Collateral damage

Kurdistan sacks Jewish community representative to appease Baghdad

Two years after being asked to rebuild a decimated community, Sherzad Mamsani has been removed from his position. The catch: He was an unpaid volunteer

Iraqi Kurdistan Jewish representative Sherzad Mamsani speaks at a Holocaust Memorial Day event on May 5, 2016. (Judit Neurink/Times of Israel)
Iraqi Kurdistan Jewish representative Sherzad Mamsani speaks at a Holocaust Memorial Day event on May 5, 2016. (Judit Neurink/Times of Israel)

IRBIL, Iraq – After working for Iraqi Kurdistan’s Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs for two years, the region’s Jewish representative, Sherzad Mamsani, has been let go. The move is especially peculiar since Mamsani’s position was unpaid.

Mamsani said he was not forewarned about his dismissal, which occurred while he was on sick leave abroad.

Mariwan Nasqshbandy, the director of religious coexistence at the Endowment and Religious Affairs Ministry, hinted that the firing could be an effort by the Kurds to reconcile with Baghdad following shaky relations after an independence referendum in September of last year. In the referendum, 93 percent of Iraqi Kurds voted for secession and an autonomous state.

Nasqshbandy said that the move was likely political because the Religious Affairs ministry previously ignored his complaints that Mamsani was proving ineffective at mobilizing Kurdistan’s dormant Jewish community.

Mariwan Naqshbandi, director of religious coexistence at the Endowment and Religious Affairs Ministry for Iraqi Kurdistan, speaks at a Holocaust Memorial Day event on May 5, 2016. (Judit Neurink/Times of Israel)

Mamsani was one of seven religious minority representatives whose posts were created by the Kurdistani parliament in 2015. The Jewish representative’s position was unique in that its aim was to unite Kurds whose Jewish grandparents converted to Islam. He wanted to offer them a Jewish education and opportunity to return to their roots.

To help rebuild the Jewish community in Kurdistan, Mamsani looked for help from Rabbi Daniel Edri, the chief of the Haifa, Israel, rabbinical court.

In a telephone call with The Times of Israel, Edri claimed that Kamal Muslim, the Minister of Endowment and Religious Affairs, appointed him chief rabbi of Kurdistan. (Naqshbandy said he had no knowledge of this.)

A December 30, 2017 post on the Facebook page entitled Rabbi Daniel EDRI Kurdistan claimed that the region had a new rabbi for the first time in years.

Sherzad Mamsani, left, with Israeli Rabbi Daniel Edri, who is helping trace Jewish lineage and rebuild the community in the region. (Courtesy)

“Hello my friends from all over the world,” the post said. “Its Kurdistan have new Rabbi after 70 years [sic]. Its the first time after 70 years a Rabbi can start in Kurdistan the new Jewish life.”

The rabbi stressed that Israel did not send him and that he has no political motivations. “I will only work for the religion, since the [locals] do not have any information on the Jewish laws,” Edri said.

Since the September referendum, Kurdish airports have been closed for international flights and Iraqi troops have taken control of disputed territories formerly overseen by the Kurds, including the oil rich city of Kirkuk. Iran also temporarily closed its borders with the Kurdistan region.

Edri expects to return to Irbil as soon as international flights are resumed, although Naqshbandy said he would prefer to have a Kurdish rabbi who speaks the language.

A flag-waving Zionist?

In most Muslim countries leaving Islam is considered a crime, but returning to Judaism is especially discouraged by the staunchly anti-Israel governments in Baghdad and Tehran. Both countries were incensed when Israeli flags appeared at rallies during the referendum campaign, where Israel was touted as the only state supporting the Kurdish demand for secession.

Mamsani was behind some of these incidents, which led to the Iraqi parliament officially prohibiting the public display of Israel’s blue and white flag.

A picture taken on October 21, 2017, shows a man holding an Israeli flag alongside the flag of Iraqi Kurdistan during a demonstration outside the UN Office in Irbil, the capital of the autonomous region.(AFP Photo/Safin Hamed)

“He should not have done that, since the Kurdistan government does not have any official relations with Israel,” said Naqshbandy. “I often told Sherzad that he should confine his loyalties to his Jewish people and to Kurdistan.”

But Mamsani was outspoken about his relations with both Jews and Israel. “We were the religious community with the biggest lobby in favor of independence through our connection with Jewish communities in Europe and America,” Mamsani said.

“We believe that in an independent state, the Yazidis would not face genocide, the Jews would not be evicted from their homes, and Kurds would not be attacked by chemicals,” Mamsani said, referring to attacks on the Kurds in the 1980s by former dictator Saddam Hussein.

Is the Jewish representative a Jew?

Naqshbandy confirmed that he had known for some time, and reported to his minister, that Mamsani’s family has no Jewish roots. Naqshbandi said that Mamsani hails from a village which was never home to Jews, casting doubt on his claim to be Jewish.

Mamsani denies this. “Would any rational person in Kurdistan, with radicals threatening them, say he is Jewish and risk his family’s lives?” he said. “Yes, my father is Muslim, but my mother is a Benjew. Of course, if you ask her, she will not admit it after 70 years fearing for her life because she is Jewish.”

Illustrative: A displaced Iraqi Yazidi woman wipes her eyes 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)

After most of the Jews left the region in the 1950s, those who remained and converted to Islam became known as Benjews. Many are too scared to proclaim their roots.

Haifa Rabbi Edri has previous experience in Russia helping identify who is Jewish by following their maternal line. As he did in Russia, Edri intends to teach those with Jewish roots how to pray and celebrate religious holidays.

For now that may be on hold.

The recent reconciliation efforts between the Kurds and Iraqis came after a three month freeze following the referendum. Now that Baghdad and the Kurds are trying to work out their differences, the latter are eager to avoid anything that could delay the process further. Kurdistan’s overt ties to Israel — clear from visits of the Kurdish leaders to Israel and Kurdish oil sales to the Jewish state — appear to be a hindrance for Baghdad.

Kurdish people show their support for a referendum on independence for Kurdistan at a massive rally held at the Erbil Stadium in Erbil, Iraq, on September 22, 2017. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images via JTA)

For his part, Mamsani pointed out that he was never paid and has spent a lot of money in his position. He said he intends to continue with his activities from outside the ministry, including a Kurdish Jewish Community page on Facebook, which has almost 8,000 likes.

But Naqshbandy continues to dispute Mamsani’s strategy.

“Now is not the time to focus on Israel’s relationship to the Kurdistan region from a religious perspective,” said Naqshbandy. “While we are still part of Iraq, we can have friendship committees made up of Kurdish and Israeli people, but we cannot work officially in the name of Judaism.”

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