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In Iraq’s Kurdish Zone, Israelis and Long-Hidden Jews See Hope for Revived Ties

The prospect of an independent Kurdistan raises the possibility of renewing an alliance in Iran’s backyard

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Locals flock to an amusement park in the city of Dohok, one of many that have popped up throughout Iraqi Kurdistan. (Gil Shefler)
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Driving down the highway to Mosul on a late summer’s afternoon, when dust devils race across the dry and desolate Plains of Nineveh, it’s impossible not to wonder how this part of the world could ever have been known as the Fertile Crescent. Rubber tire remains, roadkill carcasses, and empty water bottles half-melted by the desert sun litter the side of the road; temperatures rise into the 100s.

Mosul is one of the most violent places in Iraq and, by extension, the world. The past months have been particularly bloody. A few days before I arrived, in September, a suicide bomber targeted a funeral, killing 36 members of the Shabak minority. Before I reached the city outskirts, my driver took a sharp left, darting down a side road, kicking up a trail of dust behind. A few minutes later a village emerged in the shadow of a small mountain: Alqosh, a bastion of Christianity in the middle of the Muslim world.

Its impressive monastery, carved into the face of a cliff, has attracted pilgrims and adventurers for centuries, though reasons for my coming here are related to another, older religious tradition. At the village entrance, security was tight—hardly a surprise, so close to an active Islamist insurgency. A mustachioed soldier with an AK-47 slung lazily around his right shoulder gave us a long stare as he radioed our credentials to his superiors. Inside, we slalomed past crumbling houses and ostentatious McMansions climbing up the slope until we came to a sudden stop in front of a dilapidated structure of uncertain antiquity: The tomb of the biblical prophet Nahum.

Once an important center of Jewish life in Iraq, it is today one of the few undisturbed physical remains of a nearly vanished community. According to tradition, there has been a Jewish presence in Iraq—or Mesopotamia, or Babylon—since the Assyrian Empire forcibly resettled the defeated Ten Tribes of Israel, creating the first Jewish diaspora. Nahum was one of those exiles, and it was in Alqosh—mentioned in the Bible by name—that he prophesied the destruction of Nineveh, the Assyrian capital. It fell to the Babylonians, as Nahum foresaw, but Jews lingered for a few thousand years more, until 1948, when the vast majority left, or were forced to leave, after the creation of Israel. Today, many Iraqi Jews cling to their unique culture and traditions in Israel, the United States. and the United Kingdom, but in their historic homeland, Judaism is for all intents and purposes extinct, and there is less evidence of the region’s long Jewish history to see each year. Synagogues and shrines in Mosul and Kirkuk, Basra and Baghdad have been turned into mosques. Many houses and cemeteries have been taken over, destroyed, or damaged by authorities or opportunists.

But in the Kurdish part of Iraq, an increasingly autonomous part of the country, that might be beginning to change. In recent years, a trickle of Jews of Iraqi origin have returned for visits or to do business, and a handful of individuals have even come back to stay. Those who do keep a very low profile, and no semblance of community life exists in public. Yet many hope that, if the Kurds achieve their long-deferred dream of independence, Kurdistan may emerge as an unexpected new ally for Israel in Iran’s backyard.

***

The Arab Spring has turned the Middle East upside down, but the upheaval’s biggest beneficiaries may, in the end, be the Kurds. Old seats of power in Baghdad and Damascus that for decades oppressed Kurdish ambitions for greater autonomy have been weakened. In Iraq, and now in Syria, Kurdish-majority areas are enjoying a degree of self-rule never experienced before. A conference of delegates from Kurdish-speaking areas of Turkey, Iran, Syria, Iraq, and the diaspora is set to hold the first official pan-Kurdish meeting in Erbil on Nov. 25—a potentially landmark moment that has raised hackles in both Tehran and Ankara.

While independence may not be imminent, it is no longer a pipe dream. If, or when, a more autonomous or independent Kurdish entity or entities emerge, one decision Kurdish leaders will have to make is whether to establish ties with Israel.

Eliezer Tsafrir, a former Mossad operative, has been waiting for such a moment for decades. Tsafrir was the head of covert Israeli operations in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1975, the year Saddam Hussein quashed a Kurdish rebellion led by Mustafa Barzani, the father of Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government. He has fond memories of a “proud, fierce, and warm mountain people,” memories he elaborates on in his memoir Ana Kurdi—“I Am a Kurd”—which he is now self-publishing in Kurdish.

“It was a love story,” he said when we spoke. ”Under the Barzanis, Jews in Kurdistan did not suffer. On the contrary, they were their friends. Ties with Israel ran deep and began when Mustafa Barzani sent emissaries to Israel through Europe and told us Kurds, like Jews, were ignored by everybody and needed help.”

Iraqi troops fought Israel alongside other Arab armies in 1948, 1967, and 1973, so the Jewish state was happy to help Kurds against their mutual foes in Baghdad. Mossad operatives like Tsafrir ran training camps for Kurdish soldiers in Israel and Iran, under the Shah, at a time when Israel provided them with weapons and supplies. They even considered sending Centurion tanks at one point, Tsafrir told me. “We decided against it because we thought the Kurds were better off fighting an asymmetrical war,” he explained.

Tsafrir’s tenure with the rebels in the mountains of Kurdistan came to an abrupt end when, in an unabashed display of realpolitik, Iran cut a deal with Iraq at a conference in Algeria forsaking its erstwhile Kurdish allies. In the desperate hours before Iraqi troops reached the rebel Kurdish headquarters, Tsafrir said, it fell to him to erase his presence. “We were in a big hurry to burn papers,” Tsafrir recalled. “I had to get out of there before the Iraqi army turned me into a kebab.” Tsafrir said that he is certain that, if Kurdistan becomes independent, Masoud Barzani and others would be friends to Israel. “I want to be Israel’s first consul general in Erbil,” Tsafrir told me.

Of course, there are considerable obstacles to any kind of Israeli-Kurdish rapprochement—namely, Iran, which exerts considerable influence over Kurdistan. “The Iranians are our neighbors,” a senior Kurdish official recently told The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins. “They’ve always been there, and they always will be. We have to deal with them.”

The presence of Iranian agents in the KRG-controlled area is one reason Israel has issued specific travel advisories against travel to Iraq’s Kurdish region—an extra warning, since Israeli citizens are officially prohibited from traveling to any part of Iraq. But many ignore the advisory and travel, usually via Amman, to Erbil, a city newly flush with oil and gas money that is considered among the safest in Iraq. A bombing carried out by a local al-Qaida affiliate in Erbil on Sept. 29 was the first since 2007.

On a busy street corner in Erbil, just outside a crowded shwarma joint, Dino Danil, a Kurdish-Israeli journalist, flashed his wallet showing his Israeli and Kurdish press credentials side by side. “Everybody knows that I am Israeli and Kurdish,” he said nonchalantly. “You can speak Hebrew on the streets and nobody will pay you any attention. There’s no reason to fear here in Erbil.”

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In Iraq’s Kurdish Zone, Israelis and Long-Hidden Jews See Hope for Revived Ties

The prospect of an independent Kurdistan raises the possibility of renewing an alliance in Iran’s backyard