Inside the chicanery of scammers who impersonated Kurdish Jews

View atop the Citadel in Erbil. Credit: the author.
View atop the Citadel in Erbil. 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. These scammers 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.

The Kurdistan Regional Government was framed by the impostors

Although the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) realized as far back as 2017 that the supposed long-lost Kurdish Jews in its jurisdiction were impostors — and fired Sherzad Omar, the supposed Jewish representative — that was not the end of the story. The Ministry did attempt to fix things, and maintained a boundary to protect Kurdish Jewish issues, but struggled due to its estrangement from the authentic Kurdish Jewish leadership.

Nonetheless, even without the Kurdish Jewish leadership’s involvement, the Ministry ensured that a fake Jewish congregation was never registered; no non-Jews ever forged Jewish identity documents; no fake Chief Rabbi was ever appointed; Mariwan was released from his position at the Ministry; and no Jewish rights were ever seized besides — temporarily — the roles of the representatives themselves. Sherzad and Ranjdar showed their discontent in interviews where they accused the Ministry of persecuting them.

Unfortunately, the impostors circumvented conventional authorities

When Ranjar failed to register a synagogue with the Ministry, he registered a non-profit humanitarian organization named Aramaic Organization which he promoted as a Jewish congregation. When Mariwan was released from his senior role at the Ministry, he still kept appearing in report after report as a Ministry official albeit one with no function in religious affairs. After the impostors were denied entry to the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum, they organized a Hanukah-themed at a hotel instead. The impostors would attend major events, where they would corner dignitaries and journalists for photo opportunities and interviews. Similarly, Sherzad was fired by the Ministry, but still conducted interviews whenever possible.

These were just some examples of how the impostors sought to circumvent the KRG. Ironically, the impostors sought to convey the illusion that they were under the guidance of the highest levels of government in the Kurdistan Region, Israel, and the United States.  To some degree, the illusion worked. Authorities in Israel seemed convinced that the impostors were part of an official KRG conspiracy to replace authentic Kurdish Jews with PR-friendly impersonators. However, the Ministry made it explicitly clear whenever asked that this was not true whatsoever.

Sadly, confusion worked. It required meticulous dissection to separate out official Ministry positions versus false positions that Mariwan promoted seemingly on behalf of the Ministry, and also identify the connections and catalysts behind and between many years of people and events. It was hard for many people to not only intuit but to prove who was being honest or dishonest until after many months of cross-checking.

Ultimately, it became clear that the Ministry was well-intentioned but that it required far more information, guidance, and authorization to effectively combat a threat as evil, chaotic, public, and fast-paced as the impostors. Normal checks against such behavior were not enough to fight the impostors’ efforts in the fairly unregulated court of public opinion.

Exciting stories ensnared even the most prominent journalists in the Kurdistan Region

The success of the impostors uncovered a level of ignorance that was profoundly alienating. After the ethnic cleansing of Jews from Kurdistan, the lack of knowledge about Jewish issues was so limitless that even the most qualified journalists such as Safin Hamed were unable (or unwilling) to recognize obvious impostors and kept publishing stories even after repeated outreach from the Kurdish Jewish leadership.

In some cases, the journalists themselves seemed to be frankly quite deceitful. One journalist interviewed for this report explained that Ranjdar was the “head of Jewish affairs” but did not reply when asked for more details, and a few hours later simply deleted his message.

Sadly, the Kurdish Jews had almost no arena to be heard. And even on Kurdish Jewish issues, the one area they had a rightful and fundamental place to speak out, they were being silenced. Silencing the Jews from Kurdistan after they had already been exiled seemed so utterly cruel, after so much had already been taken away from them.

Antisemitic biases provided inroads into people’s minds

“Israel has two offices, one in Duhok, one in Erbil,” explained one person who was interested in Jewish affairs. However, he was totally wrong. One time, a taxi driver casually pointed out to me a “Mossad headquarters” on the basis that the building was conspicuously new and guarded. Again, that was false. There was no Israeli presence in the Kurdistan Region besides a few Israelis, including Israeli Arabs, working for humanitarian organizations or visiting occasionally as tourists on other passports.

Nonetheless, many people assumed that the Kurdish Jewish and Israeli establishments were deeply embedded in the Kurdistan Region. As a result, public opinion generally assumed that anyone making vocal claims must be operating semi-officially or officially. This was related to antisemitic beliefs about shadowy Israelis being a cabal of micromanagers and influencers.

The more sophisticated the claims, such as Ranjdar’s claims of Mossad affiliation, then the more it seemed to make people certain that indeed the authentic Kurdish Jews and Israel must have indeed given their backing and that these impostors were the real deal. In other words, many people emphatically ruled out the possibility of a conspiracy against Jews, because they assumed that Jews and Israel were controlling things.

“Jewish impersonators” were a rare but documented phenomenon

The impostors’ behavior was so shocking that many people found it difficult to grasp, or thought it was unprecedented. However, it was incredibly familiar to anyone who knew about other famous “Jewish impersonators” such as Laurel Rose Willson and Bruno Dössekker who had invented complex backstories to advance their own careers.

Sometimes, the public remained convinced that the impostors had at least raised awareness about the Holocaust, or Jewish issues in general, but in reality it was just hollow behavior that caused more harm than good, as with any other charity scam.

General goodwill towards Jews had few alternative outlets

Kurds truly wanted, in general, to express goodwill towards Jews. The relation between Kurds and Jews, and the Kurdistan Region and Israel, was known and appreciated on both sides. As supposed Kurdish Jews who could speak Kurdish, as opposed to the generally Hebrew-speaking authentic Kurdish Jews in Israel — the impostors provided an easy outlet for a pent-up desire to show support for Jews. The Kurdish public wanted to be seen as “good guys” in an otherwise hostile part of the world.

In the most extreme cases, some people insisted that impostors, despite being such inferior substitutes, nonetheless represented progress. Although the media had substituted impostors in place of the actual Kurdish Jewish leadership, and the general public seemed satisfied with what they saw, this was nonetheless exclusion. This was difficult for even the most qualified experts to understand. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, responding to comments that the “long-lost Kurdish Jews” may be impostors, remarked, “Nevertheless, the appointment of a representative for Jews is a positive sign of tolerance in a region often beset by anti-Semitism.” However, that was incorrect. No matter how warmly and sympathetically the impostors were welcomed, it did not change the fact that the actual Kurdish Jewish leadership was shut out and excommunicated, and with fewer available supporters than ever before due to the impersonators’ efforts to transfer public opinion to themselves.

Then what next?

It was upsetting that the impostors had not only deceived people, but also that such rotten people could have ever been believed. Nonetheless, some people thought the impostors were individually bad, but overall not a big threat. This seemed to view Kurdish Jews as an abstraction, and not real people who deserved real opportunities to be heard and represented, and who were seriously harmed by efforts to delete them.

These issues raised a profound question: Did people really even know enough about Jews to sincerely mean it when pining for reconciliation? That was where the National Association had to intervene to educate the public. In the months ahead, the National Association has a multilingual Kurdish-language outreach plan, the first of its kind in the Kurdistan Region and perhaps in the Middle East. To stay informed when it happens, please follow Cuwekani Kurdistan on Facebook in advance of the plan’s launch.

Links to sources cited in these reports are available here.

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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