The Jews of Kurdistan, the Jewish State, and the Kurdish State That Might Be

Nov. 28 2018

The ancient Jewish community of Kurdistan traces its roots to the first Babylonian exile; its members, like their Assyrian Christian neighbors, spoke Aramaic, the language of the Talmud. And unlike Jews nearly everywhere, they tended to be illiterate even into the 20th century. While Kurdistan, however defined, stretches from Syria and Turkey to Iran, the majority of Kurdish Jews lived in Iraq, a country they left en masse, with the rest of Iraqi Jewry, in the 1950s. Alongside this history, there is a separate history of Israeli outreach to Iraqi Kurds, and a tendency among Israelis to see them as kindred spirits. Mardean Isaac, an Iraqi Assyrian Christian, explores these connections, in part by interviewing Kurdish Jews living in Israel:

“In the 1940s, [when Zionism became a major concern], Muslims started to hate us. Kurds, however, were neutral,” [one informant stated], a point that would recur throughout my conversations. The ultimate kindness the Kurds performed for the Jews was allowing them to escape the nightmare of Iraq and return to Israel, in contrast to the institutionalized anti-Semitism and violence directed against Baghdadi Jews in the years prior to their flight. This collective memory, of a rare act of empathy by a majority group toward Jews, has percolated up to the [Israeli] political class, where it is taken as evidence of the moral caliber of Kurds, as well as their capacity for sympathy based on minority suffering and self-determination. . . .

Another old man, wearing a striking gold cap, overheard us talking, and joined us. He came to Israel at the age of thirteen, he said, from a village on the border with Iran. His father made shoes. My translator told him I’m Assyrian. . . . He started singing in Assyrian: “I climbed the mountain in a caravan!” For the first time in my life, I spoke Assyrian to a Jew. . . . My Assyrian Aramaic and his Jewish Aramaic were largely mutually intelligible. . . .

Yona Mordechai, . . . who came to Israel from [Iraq] at age twelve in 1950, is a community leader who speaks in favor of Kurdish independence. He teaches spoken Aramaic to his community, including younger members born in Israel, and has written a Hebrew-Aramaic-English dictionary. . . .

“I remember everything,” [he said of his childhood]. “Our education was all oral. One of us learned from the other, by mouth. We learned in knuhsta [the Aramaic equivalent of the Hebrew word knesset, or assembly, here meaning synagogue]—the Torah, the Tanakh—but didn’t understand the language. We would [recite] the words in Hebrew, but didn’t understand their meaning, because we spoke in Aramaic.

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More about: Aramaic, History & Ideas, Iraqi Jewry, Jewish education, Kurds

Hizballah Is in Venezuela to Stay

Feb. 21 2019

In a recent interview, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned the presence of Hizballah cells in Venezuela as further evidence of the growing unrest in that country. The Iran-backed group has operated in Venezuela for years, engaging in narcotics trafficking and money laundering to fund its activities in the Middle East, and likely using the country as a base for planning terrorist attacks. If Juan Guaido, now Venezuela’s internationally recognized leader, is able to gain control of the government, he will probably seek to alter this situation. But, writes Colin Clarke, his options may be limited.

A government led by Guaido would almost certainly be more active in opposing Hizballah’s presence on Venezuelan soil, not just nominally but in more aggressively seeking to curtail the group’s criminal network and, by extension, the influence of Iran. As part of a quid pro quo for its support, Washington would likely seek to lean on Guaido to crack down on Iran-linked activities throughout the region.

But there is a major difference between will and capability. . . . Hizballah is backed by a regime in Tehran that provides it with upward of $700 million annually, according to some estimates. Venezuela serves as Iran’s entry point into Latin America, a foothold the Iranians are unlikely to cede without putting up a fight. Moreover, Russia retains a vested interest in propping up [the incumbent] Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and keeping him in power, given the longstanding relationship between the two countries. . . . Further, after cooperating closely in Syria, Hizballah is now a known quantity to the Kremlin and an organization that President Vladimir Putin could view as an asset that, at the very least, will not interfere with Russia’s designs to extend its influence in the Western hemisphere.

If the Maduro regime is ultimately ousted from power, that will likely have a negative impact on Hizballah in Venezuela. . . . Yet, on balance, Hizballah has deep roots in Venezuela, and completely expelling the group—no matter how high a priority for the Trump administration—remains unlikely. The best-case scenario for Washington could be an ascendant Guaido administration that agrees to combat Hizballah’s influence—if the new government is willing to accept a U.S. presence in the country to begin training Venezuelan forces in the skills necessary to counter terrorism and transnational criminal networks with strong ties to Venezuelan society. But that scenario, of course, is dependent on the United States offering such assistance in the first place.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Mike Pompeo, Politics & Current Affairs, U.S. Foreign policy, Venezuela