Sherzad Omer, the representative of Jews in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, has recently been on an a public relations offensive, disseminating information on “Kurdish Jews” in the local and international media.
A leading Israeli expert on the Kurds and a former Arab affairs adviser to the Prime Minister’s Office told The Jerusalem Post that continued publicity efforts by the KRG to promote “Jewish Kurds” is related to the fiasco of the immigration to Israel of mostly Muslim Kurds in the early 1990s.
“Unfortunately, some KRG officials appointed a publicity- seeking person for the important task of supervising Jewish historical sites – someone who does not distinguish between truth and lies in his eagerness,” said Dr. Mordechai Zaken, head of minority affairs in the Public Security Ministry.
“I hope they would notice that this publicity campaign is causing confusion among the wider public and is damaging the KRG,” said Zaken, who has studied the Kurds for over 20 years. “It may also hurt the good relations and mutual sympathy between Israelis and Kurds and cause unnecessary conflict in the press as a result of the irresponsible declarations of Sherzad.”
“There is no Jewish community in Kurdistan – no synagogues, no Jewish activity whatsoever,” he continued. There were no forced conversions in Kurdistan, he added.
“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. But when things improved in Kurdistan, they returned with their Israeli passports or moved to Europe.”
Of those that made aliya, a small portion claimed they wanted to convert to Judaism, but they failed the examination of the rabbis. “These are the facts,” Zaken clarified.
Last week, Agence France-Presse reported the latest press release from Omer’s ministry, about a ceremony in Kurdistan marking the pogrom, or Farhud as it is known, that erupted in 1941.
Omer spoke more carefully than before, stating that there are currently 400 families that “self-identify as Jews in Kurdistan – but are still officially registered as Muslims.” He added that families who converted to Islam but “are Jews in origin” number in the thousands.
He also admitted that there was no active synagogue in the area, but said he hoped that would change soon.
Zaken, commenting on the motive behind this event, said, “Perhaps this PR campaign is directed to American Jews, since he refers to them and asks for financial support.”
“Why have Jews suddenly been discovered in Iraqi Kurdistan? Why has the KRG created a government position for Kurdish Jews when there is no Jewish community there?” Dr. Zaken explains: “If the task is to rehabilitate and restore old Jewish sites and synagogues, which were neglected and deserted – a task which I personally requested the KRG administration to do while visiting there in 2012 – then this is an important cause.”
However, “statements about the so-called existence of a Jewish community in Kurdistan are confusing and untrue.”
The reason for Omer’s altered language in the AFP report is probably because Zaken gave an interview to the Post last month and sent messages through his Kurdish contacts in order to set the record straight following a misleading report in which Omer claimed that 430 Jewish families were living in Kurdistan.
The BasNews website, based in Erbil, capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, quoted Omer last month saying the regional government plans to build synagogues for its Jewish community of around 430 families, who see themselves as “Kurdish before being Jewish.”
Omer encouraged Kurdish Jews living abroad to invest in their homeland and assist their people through economic investment.
Following the article, Zaken explained to the Post that most of the several dozen families that had some distant family connection to Judaism immigrated to Israel in the aftermath of the Gulf War.
“Most of these people are Muslim Kurds who perhaps have a grandmother or great grandmother of Jewish origin who converted to Islam two or three generations ago,” he said.
Asked about the fiasco, Zaken replied that it is first necessary to understand that Kurdish Jews immigrated to Israel in three waves: During the end of the 19th century; in the years after WWI; and finally from 1951-52, when the Jews left Kurdistan en masse.
“This was the last chapter of the Jews in Kurdistan,” he said.
However, in the early 1990s, after the Gulf War and thanks to the position of the American army and government in Kurdistan, certain events took place, recounted Zaken. 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.” With the poor security and economic situation in Kurdistan, this provided an escape route, he explained.
Representatives of the Jewish Agency and volunteers from the National Association of Kurdish Jews in Israel became involved and mobilized to rescue these Kurds. This, despite the fact that the chairman of the National Association of Kurdish Jews in Israel, Siman-Tov Abraham, was quoted in response to an American willingness to help and rescue Jews from the Kurdish region in Iraq: “Not even one Jew was left in Kurdistan.”
Hundreds of Muslim Kurds came to Israel via Turkey based on the law of return and with the help of the Jewish Agency, said Zaken. The Jewish Agency put the number at 1,100.
“Each of these Jewish grandmothers brought her extended family to Israel, which could mean as many as 30 Kurdish Muslims per woman. These people had no intention of becoming Jews, even though this is what they declared to Jewish Agency representatives,” he added.
“Apparently, the main purpose of this new immigration was to escape from the turmoil in Kurdistan, to receive shelter in Israel with generous benefits, and when the situation in Kurdistan improved, many returned.”
“While in Israel, many of them were observed going to mosques on Fridays in Arab villages,” noted Zaken. For instance, they would go from the absorption center in Mevaseret Zion on the outskirts of Jerusalem to the nearby mosque in the village of Abu-Ghosh.
The Israeli expert blamed two parties for this fiasco. First, the Jewish Agency, which was eager to show they were rescuing “Jews” from a war zone.
Second, the leadership of the National Association of Kurdish Jews in Israel, that “figured out this could be beneficial for them too, economically,” even though many in the old Jewish community knew the facts and were not so enthusiastic, he said.
For example, explained Zaken, the Association arranged conversion seminars in hotels and invited the new immigrants.
“The heads of the Association brought along their families and friends for these seminars to have a good time.”
Other sources blame the Israeli government as the third component responsible for the fiasco.
“The aliya was based on a great deal of deception and lies,” he said. In 1998, the two Kurdish immigrants, Yosef Daniel and Shlomo Daniel, were convicted of fraud in bringing 54 Muslims to Israel.
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.
Dino Daniel, one of the 100 or fewer of the new Kurdish immigrants who stayed in Israel, said that no Jews remain in Kurdistan. He visited Kurdistan two years ago.
It is simply “a lie,” said Dr. Kamal Sido, a Syrian Kurd who works at the Middle East desk for the German human rights NGO Society for Threatened Peoples. “There are no Jews in Kurdistan.”
An article in The Jerusalem Report by Netty C. Gross in 1998 described some of the fiasco over the Kurd aliya in the 1990s, noting that 700 of the 1,100 Kurdish Muslim immigrants had left Israel, many for Europe, and 60 had returned to Kurdistan.
The article quoted Jewish Agency sources saying that there were always reservations about evacuating Muslims. One source said that then-prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, allowed the immigration to go forward, but “didn’t want thousands of Kurds flocking here demanding citizenship.”
He was concerned that the Arab world would see it as an effort to convert Muslims.