IRBIL, Iraq — Sherzad Omer Mamsani has always tried to foster Kurdistan’s ties with Jews and Israel, and has paid a heavy price for it. In 1997, a book he wrote about the topic angered local radical Islamist groups, leading to a bombing in which he lost a hand.
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Now Mamsani has a chance to pursue his lifelong mission in an official capacity, after being named Jewish affairs representative for the government of the semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
Mariwan Naqshbandi, who leads an office in the Kurdish government’s Ministry of Religious Affairs that promotes religious coexistence, said the decision is part of the government’s efforts to show it is serious in its hospitality to all religions, including Judaism.
In accordance with a law passed by the Kurdish parliament in May, the ministry established seven departments dealing with various religious minorities, including the Baha’i, Zoroastrians and Yazidis, Naqshbandi said. Mamsani’s department will be in charge of relations with Jews of Kurdish origin, a community that numbers between 200,000 and 300,000, most of whom live in Israel, said Naqshbandi.
Only a handful of Jews — the last remnants of a large and ancient community — are believed to be still living in Iraq. But Naqshbandi said there are some 200 to 300 families in Iraqi Kurdistan who outwardly converted to Islam over the last decades but who continue to secretly observe certain Jewish traditions.
Mamsani himself claims Jewish ancestry, and has been active in strengthening the region’s ties to Israel by publishing a local magazine called “Israel Kurd” and leading a nongovernmental organization of the same name.
Since losing his right hand in the bombing Mamsani, 39, wears a prosthetic hand, but that didn’t stop him from volunteering with the Kurdish peshmerga forces to fight against the Islamic State earlier this year.
“Those behind the attack [on me] are now probably with Daesh,” Mamsani said, using the Arabic acronym for the organization that is also known as ISIS or ISIL. Speaking to Haaretz in a hotel in Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, he said he believes the war the Kurds are fighting against Islamic State is distancing many Iraqi Kurds from radical Islam, allowing for a better relationship with Jews and Israel.
Mamsani is open about his Jewish roots, and has visited Israel several times. Photos on his Facebook profile show him posing at Jerusalem’s Western Wall and with Israeli soldiers. But for many in Kurdistan, a mainly Islamic society, having Jewish grandparents is a well-guarded family secret. Only a handful of people covertly cling to their roots and still speak the Aramaic of the Kurdish Jews, he said.
Before Israel’s establishment, in 1948, there were at least 120,000 Jews living in Iraq, many of them in Iraqi Kurdistan. By the early 1950s most had left the country, as a result of increasing violence and persecution targeting them. Those who stayed converted to Islam or left in the 1970s, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein targeted the remaining Jewish community.
“Since Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, the relation between Kurds and Israel had been stopped,” Mamsani said, adding, “When the Arabs were in power, Islam ruled and Jewish culture got lost.”
His goal is to reconnect Iraqi Kurds to Jewish culture and to relatives they may have abroad. “We work with the government to reunite families, and to help those Kurds who want to find out about their Jewish roots.”
Also on Mamsani’s work agenda is the reconstruction of synagogues in the region, which are now in ruins. “We want one in every town, a meeting place for the people. But only after the war, because now there is no money,” he said.
Naqshbandi, Mamsani’s boss, said there has been some backlash over Mamsani’s new position. “We know some mullahs are against it, but we are in contact with them,” Naqshbandi said. Negative reactions have come from Baghdad and Tehran. “The Iranian consul has been here to protest,” he said. “Tehran is not happy about both the Jewish and the Baha’i office, as they consider the Baha’i unbelievers.”
But Naqshbandi does not expect local residents to object to Mamsani’s work. “Kurdistan has no problems with other cultures or religions,” he said. He is not shy to stress the region’s quiet but positive ties with Israel. “The Kurds love Israel, and Israel supports our state,” Naqshbandi said. “If Israel ever opens an embassy in Baghdad, it will open a second one in Irbil.”
News reports say Israel has bought as much as three-quarters of its oil from Iraqi Kurdistan in recent months, accounting for one-third of the autonomous region’s oil exports. Israel is also said to have provided discreet assistance and training to the peshmerga for decades and, more recently, at least one person from the Jewish state — Gill Rosenberg, a Canadian-Israeli woman — is known to have joined Kurdish forces in their fight against Islamic State.