Kurdistan needs help to preserve its Jewish heritage

In present-day Kurdistan, the Jewish heritage and its stories are almost forgotten.

The partially ruined state of the ancient synagogue in al-Qosh, Iraqi Kurdistan. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
The partially ruined state of the ancient synagogue in al-Qosh, Iraqi Kurdistan.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
A blue tin with Hebrew letters and a candle stood inside the ruins of a synagogue in the centuries-old town of Al Qosh. It told me that Jews return to Iraq to remember their dead, and their heritage of over 3,000 years.
Like many did in the past, they visit the only ruins in Iraq that are still recognizable as a synagogue – even though it is only dozens of miles away from where the Islamic State group is now active.
A main feature of the synagogue is the tomb of the biblical prophet Nahum, who correctly predicted the end of the Assyrian Empire – although his bones have for safety reasons been moved to a nearby church. Until the Fifties, Jews from all over the country would come here on a yearly pilgrimage during Shavuot. “He who has not made the pilgrimage to Nahum’s tomb has not yet known real pleasure,” the common saying was then.
Al Qosh now is a Christian town. Once it was a mixed town, where Christians and Jews lived in harmony, like in so many other places in Iraq. The key to the synagogue’s gate is now guarded by the son of an old Christian friend of the last rabbi, who was one of the last to leave in the early ‘50s, when after the creation of the State of Israel Jews were made to feel they were no longer welcome.
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Yet Jews in Iraqi Kurdistan – where Al Qosh is situated from a geographic point of view, although politically it is part of the Iraqi government of Baghdad – were very much part of the fabric of the society. They were mainly farmers and craftsmen, living side by side with the Kurds, and in the process taking over many of their habits. Although intermarriage was not common, friendships were.
When I did the research for my novel The Jewish Bride, trying to understand how closely knit the society was before the ‘50s, and why almost all Jews had left Kurdistan by the end of that same decade, I was impressed by those friendships.
An old judge remembered his childhood friends, whom he had joined after play at home for dinner. He spoke with almost palpable pain about the moment they left for Israel, and he realized he would never see them again. The head of an influential Kurdish family told me about the life at the centuries-old citadel of Erbil, where the star of David above the door of the old hammam (Turkish bath) still tells us about the mix of people living there.
The society was so close-knit that many Jews did not want to leave it. They preferred to stay in Kurdistan instead of leaving for a country they did not know, a difficult environment where they would have to start from scratch – as they had been told by those idealists who had already made the journey. That’s why probably thousands chose to convert to Islam – if even only for the eyes of the outside world – to be able to stay.
I found families that still hold lively memories of their Jewish grandmother.
When I make presentations on the subject for Kurdish groups, young people come to me and tell me privately about their Jewish roots. Some of them would ask me for details, as most of the knowledge of this important chapter of the history of Kurdistan has been lost.
I even found a family that still spoke the old Aramean language, the local Targum, between themselves. When the last group of converted Jews left for Israel in the Nineties, they were somehow passed over.
And once I got myself really started on the subject, I found out that even some of my Kurdish friends had Jewish roots, about which they never talked in public.
Some had children who left for Europe to try to catch up with these roots, yet never discussing it with other Kurds for fear of reprisals.
Kurdistan is still part of Iraq, and sandwiched between Arab countries that have no love for Israel. Local radical Islamic groups have fed on years of poverty and neglect, and are adamantly anti-Jewish.
Yet at the same time, the ruling Barzani family is known to have strong personal links to Israel, with both president Massoud Barzani and his father Malla Mustafa visiting old friends that had left their Barzan village in Israel.
And it is known that when the Jews left in the ‘50s, many Kurds looked at them in admiration: they were setting up their own state, and thus fulfilling a dream that many Kurds shared.
In present-day Kurdistan, the Jewish heritage and its stories are almost forgotten.
Many Kurds still look at Israel as an example for their dreamed-of statehood, and whisper about military training received from Israelis in the Eighties and Nineties. And they absolutely love it when American Jews visit their lands, showering them in attention.
But Islam has left its mark, and until recently many did not wish to be confronted with the Jewish heritage of Iraqi Kurdistan. When I beg Kurdish youth to research their past to find out more about for instance the Jewish house of Adiabene that ruled the area some 2,000 years ago and had its capital in Erbil, they shy away from it, thinking the subject could get them into nothing but trouble.
Yet with the violence of Islamic State (IS) having put off many, change is slowly on the way. On the one hand it has resulted in Kurds turning away from Islam and opening up their minds to the modern world, on the other it has driven the more radical groups and parties into the defensive, vowing that IS is misusing Islam. The gap between the religious and secular Kurdish worlds has never been so big before.
My friends with Jewish roots show fear of the radical elements in the society, yet at the same time the opening up of the rest is offering opportunities.
It could allow young people to admit to their roots, and more importantly it could open up the possibility of the Jewish heritage of Kurdistan becoming a subject of research. The latter is badly needed, as 3,000 years of history is about to be lost.
Not only the Kurdish government, that is too busy surviving the military attacks by IS and the political ones by Baghdad, should work on this. It needs a push, a gentle hand to stimulate it to get started.
For instance by helping with the reconstruction of the Al Qosh synagogue, and the old Jewish quarters in Erbil and elsewhere in the region, that will crumble soon if nothing gets done. Or by offering students scholarships if they focus on researching the Jewish past.
Even though the Kurdish government might be careful and will not invite Israel in yet, no harm is done if Jewish communities in the West, or Israeli universities and institutions, offer a helping hand.
Especially as this is about solidarity, and preventing a country from losing a major part of its history.
The author is a Dutch journalist/writer, who has lived and worked since 2008 in Iraqi Kurdistan. Her novel about the Jewish heritage of Kurdistan, The Jewish Bride, was published in Dutch in the Netherlands and will be available in