Iraqi Kurdistan–Israel relations

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Iraqi Kurdish–Israeli relations
Map indicating locations of Israel and Kurdistan


Iraqi Kurdistan

The Iraqi Kurdistan–Israel relations covers the historical, political and economic relations between the Iraqi Kurdistan and the State of Israel, as well as the general background of relations between the Kurdish and Jewish peoples.

Iraqi Kurdistan and Israel do not have an official status of relations, though there are claims that there are numerous contacts between the entities on government and business levels. Iran and Syria have accused Iraqi Kurdistan of having relations with Israel.[1] Massoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, said in 2005 that "establishing relations between the Kurds and Israel is not a crime since many Arab countries have ties with the Jewish state."[2]

Historical relations[edit]

In order to comprehend the relations between Israel and the Kurds, one has to understand the roots of these relationships, that is the relations between the Jews of Kurdistan and their tribal masters or chieftains. These relations were based on patronage and protection that the aghas granted their Jewish subjects and in return on dues and financial support and variety of services provided by the Jewish subjects to their chieftains or aghas.[3]

Based on these relations, the Jews of Kurdistan lived freely alongside Muslims and Christians for generations in relative security. Those that immigrated to Israel would reminisce about the positive experiences they and their fathers and forefathers had in the tribal Kurdish society. Without these roots, the state of Israel would have never been able to connect sincerely with the Kurdish leadership, which was mostly tribal.[3]

The Sufi Shaikhs of the Naqshbandi from the Barzani family were among the most respected and influential in Kurdistan.[4] The family became an influential tribe that played an important role in the Kurdish national movement. Wigram[who?] noted that the Shaikh of Barzān was "a merciful over-lord," noted for his fair treatment of his followers. The leaders of this particular Naqshbandi family, during the first half of the 20th century, notably Shaikh Ahmad and Mustafa Barzani, had special relationships with the Kurdish Jews under their patronage.

Zaken also provides details on the good relations between the Khawaja Khinno patriarchs and the Barzanis, which, reportedly, the authorities wished to use. In one case the Turkish authorities asked the Jewish merchant Eliyahu Khawaja Khinno from Aqrah to mediate between them and Shaikh Abd al-Salam Barzani, who was an insurgent tribal leader. In the second account, it was the British authorities who wanted to use the good trust between the Barzanis and the Jewish leaders of Aqrah.[3]

Another account that symbolizes the trust between the tribal heads of Barzanis and the Jews of Aqra, takes place in 1944, when Mullā Mustafā concluded a tribal pact with the heads of the Zībarī tribe, in order to reinforce his leadership among the Kurdish tribes. To seal this pact with a marriage contract, Mullā Mustafā and Shaikh Ahmad were to marry daughters of the Zībarī tribal leaders. According to members of Khawaja Khinno family, in 1944, Mullā Mustafā was about to depart from Aqraj and Both David and Yitzhak Khawaja Khinno, accompanied him to say farewell. Before his departure, at the courtyard in front of the police station of Aqra, he distanced himself from the crowd and consulted with the two brothers. Mullā Mustafā told David: "Hājjī Qādir Agha [Zībarī] spoke with me about marrying his sister and Shaikh Mahmūd Agha [Zībarī] spoke with me about marrying his daughter... What do you think?" David Khawaja Khinno told him: "I suggest that the sister of Hājjī Qādir Agha be given to Shaikh Ahmad and you should take the daughter of Mahmud Agha." Mullā Mustafā Barzani told him: "well, in that case, would you prepare gold [jewelry] for her?"[3]

In 1944, when Eliyahu Khawaja Khinno died, Mullā Mustafā came in person to Aqrah to pay his condolences. This memorable visit demonstrates, in the eyes of the Jewish residents of Aqrah, the special bond between the two families. To the amazement of the Kurds of Aqrah, Barzani visited them first, before he visited important Shaikhs such as Abd al-Wahhāb and Mustafā Mullā Jibrā’īl. During this visit, David Khawaja Khinno honored Barzani with a golden dagger, decorated with three gold buttons, and a pistol. According to Aryeh Gabbai, Barzānī told them: “I am taking the dagger but not the pistol, which you may need. We have [enough] weapons.” On the same occasion, in front of the tribal chiefs who accompanied him, Mullā Mustafā emphasized the bond that existed with the Khawaja Khinno family, and the need to continue to protect the family which was dear to him: "You know very well that this family is dear to me... We are regarded one family, in spite of our different religions. I do not want any harm to happen to them. One sentence that seemed to capture the essence of this unique visit among the Jews was: “We felt very unique, [we did] not [feel] the usual feeling [of inferiority] that Jews would feel towards the Muslims, fearing that some harm may come to us.”

The special relations between the Barzani tribal chiefs and the patriarchs of the family of Khawaja Khinno continued even after the exodus of Mustafa Barzani to Russia in 1947 and the mass migration of the Jews to the State of Israel from 1951 to 1952. Following the collapse of the Republic of Mahabad at the end of 1946, Mustafa Barzani went into exile in Russia. His wife and son, returned to Iraq.

These were the sort were the foundation upon which the future relations, during the 1960s and 1970s, the Israeli government established with the Barzani chieftain, Mulla Mustafa Barzani, who had become then most important leader of the Kurds.

Political relations[edit]

In 1999, some Kurds accused the Mossad of providing information that led to the arrest in Kenya of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the Kurdish areas of Turkey. Kurdish protestors in Berlin attacked the Israeli embassy, and the Israeli security forces shot against the crowd.[5]

Israeli media in 2004 reported about the meetings of Israeli officials with Kurdish political leaders when Massoud Barzani, Jalal Talabani and the former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon publicly confirmed the good relations with the Iraqi Kurdistan region.[6]

Jewish organizations worldwide started lobbying campaigns to aid the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan during the Operation Desert Storm to stop the Iraqi government's persecutions.[7] Israel also provided, through Turkey Kurdistan, first aid items to Iraqi Kurdistan, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, during a meeting with US Secretary of State James Baker called on the American government to defend the Kurds.[8]

The president of the Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani answered a question while visiting Kuwait in May 2006 about the Kurdish-Israeli relationship: "It is not a crime to have relations with Israel. If Baghdad established diplomatic relations with Israel, we could open a consulate in Erbil." Israeli television has in the past broadcast photographs from the 1960s showing Massoud Barzani's father, Mustafa Barzani, embracing the then Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan.[5]

In a policy address in 2014, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu supported the establishment of an independent Kurdish state. He said: "The Kurds are a fighting people that have proven political commitment and political moderation, and they're also worthy of their own political independence."[9]

Military relations[edit]

According to Eliezer Tsafrir,a former senior Mossad official, in 1963–1975[10] Israel had military advisers at the headquarters of Mulla Mustafa Barzani, and trained and supplied the Kurdish units with firearms and field and anti-aircraft artillery.[11]

Kurds in Israel[edit]

Main article: Kurdish Jews

Jewish immigration from Turkish states[clarification needed] to the Land of Israel began in the 16th century,[clarification needed] with the first Jewish immigrants from Kurdistan settling in Safed. Kurdish Jewish immigrants later on in the 20th century arrived in the 1920s and 1930s, and by the year 1948 there were some 8000 Kurdish Jews in Israel. When the state of Israel was established in 1948, crowds of Jews from all four parts of Kurdistan moved to Israel. Today, the Kurdish Jewish population in Israel is over 150,000; the largest concentration of Kurdish Jews can be found around Jerusalem.[12]

Jews in Iraq[edit]

The Jewish community in Iraq was one of the oldest in the world, dating back to the Babylonian conquest of the southern tribes of Israel, (mostly the tribe of Judah) in 586 BCE. A smaller group of Jews were taken into captivity almost 150 years earlier from the northern part of Israel by Assyria, in 722 BCE. The Jews flourished in Babylon, producing the Babylonian Talmud there between the years 500 and 700 CE.

At the time of World War I Jews made up one third of the entire population of Baghad. In 1932 Iraq became an independent state, and Jews played a prominent role in its development. In 1936 the Iraq Directory listed the number of members of the "Israelite community" to be 120,000. One of the six languages listed as languages of Iraq was Hebrew.

At the end of the British Mandate of Palestine in 1947 a drastic reduction in the Jewish population of Iraq began. Persecution of the Jews in Iraq intensified through the decades. In 1950 Iraqi Jews were given permission to leave within one year, on condition that they renounce their Iraqi citizenship. One year later the Jews who left had their property frozen. Jews who had chosen to stay in Iraq had economic restrictions placed on them.

In response to intense international pressure in the early 1970s Iraq allowed whatever Jews still remained there to leave.

As of 2004 about 35 Jews were still living in Baghdad, but by 2008 that number declined to less than 10.[13]

In the middle of the 20th century, the number of Kurdistani Jews was estimated at 40–50 thousand. Numbers of Iraqi Kurdish Jews in Northern Iraq(based on the Iraqi statistics):

The total of 22,618 Jews lived in the Kurdish-populated areas [14]

Since the mid-20th century the population of the Jews in northern Iraq, specifically in Kurdistan, were also decimated. However, there are signs that the Jewish population there may be growing,[15] although another source says that only "a handful of the Kurdish-controlled northern areas of the country" are Jewish.[16]

Famous Israeli-Kurdish people[edit]

  • Asenath Barzani (1590–1670) was among the very first Jewish women in history known to have been given a rabbinic title. She was the daughter of the illustrious Rabbi Samuel Barzani, and she studied Kabbalah.
  • Rabbi Samuel Barzani, a Kurdish Jew and father of Rabbi Asenath Barzani, founded numerous Jewish schools in Kurdistan; ultimately Rabbi Samuel's daughter, Asenath, headed the Jewish academy of Mosul in Iraq.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Israelis 'train Kurdish forces'". BBC News. 20 Sep 2006. Retrieved 27 Mar 2011. 
  2. ^ "Iraq's Kurds support relations with Israel, Massoud Barzani". Kurd Net. 8-6-2005. Retrieved 27 Mar 2011.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  3. ^ a b c d Mordechi Zaken (2007). Jewish Subjects and Their Tribal Chieftains in Kurdistan: A Study in Survival. p. 375. ISBN 9789004161900. 
  4. ^ Van Bruinessen 1978: 344-48.
  5. ^ a b Sadi Baig (2004-06-30). "A clean break for Israel". Asia Times. Retrieved 2013-04-11. 
  6. ^ Gary Younge (21 June 2004). "Israelis 'using Kurds to build power base'". Guardian. Retrieved 12 January 2013. 
  7. ^ Barron A. "US and Israeli Jews Express Support for Kurdish Refugees" // Washington Report of Middle East Affairs, May–June 1991, p. 64.
  8. ^ "Kurdistan: The Next Flashpoint Between Turkey, Iraq, and the Syrian Revolt". Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. 5 August 2012. Retrieved 13 January 2013. 
  9. ^ "Netanyahu expresses support for Kurdish independence". LA Times. 29 June 2014. Retrieved 30 June 2014. 
  10. ^ Trita Parsi (2007). "Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S.". New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. p. 1. 
  11. ^ Nader Entessar. Kurdish Politics in the Middle East. p. 161. ISBN 9780739140390. Retrieved 13 January 2013. 
  12. ^ "Kurdish Jewish Community in Israel". Retrieved 2013-04-11. 
  13. ^ "Jews in Islamic Countries: Iraq". Jewish Virtual Library. 2013. Retrieved 3 September 2014. 
  14. ^ Patai R. "Preface", in: Brauer E. The Jews of Kurdistan. Completed and Edited by R. Patai. Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1993, p. 16.
  15. ^ Shefler, Gil (November 8, 2013). "In Iraq's Kurdish Zone, Israelis and Long-Hidden Jews See Hope for Revived Ties". Tablet. Retrieved 3 September 2014. In recent years, a trickle of Jews of Iraqi origin have returned for visits or to do business, and a handful of individuals have even come back to stay. 
  16. ^ Ner L'Elef. "World Jewish Population". Judaism Online. Retrieved 3 September 2014. Some 150 Iraqi Jews have managed to leave the country in the past five years, leaving just 38 Jews in Baghdad, and a handful in the Kurdish-controlled northern areas of the country. There are just two or three young people left. 

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