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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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For some, there is only opportunity. Aharon Efroni, who left Mosul for Israel in 1951, is investing money in the KRG and has been there too many times for him to count. “We want to introduce modern technology and industry to the country,” he said. “If they ever want to become a country at all, they need to be more self-dependent.” Though Mosul remains too dangerous to visit, Efroni frequents cities like Erbil and Duhok, where he is cultivating ties with senior politicians and businessmen. If Kurdistan wants to become independent, he said, it needs a more varied economy, and he is more than happy to provide his commercial expertise. “Right now they import everything,” he said.

I asked him if ventures like his might pave the way to the establishment of official ties between the two. Efroni took a deep breath before he answered and then said with a sense of yearning and confidence: “Everything in due time.”

***

On one of Erbil’s many new highways, I saw a silver Porsche overtake a rickety rickshaw. It was not an unusual sight in this city, where ostentatious displays of modernity and wealth are increasingly common. The sides of the roads are lined with luxury car dealerships and shopping malls, which have quickly replaced markets as centers of social and commercial life. Above, dozens of cranes and new tower buildings dominate the sky.

Oil revenues are just half of the secret of this region’s success. The rare degree of safety and stability provided by Peshmerga fighters—whose name means “those who face death”—is the other. The bustling streets of Erbil seem a million miles away from Kirkuk, Mosul, and Baghdad, where shootings and bombings are part of the daily routine. Here, entrepreneurs with the right connections and sufficient capital can acquire huge fortunes fast.

Nur Ben Shlomo is a member of the city’s new elite. He is a plump, middle-aged man who holds vast interests in construction and communication. I met him for tea in a large reception hall, where he sat in an oversized chair flanked by two Kurdish flags below a photo of Masoud Barzani. Outside, a dozen personal bodyguards clad in military fatigues and carrying AK-47s secured the area. His company’s logo is ubiquitous throughout Erbil, and he boasts excellent ties with the government. Though he leads a very public life, there is one thing about him few people know, something he shares only with his innermost circle: his Jewish identity.

“My father always told me to know wherever I go that I am a Jew,” he told me, beaming with pride. Nevertheless, he asked me to use his Hebrew name, not his real name, as a precaution. He told me both his parents were of mixed Jewish origin. He has relatives in Israel—a fact he hid growing up under the Saddam regime. “It was very dangerous being Jewish,” he said. “Until today it is not good for us to talk about it.”

These days, he said, he quietly observes Jewish traditions at home. A few weeks before we met he ate apples dipped apples in honey for Rosh Hashana and fasted on Yom Kippur. Four years ago, he went to Israel for the first time and was reunited with a long-lost uncle. He visited the Western Wall, met with other Iraqi Jews, and spent time in Tel Aviv. He has been back three times since. “The land, I felt like this is mine, a connection,” he told me, speaking softly and deliberately in English when he felt he could and in Kurdish through a translator when he did not. “Here, I feel like a guest.”

He said one of the reasons he wants to see his businesses grow is to be able to change things for Jews in Iraqi Kurdistan, so they can one day live more openly. Now, he told me, is not yet the time. “Maybe 10 years from now,” he said. “Maybe 15.”

***

Tomb of Nahum
The Tomb of Nahum, 2013. (Gil Shefler)

The Tomb of Nahum is the exception to the region’s disappearing Jewish landscape. Thanks to its remote location and the care of a local Christian family, the shrine is one of the few that have been left untouched, though the ravages of time have clearly taken their toll. Two domes have collapsed. The others are full of crevices. If it weren’t for the ugly tin roof built two years ago by a wealthy Iraqi Jew from Britain, it might all be a pile of rubble by now. For the resting place of a prophet—even a minor one like Nahum—it’s bit of a letdown, especially in comparison to the grandeur of the nearby village churches.

Still, with a little effort one can imagine what it must have been like in its glory days, when thousands of pilgrims would camp in the surrounding fields for three days and three nights during the holiday of Shavuot. In 1948, when the last Jewish family in Alqosh left for Israel, a Christian family promised to look after the tomb. The current groundskeeper—who asked not to be identified by name—is a descendent of that family. Born years after Jews left, he said his mother often spoke fondly about them and the business they generated. “She would make food and light fires when they could not,” he told me, referring to Shabbat prohibitions. “Everybody would rent out our rooms when they came.”

Visitors, some Jewish, some not, still come—maybe five a year. Two years ago, Yosef Rahamim, a native of Mosul who has lived in Israel for six decades, was one of them. As a child, Rahamim visited Nahum’s tomb every year with his family. “We would play trumpets and bang drums,” he remembered. “Then we would walk with the Torah scrolls up the mountain slope to the top, singing and dancing before coming back down again.”

He yearns to see it restored, but time is running out. The tomb is in grave condition. His children and grandchildren, who have never known any country but Israel, are not connected to Iraq the way he is. At home in Kiryat Malachi, he sits glued to “31 Iraqi channels” on TV. He does not want to move back to Iraq, just visit more freely. Yet the rigors of travel are becoming increasingly difficult. He is not a young man, and he is not sure he will ever see the tomb of Nahum again. “In my life I’ve been all over the world,” he said. “But if I’ve ever enjoyed visiting a place it’s there. It is my culture, my language, they understand me, I understand them—what more does one need?”

For a video report from the Tomb of Nahum, click here.

***

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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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