A region that has hardly any Jews left appoints a director for Jewish affairs. That is a striking development, taking place in the Kurdistan Region, which lost most of its Jewish population in the fifties of the last century.
After the forming of the state Israel, Iraq was the scene of anti-zionism and anti-Jewish attacks, which led to many Jews fleeing the country illegally. And after the Iraqi government created a law that made it possible for them to leave in a legal way, many more left, even though they had to submit their Iraqi nationality and leave behind all their properties.
Those who stayed converted to Islam, and a few went underground. With the result that today the Kurdistan Region counts no more than 300 families that still treasure their Jewish roots.
As I did research on the Jewish heritage of Kurdistan, I know that next to these Benjews, - meaning: those with Jewish roots - many people in Kurdistan still have a special feeling for their Jewish grandmothers.
But the radical Islam preached in Kurdistan declared Jews to be the enemy, disregarding that - like the Christians - they are the so-called ‘people of the book’. And for years hardly anyone in Kurdistan dared to mention their own Jewish bloodline.
It seems strange, but thanks to the radical Islamic terror group ISIS the mood has changed. Because of its atrocities, many Kurds turned their backs on the radical Islam. While at the same time, the Kurdish authorities decided to make sure religious minorities would feel safe and welcome in the region.
As the result of a law adapted by the Kurdistan parliament in May, all these minorities were offered a directorate general in the Ministry of Religion. And surprisingly, the Jews too – even though they must by far be the smallest religious minority in the region.
And yet, allowing this group its own representative could have the biggest impact of all. Many thousands of Jewish Kurds live now in Israel, and have not been able to be in contact with their relatives in Kurdistan for years. The road to family reunions has now opened, and an end to secrecy could well be in sight.
As I understand from Mariwan Naqshbandi, the person responsible for these new directorates, already some 400 families who returned from Israel are living in Kurdistan. The fact that this has been happening without any signs of discontent from the side of the Kurdish communities they came back to, tells us that the winds have truly changed.
That will open the way for others to return. It is known that the Kurdish community is one of the most tight ones, even in Israel today, and it could well be that people will want to come back to the land of their parents and grandparents. Perhaps first to visit, but probably some will want to resettle here.
In that way, a Jewish community will be reborn in Kurdistan, and eventually synagogues will be opened again, and rabbis will come to bring the religion back to life.
To make that happen, we will also have to solve some issues and talk about the properties many had to leave behind. That will be the hardest chapter of reuniting Jews and Kurds, probably involving court cases and bad feelings.
Yet at the same time it could save the former Jewish quarters of Erbil from disappearing. Most of the houses there still are the property of the original owners, and rents have been put into a frozen bank account for years. If the new directorate can work to unfreeze that account, the money could be used to reconstruct the badly derelict neighbourhood and bring it back to life.
But these are sensitive issues, as the confiscated property was given to Kurds. Robbing people of houses they consider to be theirs could inflame negative feelings that should be avoided to be able to rebuild a thriving Jewish community.
The time seems ripe to stimulate this, for better relations between the Kurds and the Jewish state. To upgrade that to formal diplomatic relations won’t be possible until Baghdad does the same, or the Kurds extend their autonomous status in Iraq to an even more independent one. Israel will support the latter, its leaders have already stated.
The bonds between Jews and Kurds are centuries old. They deserve to be revived, because they will help Kurdistan to prosper and Kurdish communities to become whole again. But this can only be done through good communications, so Kurdish people do not feel threatened by the Jewish presence.
The new representative has a role to play there – as he already did by volunteering in the Kurdish Peshmerga. His message should be, loud and clear: Jews are no strangers, we are all Kurds.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.
*Judit Neurink wrote a novel about the Jews of Kurdistan, called the Jewish Bride, which is due to be published this month in Kurdish translation by Andesha Publishers in Sulaimani.