Jews of Kurdistan - History and Cultural Relations

According to their oral tradition, Kurdish Jews are the descendants of the Jews exiled from Israel and Judea by the Assyrian kings (2 Kings 17:6). Several scholars who have studied the Jews of Kurdistan tend to consider this tradition at least partly valid, and one may safely assume that the Kurdish Jews include, among others, some descendants of the ancient Jewish exiles, the so-called Lost Ten Tribes. Christianity was successful in this area, partly because it was inhabited by Jews. Christianity, which usually spread in existing Jewish communities, was accepted in this region without difficulty. The first substantial evidence of Jewish settlements in Kurdistan is found in the reports of two Jewish travelers to Kurdistan in the twelfth century. Their accounts indicate the existence of a large, well-established, and prosperous Jewish community in the area. It seems that, as a result of persecutions and the fear of approaching Crusaders, many Jews from Syria-Palestine had fled to Babylonia and Kurdistan. The Jews of Mosul, the largest town, with a Jewish population of about 7,000, enjoyed some degree of autonomy, and the local exilarch (community leader) had his own jail. Of the taxes paid by the Jews, half were given to him and half to the (non-Jewish) governor. One account concerns David Alroy, the messianic leader from Kurdistan who rebelled, albeit unsuccessfully, against the king of Persia and planned to redeem the Jews from exile and lead them to Jerusalem.

Stability and prosperity, however, did not last long. The reports of later travelers, as well as local documents and manuscripts, indicate that Kurdistan, except for some short periods, suffered grievously from armed conflicts between the central government in Turkey and the local tribal chieftains. As a result, the Muslim, as well as Jewish and Christian populations declined. Many localities that had earlier been reported to have large Jewish populations were reduced to a few families, or none at all. The U.S. missionary Asahel Grant visited the once important town of Amadiya in 1839. He found hardly any inhabitants: only 250 of 1,000 houses were occupied; the rest were demolished or uninhabitable. In more recent times, Amadiya has had only about 400 Jews. Nerwa, once an important Jewish center, was set on fire by an irate chieftain just before the outbreak of World War I, destroying, among other things, the synagogues and all the Torah scrolls therein. As a result, with the exception of three families, all the Jews fled the town and wandered off to other places, such as Mosul and Zakho. In modern times, the latter has been one of the few places in Kurdistan proper with a substantial Jewish population (about 5,000 in 1945).

Kurdistan is a unique synthesis of several cultures and ethnic groups. In the past, it bordered the great Assyrian-Babylonian and Hittite empires; later it adjoined Persian, Arabic, and Turkish civilizations. Kurdistan embraces a great variety of sects, ethnic groups, and nationalities. Apart from the Kurdish tribes (mostly Sunni Muslims, and the rest Shiites) that form most of the population, there are various Muslim Arab and Turkish tribes, Christians of various denominations (Assyrians, Armenians, Nestorians, Jacobites), as well as Yazidis (followers of an ancient Kurdistani religion), Mandeans (a Gnostic sect), and Jews. The Jews had—albeit at times quite limited—cultural ties with the Jews of the larger urban centers of Iraq (Mosul, Baghdad), Iran, and Turkey, and especially with the Land of Israel (Palestine). Many Kurdish Jews had relatives who sought employment in the larger urban centers. Individuals, families, and sometimes all the residents of a village had been emigrating to the Land of Israel since the beginning of the twentieth century. These trickles culminated in the mass emigration of the entire Jewish community of Iraqi Kurdistan to Israel during 1950—1951.

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