Kurds, the Kurdistan Region, Israel, and Jews

Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Credit: the author.
Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Credit: the author.


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.

Stranger than fiction, and in the public record

There was a strange phenomenon in the Kurdistan Region: a small group of non-Jewish local men who claimed to be a long-lost Jewish congregation. These impostors sought a monopoly on Jewish representation and, in interviews with the media, they argued that they were entitled to compensation, reparations, and immigration.

With no legal or religious standing as Jews, these men used the media to establish fake facts, and managed — in some cases only temporarily — to become public figures. They started wearing kippot, claiming they were Jewish, fabricating family histories, staging superficial Jewish observances against backdrops of holy Jewish sites and holidays, and even stating that they were leaders of massive congregations of long-lost Jews who were only now emerging from the underground.

Because they were not actually Jewish, their only “evidence” was a public narrative they could build up in the media. Over time, a quick Google search by an interested party would pull up articles and interviews that appeared to authenticate their story. Instead of doing due diligence, journalists began relying on prior reporting to fact-check, and the impostors’ lies became self-perpetuating.

The impostors misused the tolerance of Kurdish authorities, the goodwill of Kurdish public opinion, and the interest of unsuspecting journalists looking for feel-good stories about coexistence. Also, in the Islamic world, it seemed unlikely to many that impostors would claim to be Jewish if they were not.

Commendably, the Kurdistan Region guaranteed certain rights to every religious group, including representation in the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs. However, due to unfounded but popular rumors about millions or billions of dollars worth of abandoned Jewish assets in the form of land, heritage sites, cultural artifacts, and more, the opportunity to claim the post of Jewish representative was an appealing opportunity for impostors. These impostors also started a vicious campaign against their only competition: the authentic Kurdish Jews, based in Israel.

The leadership of the Kurdish Jews in Israel began to intervene, but total media silence suppressed their outreach. The impostors had monopolized all conventional media opportunities and had already established their public narrative. Having made severe mistakes in covering these impostors, no journalists or media outlets wanted to retract their sensational stories about long-lost Kurdish Jews. Furthermore, an official in the Kurdistan Region named Mariwan Kakashikh Naqshabandi (a.k.a. “Mariwan Naqshbandy”) lent an air of credibility to these impostors. He served as an enabler, acting beyond his official capacity, and actively sought to dissuade the media from countering the impostors’ narrative and giving the authentic Kurdish Jewish leadership a voice.

The genuine Kurdish Jewish community became upset at their heritage being abducted and their religious beliefs being degraded in spectacles performed for cameras. The establishment in Israel was outraged at efforts to forge a route to immigration. The impostors’ lies were burying the truth. This report attempts to shed light on the pretenders’ activities, explain their ulterior motives, and set the facts straight.

Nobody should speak for the Jews from Kurdistan except for the Kurdish Jews themselves. Although expelled decades ago, the Jews from Kurdistan maintained their traditions, institutions, and identity in Israel. The Kurdish Jews deserve to own their history. Their positive feelings towards the Kurdistan of their parents and grandparents, and their desire to remain engaged with their culture, is the actual feel-good story.

1950s: The final expulsion

“When Jews were expelled from Kurdistan in the 1950s, the Jews living in Kurdistan left in their entirety,” said the National Association in a statement. “No Jewish family remained.”

The expulsion is well documented and came as a consequence of multiple factors. As a result of growing antisemitic violence as well as political and economic pressure, life had become difficult and dangerous for Iraqi — and Kurdish — Jews. Simultaneously, Zionist efforts to organize the local communities for immigration to Israel provided an avenue of rescue. 

The Jews from Kurdistan considered themselves descendants of the ten tribes expelled by the ancient Assyrians, and returning to Israel was going home from exile. After the early 1950s, not even one of them remained in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Because of the closely linked families and tribes within the Kurdish-Jewish community, it is impossible to entertain the idea that long-lost Jewish families live in Kurdistan. Had families or individuals been left behind, this would have been well-known and well-documented. Extended families, community leaders, teachers, rabbis, and religious congregations understood well who the Jewish families were within their communities. 

When the community left, there were no secret or hidden communities of Jews left behind, which the Kurdish-Jews in Israel could have been unaware of. 

1960s and 1970s: The new immigrants in Israel

This final wave of immigrants from Kurdistan quickly established itself in Israel. There were already some Kurdish communities in Israel, which helped with the absorption.

In Israel, the Kurdish-Jewish community established a National Association in the 1970s as an umbrella organization to represent Kurdish-Jewish interests. It was led by Jews who had been born in Kurdistan and immigrated to Israel. It provided continuity to the religious, cultural, societal, and political leadership that had existed for thousands of years in Kurdistan.

“We represent Kurdish Jews after the Jewish community’s expulsion from Kurdistan and return to Israel from the diaspora,” said the National Association in a statement.

These immigrants from Kurdistan played a pivotal role in conserving the native Judeo-Aramaic of the Jews from Kurdistan; a language shared with the Assyrian Christians they lived alongside. Also, they imparted a profound love for the unique Kurdish Jewish culture, which borrowed elements from Kurds, Assyrians, Arabs, Turks, and others.

Notably, the leadership of the Jews from Kurdistan had a strong relationship with the family of Mullah Mustafa Barzani that stretched back to the 1920s and 1930s. This relationship would result in strong support by the Israeli establishment for the Kurdish rights movement growing in Iraq by the 1960s.

Mullah Mustafa made two secret visits to Israel, and the Israeli government provided resources and training, and personnel to the Barzani family and the Kurdistan Democratic Party. This relationship remained strong until the Israeli government ended its support in the 1990s, under pressure from the United States and Turkey.

At this same time, a new generation of Kurdish Jewish leadership was born: Jews born in Israel, but whose parents had been born in Kurdistan.

As the original immigrants aged, this new generation largely exercises authority and supervises the community’s events and efforts today. Importantly, this new generation came of age during the atrocities against Kurds by the Baath regime. A new type of solidarity would emerge focused on Kurdish rights in Iraq.

1980s: The plight of the Kurds

The genocide of Kurds by the Saddam regime, known as the Anfal, began in 1986 and lasted several years. At least 50,000 and as many as 180,000 Kurds were murdered. The genocide wiped out an entire way of life: the Iraqi government destroyed villages, Kurdish communities were expelled from their homes and resettled en masse.

Today, it is common to see rebuilt Kurdish villages with cement-block homes adjacent to the old village’s bombed-out ruins. Other minorities such as Assyrians and Turkomans found their traditional lives in Kurdish-majority areas similarly upended.

The Jews from Kurdistan watched these events from Israel and were horrified. The unfolded events prompted an outcry among the Kurdish Jews and an expression of sympathy, which has defined attitudes through the present day. In witnessing Kurdish suffering, Jews drew strong parallels to their own experience.

As the Jews from Kurdistan watched endless coverage of Iraq’s deteriorating situation, many began to argue that the support for Kurdish rights was a moral imperative. Momentum started developing in Israel to promote Kurdistan and educate the public concerning the fight against Saddam Hussein.

Unfortunately, an abuse of this goodwill was soon approaching.

1990s: The aliyah fiasco

“After the Gulf War and thanks to the position of the American army and government in Kurdistan, certain events took place,” recounted Dr. Zaken in the Jerusalem Post. “The original Jews from Kurdistan who were living in Israel again had the opportunity to visit the country of their birth and, while there, met neighbors and friends, some of whom had Jewish ties. One thing led to another and slowly, some families with a Jewish grandmother requested to use the law of return and immigrate to Israel.”

These people were allowed to travel to Israel based on the Law of Return, granting certain foreign nationals who are non-Jewish but with Jewish ancestry the right to immigrate to Israel. However, one grandparent sometimes brought dozens of children and grandchildren. According to the Jewish Agency, the total number of immigrants was approximately 1,100.

The established community of hundreds of thousands of Kurdish Jews was ready to welcome their distant Muslim relatives arriving from Kurdistan. However, things did not go as hoped.

First of all, it turned out that the aliyah process was rife with fraud. “The aliya was based on a great deal of deception and lies,” stated Dr. Zaken in a Jerusalem Post report. “Two Kurdish immigrants, Yosef Daniel and Shlomo Daniel, were convicted of fraud in bringing 54 Muslims to Israel.”

One woman from a Muslim family in the Kurdistan Region said she knew a family of Islamists who paid to be included in the aliyah scheme, just so they could get out of Iraq and seek asylum in Europe. Once in Europe, they agitated against Israel and were proudly antisemitic.

These immigrants were not considered Jewish. Although they had been allowed to immigrate, they would have required conversion to be Jewish. However, there were hopes they would still integrate well. That did not happen. Ultimately, nearly all of them departed Israel.

“Dino Daniel, one of the 100 or fewer of the new Kurdish immigrants who stayed in Israel, said that no Jews remain in Kurdistan,” stated a Jerusalem Post report. “700 of the 1,100 Kurdish Muslim immigrants had left Israel, many for Europe, and 60 had returned to Kurdistan.” Decades later, it was somewhat common to meet Kurdish Muslim families in the Kurdistan Region who spoke of an “Israeli” cousin, in-law, or neighbor who had gone to Israel during this period.

“Indeed, there are hundreds of Kurds with Israeli passports in Kurdistan, and even some who know Hebrew, but these are Muslim Kurds – most of whom came to Israel for several years during the immigration fiasco of the 1990s,” stated Dr. Zaken, the supervisor over Jewish concerns in the Kurdistan Region for the National Association of Jews from Kurdistan in Israel, in a Jerusalem Post interview. “But when things improved in Kurdistan, they returned with their Israeli passports or moved to Europe.”

Unfortunately, this interlude caused a significant breakdown in the Kurdish Jewish community’s trust toward Kurdistan.The Jerusalem Post shared one especially heartbreaking story. “Reporter Yigal Musku made a documentary film on a family of Kurds who pretended to be distant relatives of old Jews who lived in the Beit She’an valley. The family opened its home and hearts for the so-called ‘newly discovered relatives,’ who were impostors, only to find out one morning that they all disappeared without saying goodbye and without any explanation, leaving their hosts in a state of shock.”

2000s: Post-invasion

After the US-led intervention in Iraq, the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region became accessible to the world. In 2006, two formerly separate Kurdish power centers unified to form a single Kurdistan Regional Government.

Also, life was modernizing in the Kurdistan Region, as in the rest of the world. Life under Saddam Hussein had been relatively isolated. Suddenly, communications in the Kurdistan Region proliferated. With the rise of social media, there was unprecedented communication between individuals in Israel and Kurdistan, but only at the level of civil society, and there were no Israeli offices nor agents in Kurdistan despite rampant rumors.

Although antisemitism was still a force in Kurdistan, its role was not as intractable and concrete as in neighboring societies. Attitudes were more multifaceted and dynamic, and even open to change. Kurdish society expressed a uniquely high level of goodwill toward Jewish people. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous men saw fit to capitalize on that goodwill.

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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