A Fading Generation: The Jews of Kurdistan
By the early 1950s, virtually the entire Jewish community of Kurdistan -- a rugged, mostly mountainous region comprising parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and the Caucasus, where Jews had lived since antiquity -- had been completely relocated to Israel. The vast majority of Kurdish Jews, who were primarily concentrated in northern Iraq, left Kurdistan in the mass aliyah (immigration to Israel) of 1950-51.
Fifty-five years have since passed and the Kurdish-born Israelis, who were teenagers or young adults at that time, have seen their children and grandchildren grow up as native Israelis. The immigrant generation represents the last direct link to the long period of Jewish presence in Kurdistan, as well as the only direct connection to the unique experience of Kurdish Jews during the State of Israel’s most formative years. During the summer of 2004, I interviewed several Kurdish Israelis about their immigration, their transition to life in Israel, the changes their community has undergone, and their views on matters of Judaism and politics in Israel and Iraq. Through the personal accounts and anecdotes of these Kurdish Israelis, this article aims to provide insight into their community and to shed light on controversial areas of Israeli history.
Kurdistan is inhabited primarily by the Kurds, a non-Arab, predominantly Sunni Muslim ethnic group with its own language and culture. Interspersed with the Kurds are smaller populations of Muslim Arabs and Turkmen, as well as Christians and members of other sects. Until the Jewish mass emigration of 1950-51, there were also thousands of Jews living in Kurdistan, spread out in approximately 200 different settlements, including towns and villages such as Mosul, Erbil, Amadiya, Zakho, and Dihok.1 Most scholarly accounts date the Jewish presence in the area to biblical times.2
In general, the native language of the Jews of Kurdistan was neither Arabic -- like most Iraqi Jews -- nor Kurdish. Instead, the Jews (and Christians) of Kurdistan spoke dialects of Aramaic -- a Semitic language, similar to Hebrew. Aramaic, the language of the Talmud and parts of the Bible, was the international language of trade and commerce in the ancient Middle East with a status similar to that of English in the modern world. The Kurdish Jews spoke their own unique dialects of the language, however, which possessed many words borrowed from Kurdish.3 The Kurdish Jews in Israel, along with a small number of Assyrian Christians, are among the last remaining Aramaic speakers in the world; many scholars believe the language will disappear as a spoken language within a generation.4
The Kurdish economy was principally agrarian, although a trend of urbanization was underway by the mid-twentieth century. Many Kurdish Jews worked as peasant farmers or shepherds, and some even owned land, including orchards and vineyards, since the laws banning non-Muslims from owning land were not enforced in Kurdistan.5 Other Kurdish Jews worked as artisans, especially as weavers of wool, or were involved in trade as peddlers or as raftsmen who transported goods.6
Remote and rugged Kurdistan lacked the sophisticated communal religious infrastructure and high level of education that existed in Baghdad. Nevertheless, Kurdish Jewish society was traditional and observant; however, in some cases it merged Jewish customs with local tradition. Shlomo, a resident of Even Sapir, describes the wedding ceremonies of his native Dihok as follows, emphasizing the unique Kurdish-Jewish custom of dyeing the skin with henna ink patterns:
“One would go and ask for the hand of the bride, and (...) [the two families] would make an agreement [as to the price of the dowry]. Then, at the wedding, there would be a henna dyeing party… And the next day the people would take the bride to a river (...) to immerse her. And they would do the same thing with the groom. They would pour water on his head to guard against the evil eye (...). In the evening, they would do henna [i.e., dye skin and hair ceremonially with henna], and the friends of the groom would sit and eat and drink until the morning…”
Virtually all those interviewed viewed life in Kurdistan as morally or religiously purer than life in Israel. As Shlomo explained: “It was not like here [in Israel] where it is rare to find a virgin before marriage; [in Kurdistan] a groom would return whoever wasn’t a virgin.” Others commented that in Kurdistan even Muslims were known to respect Jewish desires to observe the Sabbath, while in Israel it is quite common for secular Jews to disregard the religious sanctity of the day.
In Israel, the Kurdish immigrants and their descendants have kept alive the cultural heritage of Jewish Kurdistan through their distinctive cuisine, music, and traditions. The most significant celebration that is unique to the Kurdish Jews is the Seharane, an annual festival held at the end of Passover that featured music, dancing, and story-telling. As Rahamim describes it, “The last day of Passover we would go out into the fields, have a lot of special foods, and dance to the dola and zerna [Kurdish instruments similar to a flute and drum], all day from the morning until the evening.” The traditional Kurdish foods, which remain popular among the Kurdish community in Israel, include yiprach (grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice and considered a delicacy), kubeh (a wheat dumpling containing meat), and mazza (fried pieces of boiled chicken, fish, or vegetable usually eaten along with ’araq liquor).7 The Seharane has been kept alive in Israel, albeit in modified form; because it fell on the same day as Maimouna, a popular festival of Moroccan-Jewish origin, the observance of Seharane in Israel was moved from the end of Passover to the end of the Sukkot holiday.8
Prior to their immigration, Kurdish Jews, like other Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) Jewish communities, envisioned Israel primarily in religious-national terms, in sharp contrast to the secular nationalist and socialist orientation of the state that the European Zionists had set up. As Shaul, a successful retired businessman from Jerusalem, highlighted, “What we knew about Israel was from the Torah; in the Torah, there are no kibbutzim [secular communes] and there’s no democracy.”
Historical documents show that while Kurdistan was not an easily accessible region, ties with the land of Israel were maintained over the centuries via emissaries of the Jewish community in Palestine, and through occasional migrations. For example, during the crusades, many Jews fled Palestine for Iraq and Kurdistan.9 As early as 1812, small numbers of Kurdish Jews inspired by religious sentiment began immigrating to Palestine; these numbers slowly grew as the immigrants encouraged other Kurdish Jews to join them, and as the nascent Arab nationalist movement, instigated by the growing Jewish-Arab conflict in Palestine, created trouble for Jews throughout Iraq.10 This immigration was small but substantial enough to enable the first modern academic work on Kurdish Jews to be written not in Kurdistan, but in Jerusalem, prior to World War II.11
Immigration and Life in Israel
The major immigration of Kurdish Jews to Israel took place in 1950-51. The Iraqi government became alarmed by initial underground immigration to Israel in 1950, and the Israeli and Iraqi governments reached an agreement permitting Jewish emigration to Israel in 1951 on the condition that Iraqi Jews sell all their property and never return.12 Tens of thousands of Iraqi Jews quickly registered to emigrate in order to flee the anti-Semitic environment that had prevailed in Iraq since the 1940s, and particularly after the outbreak of the War of Independence in Israel in 1948.13 Israel organized massive airlifts known as Operations Ezra and Nehemiah that eventually brought in 130,000 Iraqi Jews—almost all the Jews from Kurdistan as well as from the Arab areas of central and southern Iraq.14
According to the interviewees, many Kurdish Jews maintained relatively positive relations with their Muslim neighbors until the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. Rahamim from Mevasseret Zion related that anti-Semitism increased after 1948 “because of Zionism, because of what they heard was happening in Israel (...). When they heard that in Deir Yassin and in Giv’at Shaul, [the Jews] slaughtered [Arabs], then the hatred started.” Efraim explained that following the War of Independence, Jews in Iraq became subject to “a bit of violence, and some thefts; some people looked upon Jews not so nicely, cursing.”
It is also important to note, though, that Iraq was directly involved in the Arab-Israeli battles of 1948. Fahima, also from Mevasseret Zion, explained:
“The Kurds came to fight in the War of Independence [against the Israelis]. Four or five of my grandfather’s friends came. One was killed in Deir Yassin. One ran away from Deir Yassin and went to Lebanon, and from Lebanon returned to Kurdistan. So my grandfather asked him how the war was. He said: ‘We were in Deir Yassin (...). Whoever ran, ran. And whoever didn’t run was killed (...). We had figured we would go [to Israel], take their property, bring back pretty women, whatever we could do (...).’”15
In the more rural Kurdish Jewish community, powerful religious sentiments -- rather than anti-Semitism -- were often the significant motivation for Jews to leave. This reason for immigration reflects a more traditional lifestyle in comparison with that of the more urbane, Arabic-speaking Jewish communities of Iraq’s major cities like Baghdad. It also reflects the less virulently anti-Semitic environment in Kurdistan relative to the Arab areas. According to Zvi from Mevasseret Zion:
“We were educated from the time that we were born that we were living in the Diaspora, not in our own country. Our country is Jerusalem and the land of Israel (...). We had an idea of Israel as a holy country (...). When we were going to Jerusalem, to the gates of paradise, we came full of joy.”
Following their stay in absorption camps, the Kurdish Jews fanned out across Israel, with many choosing to settle in and around Jerusalem due to its religious significance.16 Even once they were settled in the country, conditions remained difficult for the immigrants, as Rahamim described: “It was very hard. There wasn’t any food (...). People would get a ration of eggs or milk, [but] it was a small portion, hardly enough for a baby (...).”
In addition to the economic situation and the challenges of adapting to a more modern way of life -- “When they first gave us a small refrigerator, we thought it was a bathroom” -- Rahamim explained that the immigrants also had to face an Ashkenazi (European Jewish) dominated society that looked down upon Mizrahi Jews:
“There was conflict and racism between blacks and whites. This was a nation for Ashkenazim, and not for us. We would send a kid to school (...) to go to university, but he would end up going to work in building somewhere (...). I [thought] ‘I will never be a manager because I am black. If I were white, I would’ve been made a manager long ago…’ We worked in dirt, dust, sewage, everything (...). We were forced to do this (...).»
Not all interviewees, however, account for the lack of socio-economic parity in terms of discrimination. As Zvi explained:
“I didn’t feel any discrimination, although some people describe that (...). There were very few among [the Jews from Kurdistan] who [had a secular education] (...). If the Ashkenazim got the jobs first, it was because they were educated. They knew how to read and write, they had been here longer (...). If you’re not educated, they won’t let you be a manager -- you’ll be a worker. So when we came, there wasn’t any work here, and every time a job would open, four or five people would want to fill it. There was manual labor for us, in building, in street construction, painting... Slowly, people learned skills. Slowly, we advanced.”
Indeed, many Kurdish Jews entered construction and similar fields. The Israeli construction business is still dominated by Kurdish Israelis, some of whom have become quite successful, although today Kurdish Israelis are involved in many different occupations.17 Some have reached the highest echelons of Israeli society, such as Yitzhak Mordechai, who had a distinguished career in the army, served as defense minister from 1996 to 1999, and then attempted an unsuccessful bid for prime minister.
As the Kurdish Jews were assimilating and advancing in Israeli society in the 1960s and 1970s, an alliance developed between the state of Israel and the Kurds in Iraq. During this period, Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, along with the CIA and the Iranian Shah’s special operatives, were engaged in operations in Kurdistan to aid the forces of “Mullah” Mustafa Barzani. Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, was fighting for Kurdish autonomy from the Iraqi central government. According to Eliezer Tsafrir, who led Mossad operations in Iran and Kurdistan during the 1970s, Israel managed to spirit a few thousand remaining Iraqi Jews out of Iraq to Israel through Kurdistan with Barzani’s help. While Tsafrir himself is partly of Kurdish origin, he claims that there were few other Kurdish Jews involved in the Israeli operations in Kurdistan, and that the Mossad did not make any effort to recruit them as operatives.18
Israel’s aid to the Kurds fits in with a general pattern of trying to establish alliances with non-Arab groups in the region, but the operations in the 1970s were also specifically designed to support Iran -- at the time, Israel’s main Middle Eastern ally and chief supplier of oil -- and to keep the Iraqi military busy. Israeli aid to the Kurds was terminated in 1975 following the rapprochement between the Shah and Saddam Hussein at the Algiers OPEC Conference.19
Between Two Homelands
Despite having spent most of their lives in Israel, many Kurdish Israelis maintain a high level of identification with their native Kurdistan, the Muslim Kurds, and Kurdish national aspirations. Many firmly believe in the need for an independent Kurdish state, a goal for which many Kurds have been striving since the end of the Ottoman Empire and which Arab nationalists have often denigrated as a potential “second Israel.” Kurdish Jews themselves draw parallels between the historical struggles of the ethnic Kurds and the Jews. Making a comparison between Kurdish suffering and the Jewish Holocaust, Efraim commented that “Saddam [Hussein] did to [the Kurds] what the Jews got in Germany, but in a lesser magnitude.”
Surprisingly, some of the Kurdish Israelis I encountered had traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan recently. Travel to the region became practical for Israelis only after the establishment of Iraqi Kurdish autonomy under the aegis of the American no-fly zone following the 1991 Gulf War. One Kurdish Israeli, who visited Kurdistan during the 1990s, describes how he and his spouse were received by the Kurds:
“When we got to Iraq, people were waiting for us to welcome us (...). They drove us to [our native town] and when we got there, they greeted us at a long table with drums (...). They received us very well; they like Israelis very much. But you have to be careful, you don’t need to stick out. There [were] a lot of spies for Saddam [Hussein], and Iranians, so you should be careful and you shouldn’t go around saying you're Israeli everywhere.”
Another Kurdish Israeli visited Kurdistan in 1994 and then returned again following the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. He describes his motivations for visiting and the Kurdish reaction to the recent Iraq war:
“Since I arrived in Israel in 1951, I longed to go back. [After] the  Gulf War, the [Iraqi government was] not permitted by Americans to go to [certain parts of Kurdistan], so we decided to go and did (...) We traveled, it was very nice and people were nice (...). I felt as if I was in my home (...). [Kurds] were so happy about [the 2003 American invasion], even more than [Jews] were when we got a state [Israel] (...). We visited a place where there were many, many Kurdish Iraqi refugees who were living in very bad conditions. They spoke of what Saddam did to them and that this war was in their favor (...). It was as if they came back from the 'Galut' [exile].”
Support for the US invasion and occupation of Iraq was strong among the interviewees. Efraim reflected a common sentiment shared by Kurds and Kurdish Jews that the American invasion would advance Kurdish interests: “For me [the American occupation is] a great idea. What could be better? After all, it’s where I was born. I want them to have a good life.”
The identification with Kurdistan, however, does not seem to extend beyond support for Kurdish national objectives and the desire to visit occasionally. In all the interviews, there were no discussions of unfulfilled desires to return permanently to Kurdistan, though one person did proudly display an Arabic letter he received inviting him to return to participate in the building of Iraqi democracy. Rather, those interviewed expressed the belief that the future of their community and their families is linked firmly to the Jewish state. The children and grandchildren of the Jews who came from Kurdistan are already fully ‘Israeli,’ in the sense of identity and culture, and, at the same time, their Kurdish-Jewish heritage has contributed to defining Israel’s national identity and history.
Source: Yale Israel Journal
Footnotes1.↑ Ora Schwartz-Be’eri, “The Jews of Kurdistan: Daily Life, Customs, Arts and Crafts” (Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 2000), 25.
2.↑ Erich Brauer, “The Jews of Kurdistan”, Ed. Raphael Patai (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993), 56.
4.↑ Gil Sedan, “Arts & Culture Groups Try to Revive Aramaic, Language of Both Abraham, Jesus”, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 26 August 2002.
5.↑ Brauer 205.
6.↑ Brauer 217-220.
7.↑ Mordechai Yona, “The Seharane”, The Jewish Agency for Israel.
9.↑ Brauer 58.
10.↑ Brauer 71-72.
11.↑ This work is “The Jews of Kurdistan” by Erich Brauer.
12.↑ Nissim Mishal, “Operations Ezra & Nechemia: The Aliyah of Iraqi Jews”, Jewish Virtual Library.
13.↑ Mitchell Bard, “The Jews of Iraq”, Jewish Virtual Library.
14.↑ “Operations Ezra & Nechemia”.
15.↑ The battle at Deir Yassin constitutes one of the most controversial episodes of the War of Independence, as it is alleged that Jewish troops massacred Arabs. The interviews here can be seen as indicative of the prominence the account of Deir Yassin achieved in public discourse in the Middle East during this period.
16.↑ Schwartz-Be’eri 34-35.
18.↑ Tsafrir has written a book about his experiences in Kurdistan: “Ana Kurdi: 75 Shenot Mula Mustafah ve’od 4000: Roman Milhamah u’Milut be’Kurdistan” (Or Yehuda: Hed Arzi, 1999 (Hebrew)).
19.↑ See “Algiers Accord – 1975” for information about the treaty between Iran and Iraq, Mideast Web.