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

Maintaining Security Cooperation with the PA Shouldn’t Require Ignoring Its Support for Terror

In accordance with legislation passed last year, the Israeli government has begun to deduct from the tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority (PA) an amount proportional to what the PA pays to terrorists and their families. Last year, a similar law went into effect in the U.S., suspending all payments to the PA so long as it continues its “pay-for-slay” policy. The PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, has retaliated by refusing to accept any tax revenue collected by Israel—raising concerns that the PA will become insolvent and collapse—while insisting that payments to terrorists and their families are sacrosanct. To Yossi Kuperwasser, Abbas’s behavior amounts to mere extortion—which has already worked on the Europeans to the tune of 35 million euros. He urges Israel and the U.S. not to submit:

Abbas [believes] that influential Israeli and European circles, including the security establishment, view strengthening the Palestinian Authority, and certainly preventing its collapse, as being in Israel and Europe’s best interests. They will therefore give in to the pressure he exerts through the creation of an artificial economic crisis. . . .

[T]he PA leadership’s insistence on continuing wage payments to terrorists and their families, even at the price of an artificial economic crisis, shows once again that . . . the Oslo Accords did not reflect a substantive change in Palestinian national aspirations or in the methods employed to achieve them. . . . If paying wages to terrorists (including the many terrorists whose attacks took place after the Oslo Accords were in force) is the raison d’être for the PA’s establishment, as Abbas seems to be saying, . . . one cannot help asking whether Israel has to insist on maintaining the PA’s existence at any price.

True, Israel cooperates on security issues with the PA, but that serves the interests of both sides. . . . The short-term benefits Israel gains from this security cooperation, [however], are of less value than the benefits enjoyed by the Palestinians, and worth even less when measured against the long-term strategic damage resulting from Israel’s resigning itself to the constant incitement, the promotion of terror, and the political struggle against Israel carried out by the PA. Israel should not do anything to hasten the PA’s breakdown, because it has no desire to rule over the Palestinians and run their day to day lives, but it also should not feel more obligated to the PA’s continued existence than do the Palestinians themselves, thereby leaving itself open to continuous extortion.

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More about: Israeli Security, Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority, Palestinian terror