Dreaming of Independence, Iraqi Kurds Reach Out to Jews and Israel for Support

An independent Kurdish state would be cut off from the world, but the Kurds refuse to give up their national aspirations and are even enlisting Jewish aid. There is even talk of renewing Erbil's Jewish quarter.

Judit Neurink

“Kurdistan deserves an amicable divorce from Baghdad,” wrote Masrour Barzani, chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, in The Washington Post earlier this month. “Iraq is a conceptual failure, compelling peoples with little in common to share an uncertain future... Iraq is a failed state, and our continued presence within it condemns us all to unending conflict and enmity.” Separation from Iraq is the only option, he concludes.

Barzani, son of Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani, wants to hold a referendum soon on the province’s future, and expects a majority to vote in favor of independence. But he is also well aware of the possible implications of such a declaration. Iran has already announced that it supports a united Iraq. The United States shares this position, and Turkey (echoing Israel’s attitude toward the Palestinians) views an independent Kurdish state as threat to its national security.

So if an independent state is indeed established in the Kurdish region of Iraq, it will be without international consent: Its flight paths to the rest of the world will be closed off; the electricity grid that connects it to Turkey will be impacted; trade with Iraq, Turkey and Iran will be halted; and oil sales, which account for 90 percent of the area’s revenue, will be stopped at the Turkish border. But the dream cannot be shattered, and the Kurdish leadership, which acts as if it is not part of Iraq, is trying to persuade the U.S. administration to change its policy.

Masrour Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s security council, in February, 2016.
Alice Martins/AP

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.

Jewish Kurdistan

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.

In fact, Kurdistan is one of the safest areas in the Middle East today. Up until two years ago, when the Islamic State, or ISIS, captured parts of Iraq and Syria, more than 38,000 tourists visited the region annually, mostly from Iran and the Arab states – but not only. After the ISIS conquests, the number of plummeted by half, leading to the closings of dozens of restaurants and hotels. The Kurdish leadership is now investing millions to upgrade the tourism infrastructure.

From my visits there, I can attest that Kurdistan is a magnificent, scenic area just waiting for visitors who enjoy trekking and jeep tours. There are some excellent hotels, fine multicultural restaurants, and malls bursting with quality goods. The only thing missing now seems to be a branch of Chabad and the first kosher restaurant.