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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.”

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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