” and got to work.
For the conspirators, I am a snag because my activity with Jewish causes made me seem like something between a whistleblower and a gatekeeper.
As a volunteer for the renovation of the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum, as well as for the leadership of the Jews from Kurdistan (now headquartered in Israel), I have written letters and made calls about the charlatans breaking into the Shrine, introducing themselves as Jewish leaders, and committing various other abuses. Killing me would take care of that.
Also, I am an opportunity because my death would be very useful depending on who controlled the narrative.
Immigration is a major pillar of canards about “Jewish privilege” and the cases of Sherko Abdullah Lasok and Sherzad Omar Mahmoud reveal increasingly sophisticated efforts to tap into this. It is hard to overstate how many potential clients there are for immigration routes.
In the 1990s, Sherko found it “hard to swallow” that his aliyah plans crumbled spectacularly because, according to him, he was not Jewish. Over the years, it became clear to him and others that Jewish communities and the State of Israel had standards, so the charlatans mostly abandoned efforts at aliyah.
Instead, the majority of the charlatans pivoted to casting a wide net for any country that would grant them asylum as long-lost Jews. However, they soon found that asylum hearings were also unwilling to accept their made-up stories. They lacked any of the necessary recognition from conventional authorities in Jewish law.
In 2015, Sherko and Sherzad were appointed together as “Jewish representatives” in the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs in the Kurdistan Region.
Immediately, Sherzad went on a press junket. He promoted absurd stories about surviving a series of antisemitic bombings and shootings — including one particularly “elevated” story about a car that went flying into the air from an explosion. Then, he immediately tried to claim asylum in Germany on grounds that he faced deadly persecution.
Sherzad had fled, but Sherko carried on as representative. Many of their associates became more brazen. Charlatans broke into holy sites, arranged fake rituals for international outlets, and worse. One of the associates co-founded a Jewish-themed nonprofit organization in December of 2019, then allegedly went to jail for homicide by March of 2020. He had allegedly been selling memberships that he claimed would allow clients to emigrate as long-lost Jews, but violence erupted in a dispute with a client.
Meanwhile, I had been increasingly well-known around the Kurdistan Region as “the Jewish guy” due to my popular holiday gatherings and other events. It was only when the charlatans started promoting their “asylum-seeking” narrative to the general public that talk of violence became more frequent.
If I were killed, then the charlatans could put leverage on diplomats to unblock their asylum applications for emergency purposes rather than the usual preponderance of evidence.
Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic may have saved my life.
Before the lockdowns had begun, I had made a visit to California to see my family — but then the Kurdistan Region went into a tight shutdown and closed its airport. I kept posting about Erbil and most people I knew assumed that I was still here.
It was a sunny day in Los Angeles (not Erbil) when my phone started ringing and voicemails started arriving from the United States Embassy in Baghdad.
I decided not to call the Embassy back until the Consulate could authenticate the communications. I was already aware — and had been warned by others — that some antisemites based in Erbil were likely wanting to severely injure me or worse. I was worried they may do a phishing attempt using a spoofed phone.
To my surprise, an acquaintance at the Consulate immediately confirmed that the Embassy had been trying to reach me, and had even contacted his office for help doing so. There was a small pang of anxiety as I wondered if the calls were urgent. Because it was getting late in Baghdad, I was even provided a direct WhatsApp number in case my point of contact at the Embassy had already left her desk for the day. I was asked to call right away.
I felt more and more worried — so I decided to wait a little longer, and turned to Google for some insights. I looked up the name of the person who had called me, and was shocked to find a range of federal filings and newspaper mentions.
The call came from an FBI agent who had gone from investigating financial fraud in the United States to investigating the Islamic State and other terrorism overseas. That seemed like the last person who I wanted to call me to discuss an important matter.
I panicked. Had someone accused me of terrorism? Were there suspicions about my research in Sinjar? The antisemites did cross my mind, but they were not affiliated with the Islamic State, so I simply wondered if they had dropped my name on some sort of tip line.
Finally, I called the Embassy back.
The person answering the phone sounded tense and concerned. Immediately, she asked me for my whereabouts. I replied that I was in the United States, visiting my family. The tension in her voice seemed to diminish.
From there, she asked me about my plans to return to Erbil, and I told her that the lockdown made it difficult to know the exact date, but that, I was going to return because, after all, I owned my own apartment there, a place overlooking the main park.
Then came the rest of the conversation.
“Unfortunately, one of the jobs that I have to do here is described as a duty to warn,” she explained. “I have to read a statement to you regarding a threat to your life and to advise you that it is probably not a good idea for you to travel back.” From there, she read a prepared script that there was an attempt underway to kill me, and added a few remarks to ensure I understood.
To be honest, there was a sense of relief. I had spent months feeling a mounting threat, but there had been nobody in the Kurdistan Region willing to take action. Other than Dr. Mordechai Zaken, this was the first authority — albeit American — who was not gaslighting me.
In that manner, receiving the call from the Embassy felt like it would potentially be the first step in the long road ahead to securing my safety. This was concrete, third-party intelligence.
To me, there was nothing more important in that moment than getting as much information as possible. My fight to live would not be won with guns. It would be won with information and solidarity. I stayed calm and persevered in the conversation.
First of all, I was curious about whether I was actually stuck in a feedback loop. For several months, I had been contacting certain officials in the Kurdistan Region because I was feeling increasingly unsafe. Perhaps, the thought occurred to me, I had called the officials, who then called the Embassy, which then called me without knowing I was the initial complainant. The FBI agent ruled this out.
Secondly, I wondered if maybe this was concerning something that had nothing to do with the charlatans pretending to be Jewish. I considered the possibility of my name showing up casually in an Islamic State group chat, or perhaps a network affiliated with Palestinianism. The FBI agent told me that there was further information that would be conveyed to me, but that I would discuss it further with an FBI agent who would be sent from their field office in Los Angeles.
It has taken me over a year to write this all down. I have struggled for months to even find a title for this post. Thankfully, I am still alive. That is the most important outcome. But after Day 0, I would soon find myself enduring devastation that I never anticipated.
Note: This post is the first in a series. Images courtesy of the author.