Reaching out to its Jewish history, report from Kurdistan

We join hands with the Jewish people in rising up and declaring “Never Again!” to genocide. It is this common experience that makes us uniquely connected with the Jewish people.

October 24, 2015 23:14
3 minute read.
The partially ruined state of the ancient synagogue in al-Qosh, Iraqi Kurdistan.

The partially ruined state of the ancient synagogue in al-Qosh, Iraqi Kurdistan.. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)


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As the region witnesses the appalling persecution and attempted eradication of minorities, the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) is setting out to rehabilitate a part of the diverse cultural and religious mosaic of our mountainous homeland, by establishing a Directorate of Jewish Affairs.

Under the auspices of the KRG’s minister of religious affairs and KRG President Massoud Barzani, I have been appointed to lead the new directorate, holding responsibility for the rights of Kurdish Jews within our autonomous territory, and for the grievances of Kurdish Jewish refugees with regard to the Arabization and genocide campaigns of the Iraqi central government. This marks the first time a regional political entity recognizes and seeks to correct the historical injustices of the Jewish expulsion.

Nearly 75 years after the Farhud – the initial pogroms against Iraq and Kurdistan’s Jews – elderly members of the Kurdish community still carry fond memories of their Jewish neighbors, and we are proud to stand witness to the return of an exiled people.

The Jewish presence in the Kurdistan region actually dates back millennia, well before the establishment of Islam and Arab conquests and much like the ancient Zoroastrian roots of other Kurds who have inhabited the region for thousands of years. In recognition of the invaluable cultural and historical contributions of Kurdistan’s Jewish demographic, one priority of the directorate is to focus efforts on preserving and reconstructing the remaining synagogues and physical reminders not erased by the regime.

The ancient tomb of the Prophet Nahum in the Assyrian Christian village of al-Qosh is one such testament, where Jews, secular and haredi, have paid tribute with increasing frequency even as the Islamic State (IS) threat dominates media coverage. The surprising reality to outsiders is that internal violence is rare, no foreigners have been kidnapped in KRG areas and extremism is categorically rejected by our society. We are proud of the fact that during the decade-long Iraq War, not a single foreign soldier was killed in the Kurdish Region, which constitutes a third of northern Iraq.

Kurdish Jews abroad are taking notice of this reversal of fortunes, and are expressing great interest in returning to Kurdistan, with unprecedented demand in tourism and business from Jews proud of their Kurdish roots.

Even today, a substantial number of Jewish families live freely in the KRG in addition to the nearly 2,000,000 refugees and internally displaced persons seeking shelter from the violence engulfing Iraq and Syria.

We too have been expelled from our homes, seen our language banned and survived attempts to eradicate our people.

While ISIS uses gas in its attempts to finish the work Saddam started and Hamas strives to complete the work of the Nazis, we join hands with the Jewish people in rising up and declaring “Never Again!” to genocide. It is this common experience that makes us uniquely connected with the Jewish people.

Although the work of the ministry and directorate is strictly outside of the realm of politics, we express our deepest appreciation for the supportive words of Jewish leaders who publicly empathize with the Kurdish people’s struggle for self-determination.

These individuals span the ideological spectrum, hailing from Likud to Hatnuah. Their sentiments are in stark contrast to those of top Palestinian counterparts, such as Yasser Arafat, who embraced Saddam’s genocidal regime at every turn, and current Palestinian Authority chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, who recently declared, “Kurdish independence would be a poisoned sword against the Arabs.” We seek peace and coexistence with all neighbors, and there is simply more work needed in some places than in others. It’s one of the most important things that sets us apart from the repressive regimes and terrorist organizations.

The Kurdistan Region of Iraq cherishes basic personal freedoms of religion and expression as the bedrock principles of a free society, and it is in this spirit of egalitarianism that we have established this directorate – even as 94% of Kurds are followers of Islam. In 2012, we made sweeping changes to our education system and declared our public schools would be religion-neutral. In the past year, our directorates have expanded to include additional indigenous religious minorities, such as the Yazidi, Zoroastrians, Kaka’i, Baha’i and Christians, with appointed representatives to ensure that the preservation of history and promotion of liberty is extended to every group. The Kurdish autonomous region is, and the eventual Kurdish state will be, a place for people of all faiths.

The author is the newly-appointed director of Jewish affairs of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq. He is a Kurdish Jew and resides in Hewler, Kurdistan, Iraq. Zach D. Huff, a Kurdish affairs analyst living in Jerusalem, contributed to this article.

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