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An American Jew in Kurdistan

Benjamin Kweskin
September 13, 2016

Seeing an Israeli Film in Dohuk and Other Experiences

ONE OF THE FIRST TRIPS my wife and I took after moving to Kurdistan in the summer of 2013 five days after getting married was to the colorful mountain city of Dohuk near the Turkish border, an excursion that coincided with the Dohuk International Film Festival, organized by local university students. Upon entering the venue, a cultural hall, we were stunned to encounter a full-sized poster of the Israeli movie, Ballad of the Weeping Spring one of my favorite Israeli films, mainly because of its hauntingly beautiful Middle Eastern music. Sadly, we had missed the screening by one day.

In many Middle Eastern countries, merely screening an Israeli film would be grounds for blacklisting or imprisonment for supporting “cultural normalization” with the “occupying Zionist entity.” We saw nothing to suggest that this film presentation was done subversively — relevant information about the movie was written in English, Arabic, and Kurdish in the sleek, official festival booklet.

There are roughly 200,000 Jews of Kurdish origin living in Israel, descendants of the Jewish community of Kurdistan, which mostly made aliyah in 1950-1952, along with the rest of Iraqi Jewry, as part of the Israeli airlift code-named “Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.” There is a smattering of mostly secretive Crypto-Jews remaining in Iraqi Kurdistan (formally known as the Kurdistan Region of Iraq) called Benjewsthose whose ancestors converted to Islam but who are still vaguely aware of their Jewish origins.

Aside from Kurdish-Israeli Jews themselves, the overwhelming majority of world Jewry is unaware of the considerable Kurdish philo-Semitism and pro-Israel sentiment that presently emanates from local government officials as well as from the proverbial Kurdish “street.” Many elderly Kurdish-Israelis fondly remember generally peaceful relations with their non-Jewish Kurdish neighbors, and are still ardent Kurdish (and Israeli) nationalists.

Shared historical narratives of oppression and persecution and a common desire for political self-determination in an often unstable and hostile Middle East are frequently cited as main motivations for the positive relations among Jews and Israelis and Kurds. This relationship finds its origins during the Israelite captivity in the 8th century BCE, when several thousand Israelites were forcibly taken by the conquering Assyrian Empire to the “cities of the Medes,” the modern-day Kurds. The exiles were allowed to continue practicing their faith, and the Jewish imprint has been a fixture in the diverse Kurdish tapestry ever since.

In 2013, for example, the student body of the University of Kurdistan-Erbil voted in favor of relations with Israel by a margin of three to one, echoing similar results of an earlier poll, which suggested that seventy percent of the Kurdish population in Iraq supported establishing diplomatic relations with the Jewish State.

KURDAYATI, loosely translated as “Kurdish ethnic consciousness,” places Kurdish identity above one’s particular religion, and informs the Kurds’ cultural norm of accepting others’ religious beliefs and ideologies. Though the great majority of Kurds are Sunni, their history and culture predate Islam by at least two thousand years, and both Islamic and non-Islamic cultural and social practices suffuse and impact Kurdistan’s democratizing and modernizing society. Major religious minorities include Yezidis, Fayli Shi’a, Shabak, Yarsan, as well as small Christian-Kurdish communities. Non-Kurdish ethnic communities of Christians in Kurdistan include Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Syriacs.

Most Kurds, including those in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, adhere to the Shafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence, one of the more relaxed Sunni schools of thought. Sufism, which borrows from other religions and generally involves a less strict interpretation of Islam, has also been commonplace throughout Kurdistan for centuries, and the large and politically-important Barzani and Talabani families are linked to the predominant Naqshbandi and Qadiri Sufi orders, respectively.

[caption id=“attachment_43144” align=“alignleft” width=“276”]Amadiya Amadiya[/caption]

A unique episode in Jewish history is associated with the small, ancient town of Amadiya in Iraqi Kurdistan. Sitting atop a plateau near the Great Zab River, the town, historically, was diverse, its Kurdish, Assyrian Christian, and Jewish communities making up a similar percentage of the population, at least into the 19th century.

In the early-mid 1600s, an incredibly learned woman named Asenath Barzani effectively became ‘rabbi’ of the Aramaic-speaking Jewish community in the Amadiya area. Known as Tanna’it (“Great Teacher”), her influence was unprecedented in Kurdish-Jewish history and folklore: many stories refer to her mystical Kabbalistic powers and, though this is likely an exaggeration, her expertise and mastery of Hebrew, Midrash, Torah, and Talmud. Her father, the illustrious Rabbi Shmuel Ha’Levi Barzani, had ensured that her education from childhood would be all-encompassing.

According to one illustrative story, Asenath’s father demanded that her future husband, Rabbi Yaacov Mizrahi, include in their Ketuba (marriage contract) that she should “never be troubled by housework” so that she could focus on teaching and studying Torah. Some records even indicate she became rosh yeshiva (yeshiva dean) for a time. Today in Amadiya there are only ruins of the synagogue that bore her widely revered name.

JEWISH LANDMARKS sprinkled throughout Kurdistan include remains of ancient synagogues, neighborhoods, and cemeteries, and biblical shrines where the Prophets Daniel (in Kirkuk) and Nahum (in Al-Qosh) are buried. Jonah’s tomb, in Islamic State-occupied Mosul, was destroyed by ISIS in June 2014.

Flanked by a Kurdish-American friend and a small entourage of his friends and relatives, I was led on a street-by-street tour of the ancient Julakan, or Jewish quarter, in the city of Zakho (Zaxo) one weekend. An island within the city on the Khabur River, the Julakan was once known as “Little Jerusalem” due to its large Jewish population – prior to the Jews’ expulsion by Baghdad in the early 1950s.

Many locals warmly greeted us, and surprisingly remembered exactly which family used to live in which house. “The teacher lived there, the carpenter lived over there, and the rabbi lived in that house,” related a smartly-dressed man in his seventies in perfect English. Nearly seven decades have passed without Zakho’s Jews, yet their memory is undeniably felt by many who express a nostalgic longing for their friends and neighbors. More than once, colleagues and associates confided that their grandparents still expected to see long-lost Jewish friends return one day — and on rare occasions this has happened.

As part of an “alliance of the periphery” doctrine, under which it engaged with potential non-Arab and/or non-Muslim allies in the Greater Middle East in order to offset existential threats, Israel — with the knowledge of the U.S. and Shah of Iran — developed relations with Iraqi Kurds for nearly a decade (1966-1975). Mossad operatives in Kurdistan clandestinely assisted revolutionary leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani in his fight against Baghdad, a policy that has held lasting effects down to the present.

As former Mossad operative Eliezer Tsafrir related, “Mullah Mustafa Barzani sent emissaries to Israel and told us Kurds, like Jews, were ignored by everybody and needed assistance.” Iraqi Kurds received support via intermediaries who armed, funded and trained Kurdish soldiers known as Peshmerga, “those who confront death.” When some remaining Iraqi Jews sought to flee via Kurdistan in the 1970s, they were assisted and escorted by armed Peshmerga, including former and current Kurdish officials.

The late Barzani was widely known for his personal relations with several Jewish families in Kurdistan, and there are many stories and anecdotes relating this genuine affinity. Next to his simple gravesite in the picturesque village of Barzan, a large quote attributed to him reads in English and Kurdish: “Kurdistan is the land of all religions and ethnic groups.”

[caption id=“attachment_43145” align=“alignright” width=“283”]Erbil citadel bazaar Erbil citadel bazaar[/caption]

STILL, there were some expressions of anti-Semitism. My wife and I had been hired to teach at an elite private school which — as we learned — censors most references to Israel and omits the Holocaust from its curriculum. The school’s owners are Lebanese, and while Kurdish colleagues and officials have categorically condemned such sentiments as contrary to Kurdish values, substantial foreign investment in the Kurdistan Region occasions a wariness of jeopardizing significant economic relationships given the precarious political balancing act being performed by the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).

In the main Qaysari Bazaar in the Regional capital of Erbil, we occasionally passed by pamphlets and books with Hitler’s glaring face, again reflective more of the KRG’s uneasy dependence on external influences than of Kurdish culture itself. Despite these morally reprehensible discoveries, we refused to allow this to affect our overall experience. Our students decried the school’s blatant censorship, which was reassuring, and we never encountered anti-Semitism from any locals with whom we came into contact. Though we did not openly advertise our faith, we shared it with a diverse, albeit select, group who were consistently supportive, intellectually curious, and sensitive not to offend or insult.

A visit to a friend’s family in Dohuk, which I had anticipated to be an intimate meet-and-greet, became instead an opportunity to express my personal sentiments regarding Jewish/Israel-Kurdistan relations, even though the dozen men surrounding me were unclear as to the difference between American and Israeli Jews. My friend’s uncles fondly remembered their Jewish neighbors, but I was certainly the first Jew they had seen for several decades. Bombarding me excitedly with questions, most importantly they wanted to know why Israel “did not do more” to help support the KRG diplomatically and militarily — after all, Jews were also denied a homeland for centuries and could surely identify and sympathize with the Kurdish narrative.

With renewed interest and greater freedoms of expression and movement pertaining to Israel, two major Kurdish networks surprised many two years ago by broadcasting two separate programs about Israeli Kurds. Interviewing community leaders, activists, musicians and religious figures in different Israeli-Kurdish enclaves, the second program covered the contentious March 2015 Israeli election that gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a renewed mandate. Broadcast live to millions of Kurdish homes, the response was overwhelmingly positive.