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.
Wild and conflicting claims of long-lost Jewish families
“To try and quantify the number Jews in Kurdistan would also require this small community and the KRG to define who is Jewish,” stated a Times of Israel report. “Neither is willing to walk down that mine-strewn path.”
That was absolutely incorrect. For millennia, the religious leadership of the Kurdish Jews had defined their own community. When the Kurdish Jews resettled in Israel, they still kept detailed records. As with any community or denomination, those records could be checked for overlaps. Determinations of “yes” or “no” were not difficult to obtain. The impostors sought to sow confusion, in order to insert themselves. That was fraud, not a revival. Also, they could not even get their own claims straight.
“There were around 200 or 300 Jewish families who remained in Iraqi Kurdistan,” stated Mariwan Naqshbandy, while he was serving as a prominent official at the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs in the Kurdistan Region. “[These families] officially converted to Islam under pressure, but secretly continued to observe Jewish traditions.”
“We are Kurds and we are Jews, we number 730 families in the Kurdistan Region,” stated Sherzad Omar, who had been recruited by Mariwan to serve as the Jewish representative at the Ministry.
“An estimated 400 families of Jewish descent” was the count provided by Sherko Othman Abdallah, who served as Sherzad’s co-representative, although many had “converted to Islam” at some point.
“There are eighty Jewish families in Kurdistan,” was yet another count, this time in Shafaq, from a figure who liaised with the impostors.
“You’d see a crowd like never before,” speculated one of the supposed Jews about how many families existed. Although he knew that they were not formally classified as Jews, he thought that a Rabbi could easily resolve that and that then they could immigrate to Israel. “They could say we are official. Here are our passports.” However, Rabbis had already reviewed the cases, and found them to be insufficient, fabricated, or both.
In interviews for this report, the impostors changed their stories yet again. Even those who had previously given outrageous numbers suddenly said that there were barely a few dozen or even less than ten Jewish families. In fact, there were zero.
There were zero Kurdish Jews remaining in Kurdistan
In the 20th century, many regions with historic Jewish communities were totally emptied of Jews, leaving behind scattered heritage sites and genealogical connections. In the decades since, many non-Jews in these regions came to embrace having some Jewish ancestry in the hundreds of branches on their family tree. However, even claims of matrilineal descent were insufficient, if self-proclaimed, under any denomination of Jewish law.
In every Jewish community in the world, records of Jewish existence — e.g. birth, marriage, and death records signed by a Rabbi — had sometimes been lost due to emigration, fire, carelessness, conflict, and even natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. And in every such case, if a family had become unaffiliated or their attachment to a Jewish congregation was obscure and estranged, then no agency could verify their Jewish status and their claims were discredited.
The authentic Kurdish Jewish leadership had decided that claimants in Kurdistan fell into that category of being discredited. In other words, there were not really any Kurdish Jews remaining in Kurdistan. As a matter of both Kurdish heritage and of Jewish ethics, this decision was the exclusive prerogative of the Kurdish Jewish leadership, as it had been for countless generations. The Rabbi or Shamash for each cluster of Kurdish Jews had resettled, not ceased to exist, and their expulsion from Kurdistan did not transfer their prerogatives to non-Jews nor non-Kurds.
Having a Jewish ancestor could be a point of pride. It could also serve as the basis for solidarity. However, on its own, it did not convey Jewishness. In Kurdistan, the impostors wanted the last word and were trying to excite non-Jews into believing otherwise.
An insufficient and non-Jewish concept: the “Ben Jews”
“My mother is a Ben Jew,” stated Sherzad Omar in a Times of Israel report. “The rumors that there aren’t any Kurdish Jews in KRG is totally false,” explained Sherzad’s advocate Yakhi Hamza. “Certainly there are tons of Ben Jews.”
“Ben Jew” was a non-Jewish idea, and “Ben Jews” were not Jewish. In the Kurdistan Region, the term “Ben Jew” was traditionally an insult that viewed any known Jewish ancestry as an embarrassment. The term was neither Jewish, nor was Jewish ancestry any sort of rare or important certification.
When interest grew in the Kurdistan Region about Jewish history, and anecdotal genealogical connections were less problematic to discuss openly, the term “Ben Jew” experienced a modest revival among those seeking an inroad into the Jewish world. At the mildest, the concept was misinformed but stemmed from a genuine interest and appreciation. Nonetheless, it was problematic to encourage people to insert themselves — and try and replace actual Kurdish Jews — when they really had no right to do so.
However, at its worst — and more commonly — the “Ben Jew” concept was not a sincere desire to reconnect to a believed ancestry and study its precepts on the basis of rules and requirements. Instead, the “Ben Jew” concept became a lazy and entitled shortcut with no basis in Judaism itself.
The impostors were aggressive and self-righteous about being “Ben Jews” and made every effort to legitimize the concept. They intruded on the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum and other holy sites, and used judaica — some fake, some real — as props to parade to the media.
In one case, a video circulated widely of an actual Torah scroll, which had likely been trafficked. One impostor claimed it belonged to him, and that it was a holy heirloom he kept at home. A blurry video showed some men unrolling it on the floor and running their fingers over the letters. He claimed they were reading the Hebrew, although it was upside-down. For other impostors, photos from the web became supposed evidence of heirloom artifacts. One of them shared photos of the “Torah scroll” he supposedly read from at home, although he had no grasp of Hebrew, and the photos did not show a Torah scroll. “My father reads it every Friday,” said one impostor, when sending photos of a fake manuscript written in gibberish.
Like with any identity theft, the practical harm came from the motives upon which that theft was based. In this case, the impostors’ theft of Jewish identity was motivated by immigration, humanitarian support, and an imagined windfall of lost Jewish assets.
“Messianic Jews” arrived as Christian missionaries, and sowed further confusion
Over many years, there were recurring rumors about secret Shabbat dinners, which were traced back to a group of foreign evangelical missionaries who organized Shabbat-themed events out of a Christian appreciation for the Old Testament. The main coordinator did not know the very basics of Kiddush and she argued that the Talmud was invalid, but she introduced herself as “Jewish” — a common behavior in some “Messianic” sects of evangelical Christianity, which even refer to pastors as “Rabbis” — and this was misunderstood by the impostors.
Inadvertently, one of her attendees provided important clarity. “She’s Jewish,” he stated, “but says that she believes in Jesus, too.” He did not know the difference between Judaism and Christianity, but after attending these dinners, had introduced himself as Jewish for years.
The same attendee described Sherzad, Ranjdar, and other impostors as regular sights at the Shabbat-themed dinners. Over the years, the impostors began organizing their own dinners based on her model, apparently still unaware that these were fundamentally Christian events. In his filings for potential synagogues, Sherzad listed sites for “messianic synagogues” — which, in other words, were churches, but he apparently did not know any better.
The impostors weaponized the Kurdistan Regional Government’s opposition to them
Considering the role of President Barzani in supporting the authentic renovation of the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum, it was clear that the impostors were not part of any official program. After the Ministry’s initial misstep of hiring (but then firing) Sherzad Omar as the Jewish representative, the Ministry diligently obstructed the impostors, albeit reactively instead of proactively, and the impostors responded by claiming persecution.
“In notes passed to the researcher by the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs,” stated a report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), “it appeared that KRG officials are unsure if any practicing Jews live in the region.” This indicated sustained, quiet, and internal efforts to undermine the impostors.
“Such behavior was just insanity,” remarked Sherzad in a Times of Israel report about a Ministry official’s reasonable efforts to confidentially ascertain how many Jews there were in the Kurdistan Region. Sherzad was unable to provide the headcount because the answer was zero, so he filed a complaint that the official was part of an antisemitic conspiracy and thereby “got rid of him.”
“Ask your government why they are not allowing us to participate in this conference,” stated Ranjdar haughtily, posing as a Kurdish Jewish leader, in a Rudaw interview about the Kurdistan Region’s efforts to block him from attending an event. “We have administrative issues in Kurdistan,” he continued. “The Minister of Endowment and Religious Affairs is ignoring the Jews.” Ranjdar tried to misrepresent the Ministry’s efforts to stall him as an antisemitic conspiracy.
“He applied for official permission to build a Jewish community center but had not received official approval,” stated a Times of Israel report about Ranjdar’s efforts, although he had simultaneously been falsely introducing himself as a government official at events.
Mariwan Naqshbandy helped legislate and advocate for the impostors
Sherzad stated that he and a few other “Kurdish Jewish friends” wrote a plan for religious minorities to be represented in the government, which they “first presented” to Mariwan Naqshbandy, according to a Times of Israel report. It seemed that Mariwan Naqshbandy’s involvement with the impostors included his help with legislating them into power.
“In early 2015, Naqshbandy had moved Law Number 5 of Protecting Components of Iraqi Kurdistan through the Kurdish Parliament,” stated a report from Liberty Magazine about Article Five. “After two days of discussing the plan in parliament, the legislation was adopted with incredibly broad support,” according to the Times of Israel.
Article Five required that all minorities be represented in the government, and Mariwan hit the ground running. “Mamsani was granted his post, which is unpaid, without presenting paperwork or community input, but simply after putting himself forward for the role,” confirmed Mariwan in a Middle East Eye report.
Considering their long-standing relationship, it was unsurprising that Sherzad’s total lack of credentials was not a major problem for Mariwan, described as “Mamsani’s boss” in Haaretz. But what exactly did Mariwan want to achieve?
Mariwan Naqshbandy’s effort to register non-Jews as Jews
From the very beginning, Mariwan Naqshbandy was focused on formally reclassifying Muslims as Jews in government registers. In federal Iraq and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region, a person’s religion is registered with the government along with their date of birth and other information.
As early as 2015, Mariwan went on the record in Liberty Magazine to say that he was working to “correct eventually” the existing restrictions specifically dealing with registering Muslims as Jews. In an interview five years later, he Mariwan clarified that for Jews — but for no other religion — the “Kurdish laws” allowed anyone to “claim that he is a Jew” without any rabbinical supervision. “We are waiting for the normalization of relations between Iraq and Israel to return our Jewish religion to the civil status registers,” stated Ranjdar, reiterating the plan in a Shafaq report featuring him and Mariwan.
Mariwan received many concerned inquiries about these issues — on official letterhead — from the leadership of the Jews from Kurdistan, but he refused to reply to them and eventually retracted his confirmations of even having received them. “I am busy with my people,” he complained while in the midst of media appearances in support of the impostors.
Why try to register non-Jews as Jews? The impostors were surprisingly candid about the troubling reasons. Sherzad stated to the Times of Israel that the Kurdish Jews had the “right to claim reparations” from the Iraqi government. Later, Ranjdar made the same point to Shafaq about reparations, as well immigration and other benefits. Despite confirming in follow-up interviews that he had known they were impostors, Mariwan supported them for over half a decade.