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, who was born in London to Assyrian parents from Iraq and Iran, 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.