Kurdish charm offensive may cause strife

The recent Farhud and Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies conducted in Erbil are part of a campaign to enlist US Jewish aid for Kurdish aspirations.  But Kurds now living in Jewish property may resist a plan to revive the Jewish community. There is also controversy over how many Jews – if any – there are presently in Kurdistan, and the motives of Sherzad Omer Mahmoud Mamsani,the director of Jewish affairs. Zvi Barel reports in Haaretz:

In addition, a senior Kurdish delegation, including Sherzad Mamsani, the Kurdish government’s newly appointed director of Kurdish Jewish affairs, recently visited Washington, D.C. to seek financial aid for the war the Kurds are waging on the Islamic State, and at the same time to gauge support for the establishment of an independent Kurdish state.

Kurdish media reports say the delegation met with Jewish lobbyists in Washington and also sought Israeli backing to promote their interests. The Kurds still believe in the ability of the American Jewish lobby and of Israel to influence the United States, and they make a point of stressing the bond between the Kurds and the Jews.

This year, for the first time, a ceremony was held in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was attended by representatives from the Russian, American and French consulates, as well as from Armenia, who together lit six candles in memory of the six million. Also for the first time, the Jewish dignitaries present donned skullcaps.

Although there is disagreement over the number of Jews, or descendants of Jews, who live in Kurdistan, the region’s administration decided to set up a special Jewish section as part of its Ministry of Religion, similar to other departments that deal with religious minorities. Kurdish media say there are several thousand descendants of Jews in Kurdistan, many of whom converted to Islam; some have hidden their Jewishness for decades. For their part, however, Israeli academics believe there are no Jews in Kurdistan.

This dispute has not stopped Mariwan Naqshbandi, head of the Department for Religious Coexistence, from announcing plans to build a synagogue and to restore the Jewish quarter in the capital of Erbil. Even if his words are not backed up by action, they certainly send an important message. Still, at the same time, some Kurds worry that if a Jewish community is revived in the region, it might be accompanied by a fight to have Jewish property restored to its owners. Some of the Jewish houses in the quarter were leased to Kurdish inhabitants; others were given away or sold without permission to people who have been living in them for decades now.

“A solution can be found for everything,” a Kurdish journalist who lives in Erbil tells Haaretz. “It’s a question of money. Kurdistan has an interest in seeing Kurdish Jews return, to help develop its economy and invest in it. The historic bond with Israel is still fondly remembered here, and it’s also important as a way of strengthening Kurdistan’s connection with the West.”

Why doesn’t this journalist want his name published? “There are all kinds of folks here that might want to harm someone who tries to publicly promote the tie with Israel. It’s better to be careful,” he explains.

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