In the streets of Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, today, a small group of local Jews wear their kippahs proudly. It is a sight only the city’s elderly can recall having seen before, and espying this long-forgotten religious headgear has brought a few to tears.

Following the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948, anti-Jewish violence forced the 2,500-year-old Iraqi Jewish community out of its ancient homeland and back to its even more ancient homeland. By the end of 1952, most of the 150,000 descendants of the Israelites exiled to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar had emigrated to the newly founded Jewish state. Today, following persecution in the 1960-70s under the Ba’ath party, which forced Jews to carry yellow identity cards, Iraq is nearly judenrein.

But Sherzad Mamsani, 39, is now leading the charge to preserve and revive Jewish culture in his native Iraqi Kurdistan, sometimes at great personal risk.

He started his work in 1997, penning a book about his region’s ties with Israel. This earned him the ire of local radical Islamists, who carried out a bombing against him that took his right hand. Mamsani, who volunteered last year to fight in the peshmerga militia against the Islamic State terror group, would not be cowed. And in October 2015, within the framework of a law to protect minorities that he helped pass, he was given an official appointment in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as the director of Kurdish Jewish Affairs.

Every three hours a plane arrived at Lod Airport carrying Jewish immigrants from Iraq and Kurdistan via Tehran, May 1951 (photo credit: GPO)

Every three hours a plane arrived at Lod Airport carrying Jewish immigrants from
Iraq and Kurdistan via Tehran, May 1951 (photo credit: GPO)

There are only a handful of Iraqi Kurds who claim Jewish descent. While Sherzad says that his mother is Jewish, the great majority of the small community can only point to a grandparent somewhere in their family tree. There are no synagogues operating there today, either. The movement is more about identity, restoring a missing part of the cultural mosaic in Kurdistan and righting a historical injustice.

To try and quantify the number Jews in Kurdistan would also require this small community and the KRG to define who is Jewish, and neither is willing to walk down that mine-strewn path.

But in a country torn by horrific sectarianism, there is a popular movement to foster coexistence and defend minorities, however small they may be. This movement includes the Jewish community and is also led by them. It could also impact the nearly 200,000 Kurdish Jews who live in Israel, as it grants them the right to claim reparations.

The Times of Israel caught up with the soft-spoken Mamsani in Jerusalem. He was participating in a conference organized by the Springs of Hope Foundation that focused on the persecution of minority groups in places controlled by IS, especially the enslavement of Yazidi women. Forgoing his lunch break, he spoke in Iraqi Arabic about his work reviving the once-great Iraqi Jewish heritage.

Why were you chosen to represent Jews in the Kurdish parliament?

I was an activist in the field going all the way back to 1997. I sacrificed my body and soul on this path to revive the history of the Jews in Iraq and especially in Kurdistan. This was my big dream. No one chose me. I chose this issue.

I was once very fearful that if I wrote an article or a book as an Iraqi Kurdish Jew, perhaps Islamists, Iranians or anyone else who hates Israel or the Jews might hurt me. The Kurdish people, Muslim, Christian or Yazidi, are not against the Jews or Israel. I have, however, been beaten at least three times by radical Islamists since 1997.

After the liberation of Iraq and the fall of Sadam Hussein, there is now more freedom in Kurdistan. However, though Iraq is free, there are still many Islamists and friction between political parties. After 2003, I tried to advance the revival of Jewish history in Iraq through different NGOs in the area, primarily as a bid to increase tolerance.

Then IS came. After they came to the area, the understanding of Islam — of radical Islam — changed among the Kurds. Before IS arrived, no one would declare publicly that he was Jewish, walk through the streets with a kippah or openly deny the authenticity of Islam. But now that IS came, everything has changed. Now 60% of people don’t go to the mosque anymore. Now people are not afraid to say out loud whatever religion they come from, whether it’s Jewish, Christian, Yazidi or Zoroastrian.

In 2014, my Kurdish Jewish friends and I wrote a plan to bolster religious tolerance and help religions defend themselves. We first presented the plan to the communication and co-existence minister, Mariwan Naqshbandi [who works within the Ministry of Religious of Affairs], and then to the government.

Now that IS came, everything has changed. Now 60% of the people don’t go to the mosque anymore. Now people are not afraid to say out loud whatever religion they come from, whether it’s Jewish, Christian, Yazidi or Zoroastrian

The Kurdish parliament is full of people friendly to the Jews, including Muslims, Zoroastrians, Yazidis, who provided support to pass the legislation.

After two days of discussing the plan in parliament, the legislation was adopted with incredibly broad support. Even Islamist parties voted yes, which was surreal. The only people who did not support the bill were some of those loyal to Iran. Every parliamentary bloc, including the PDK (Kurdish Democratic Part) and PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) supported the law, which was adopted on May 5, 2014, under the title of The Law for Minorities in Kurdistan.

Under this law, any Jew who emigrated can request what is rightfully his from the government, including lands, buildings and farms. He can even get compensation from the Kurdish government. Additionally, any man is free to practice his religion. Even if he is the only person practicing this religion, he can request representation in the ministry of religious affairs. Even if he is a star-worshiper, he can get representation in the government. There is no other government anywhere like this in the Middle East — except for in Israel.

For 70 years, Kurdish Jews were distant from their religion. But one does not forget their blood. My religion is not just about prayer. I’m not a Muslim, Christian, Yazidi or Zoroastrian. I am a Jew. God made me like this.

I want to revive the history of the most ancient people in Mesopotamia. Why did we forget this most beautiful culture of ours? They took over our culture before and during the time of Saddam. Now I want to defend it in any way possible.

Sherzad Omar Mamsani, the Jewish representative at the Kurdish regional ministry, looks at photographs displayed during a ceremony marking the deportation of Jews from Iraq seven decades ago, in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, November 30, 2015. (AFP/SAFIN HAMED)

Sherzad Omar Mamsani, the Jewish representative at the Kurdish regional ministry, looks at photographs displayed during a ceremony marking the deportation of Jews from Iraq seven decades ago, in Irbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, November 30, 2015. (AFP/SAFIN HAMED)

But I want to stay away from politics. I don’t want involve myself in party politics here [in Israel] or in Kurdistan. Our issue is bigger than politics. Our issue goes back 2,700 years.

What have you been working on during your brief period in government?

Since Islam came to this area 1,400 years ago, Jews have been depicted in a bad light through education, through religion, through culture and media. I am trying to clean up this picture in the minds of the Kurdish people, which was manufactured by the successive Arab and Iranian governments that have been here.

Today, I am a testimony to what Jewish culture and ethics really are. I show the locals that Jews are not a danger to them. The reverse is true. We want to live in peace. From Israel to America, every Jew in the world wants to live in peace.

Is there any specific story that captures the work you’ve been doing?

Today, I am a testimony to what Jewish culture and ethics really are. I show the locals that Jews are not a danger to them

On November 30, 2015, we had an event commemorating the expulsion of the Jews from Iraq. [November 30, the day after the passage of the 1947 UN Partition for Palestine, is the date chosen by the Israeli government to remember the Jewish exodus from the Middle East.]

I was very afraid to organize such an event. I was worried a radical Islamist, Iranian or someone who sympathizes with the Palestinians might try to attack the event. We had no protection. Instead, I saw that over four hundred people came, including an important imam, as well as representatives from the Christian community and 40 representatives from different Kurdish political parties. I was overjoyed. Everyone who came expressed sympathy over the inhumane policies that the government had carried out against the Jews.

KRG Director of Jewish Affairs Sherzad Mamsani speaking at a ceremony in Arbil commemorating the expulsion of the Jews from Iraq, on November 30, 2015. (Courtesy: Facebook)

KRG Director of Jewish Affairs Sherzad Mamsani speaking on November 30, 2016, during a ceremony in Irbil commemorating the expulsion of the Jews from Iraq. (Courtesy: Facebook)

From this day onward, I said I would not believe or mention the word impossible. And since that day, I began to wear Jewish clothing, looking like any other Jew. I and all my Jewish friends wear kippahs now. When we walk through the streets, people ask us to take pictures with them. Sometimes they think we are Israelis.

From this day onward, I said I would not believe or mention the word impossible. And since that day, I began to wear Jewish clothing, looking like any other Jew

Some people who see us on the street tell us that this is the first time they have ever seen Jews here. Those who are much older, 70-80 years plus, can remember when Jews used to live here and are overwhelmed when they see us. Some even begin to cry, saying “finally you’ve returned.” They say they can still recall all those terrible things that happened to us.

The kippah you are wearing (a knitted kippah) has a specific message that you are a Zionist. Are you aware of that?

I know and I am proud of this symbol and in the country. There is no shame.

What challenges have you faced since starting in your new position?

“A fruitful tree will always be stoned by children.” [An Arabic expression meaning that if you’re successful, people will try to cut you down.]

From my first day in office, I visited the [former] minister of Endowment and Religious Affairs, Kamal Muslim, every day and said that today we are afraid: afraid of Iran, afraid of Baghdad and afraid of IS. And every day for six months, he told me to come back tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. He also said he wanted to make a consensus of how many Jews were here. Why do you want a census? I asked him. So our enemies can find us and kill us little by little? The law does not call for a census. Such behavior was just insanity. However, the first day I took advantage of my position and reported the minister’s actions, they got rid of him.

Can you imagine Jewish tourists coming to Kurdistan?

Today in our ministry, there is a new office for religious tourism. The ministry recognizes eight different religions and every faith has a tourist office designated for it. I also have an office for Jewish tourism. We would like to see coordination with Israeli tourism companies for Jews to visit Kurdistan under our protection, as long as Israel agrees.

We would like to see coordination with Israeli tourism companies for Jews to visit Kurdistan under our protection, as long as Israel agrees.

I have a lot of construction plans for Jewish cultural sites, including synagogues, cemeteries, and the tombs of the prophets Nahum, Daniel and Eliezer. I sat down with the tourist minster and we agreed together that we would restore all the Jewish cultural sites, even the graveyards. However, the Iraqi government is making it difficult for us [the Kurds] to use our assets and money. Sometimes we cannot even sell our gas. But if the financial crisis ends, I have an official agreement for 100% restoration of the Jewish cultural sites.

As the representative for Jews in the religious ministry, however, I do not intervene in business. Business and politics are their own thing and my work is another. But I would proudly help any Jewish investor who wants to bring Jews to visit.

Should Israel intervene in the genocide happening in Iraq?

Israel, whether it wants to or not, must intervene. Why? Because this is the border against terrorism. As a people who experienced the Holocaust and the Farhud [a large pogrom in 1941 against the Jewish population of Baghdad], it is an essential part of our ethics to support oppressed people anywhere, including the Kurds, the Zoroastrians or the Yazidis, no matter where they are.

A Yazidi Iraqi woman sits with her children at the Bajid Kandala camp near the Tigris River, in Kurdistan's western Dohuk province, where they took refuge after fleeing advances by Islamic State jihadists in Iraq on August 13, 2014.(Photo credit:AFP/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)

A Yazidi Iraqi woman sits with her children at the Bajid Kandala camp near the Tigris River, in Kurdistan’s western Dohuk province, where they took refuge after fleeing advances by Islamic State jihadists in Iraq on August 13, 2014.(Photo credit:AFP/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE)

Israel must understand that it is already in our conflict. There is no difference between Hezbollah, Hamas and IS. The only difference is the flag. This one is green and the other is black. What is the difference between Jewish children in Israel being killed with a knife, and a IS man killing a Kurd in Iraq? It’s the same thing.

Israel must understand that it is already in our conflict. There is no difference between Hezbollah, Hamas and IS

The Western media has reversed the image of Israel and is claiming that all of the terror attacks that are happening are not terrorism. And international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch have released reports saying that oppressed people — in this case Israel – are in fact the oppressors. Both Kurdistan and Israel are oppressed and not the oppressors.There are missiles being shot toward civilian areas in Israel. Is this not terrorism? And wiping out a whole town in Iraq, consisting of Yazidis and Kurds, is this not terror? Is IS really the only terrorist in the picture? But Hezbollah and Hamas are not labeled terrorists? Of course they are the terrorists.

If you think about it, when the Iraqi army was under the command of Nuri al-Maliki [the former prime minister of Iraq], whose loyalty belongs to Iran, they left Mosul without any defense for the people, both Yazidis and Kurds. This rendered them completely vulnerable to genocide by IS.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks during Convergence of religions conference in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, April 27, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Karim Kadim)

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki speaks during Convergence of Religions conference in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, April 27, 2013 (AP/Karim Kadim)

All of this terror is coming from the same source: some Arab Muslim countries and especially Iran. Today, Iran’s commanders are saying they will wipe out Israel off the face of the Earth; they also deny the Holocaust.

They do the same thing with the Kurds. There are hundreds of executions in the streets of Iran in an attempt to wipe out Kurdish identity — whether Muslim, Zoroastrian, Jewish or anything else.

Israel is in this conflict whether it likes it or not. It’s been this way for years. Hezbollah, Hamas and IS all come from the same source. Terrorism, whether by a Sunni or Shiite, is terrorism. I do not want to keep repeating myself, but I see that Israel understands the situation well. We are not neighbors, but if IS or Iran occupies our land, it’s over. What will happen to Israel’s Golan Heights?

I am no politician. These are my personal thoughts. As an Israeli, you deal with missiles fired at your city and people being attacked in the street. In Kurdistan, we are in the same position. There are no explosions within the Kurdish region. It is safe. But just over 40 kilometers from where I live in Irbil, they will kill you based on your name.