Middle East Jewish history: The Kurdistan exception

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Why isn’t the media telling the story of Kurdistan’s openness to Jewish history and people?
For years and years Israelis and Jews complained about the rampant anti-semitism in the Middle East, the extreme views that borrowed heavily from Nazi propaganda re-packaged and used against Israel and Jews, the cleansing of Jews from almost every country in the region, the destruction of Jewish holy sites, synagogues, cemeteries, communal life, and property. It was an unprecedented destruction of Jewish history that had existed for thousands of years as the Jews or Yemen or Iraq were forced to flee and every evidence of their having ever existed was erased. Rarely in history has a minority with such deep roots in a region been completely erased in just a few decades.

And in not one of these countries in the region is there any sorrow over that. Just a book by an Israeli author about the Middle East is so controversial it cannot be shown at a book fair in Egypt. A movie about Jewish life raises protests in Morocco or Egypt or elsewhere. Its not a question of “Israel,” it is a vicious visceral hatred of Jews. No matter that Jews like Albert Memmi supported resistance to colonialism in North Africa, you’d be hard pressed to find anything in north Africa that wants to teach about Jews in schools or university. If you asked students from Yemen to Damascus about Jews, they’d deny Jews ever even existed in their country, far be it from remembering the old Jewish quarters and the contribution Jews had for their countries. Unlike in Europe, where at least they memorialize the Nazi Holocaust that most European countries collaborated with, in the Middle East the concept is just to banish Jews from history.

Moreover in places like Egypt or Libya or elsewhere the present anti-semitism is so deep that everytime someone wants to insult a politician they accuse him of being a Jew, which is the reason Mubaraks regime called its enemies “Jewish Ikhwan”, which is why Mubarak was also portrayed as a Jew, which is why Qadafi was called a Jew, which is why Saudi imams accuse Iran of working with “the Jews” (not with “Israel” mind you), and why Iran accuses the region of being in a grip of an “Jewish, ISIS” conspiracy.

In this region, Holocaust denial is mainstream, and there are even contests for cartoons to deny the Holocaust in Iran, as part of their way to “get back” at Europe…so to get back at Europe for free speech, they punish the Jews by mocking the Holocaust. Because in the Middle East, “the Jews” are always the group everyone can hate and it is considered laudable. Even in Turkey the leaders until recently would blame shadowy “banking” conspiracies, clearly linked to “Jewish international finance”, for their problems.

But there is one place where unlike the small Jewish minorities in Tunisia or Morocco, there is a relatively positive and healthy relationship with the Jewish past, and that is in Kurdistan. It’s the one place where books about the Jewish past and Jewish figures are sold in stores in Erbil. It’s the one place where there isn’t daily sermons against Jews, and the one place trying to revive and discuss Jewish history.

And what is odd is that despite the Kurdistan Regional Government, and Kurdistan Democratic Party’s efforts to commemorate the Farhud or pogrom against Jews in Iraq, and to seek links with Jewish communities, there is too much of a wall of silence from Jewish media around the world. When there isn’t silence and disinterest, what I’ve seen is sometimes actual mocking, suspicion and negative views of Kurdish efforts.

Why is that? The same journalist that would suck up a story about some tiny coexistence in Tunisia, or write about “Muslim rescue during the Holocaust,” when you have an autonomous government seeking out relations with Jewish communities, sometimes spurns it and casts aspersions on it.

I hear stories about the most ridiculous comments by journalists in some Israeli or Jewish media, attacking Kurdistan’s work. Why is that? The one place that welcomes Jewish media, that says come and see, is the place that the media has contempt for? If a Saudi imam who for decades called Jews “pigs and monkeys” decided to say that some Jews were not pigs and monkeys, the press would flock and say “moderation” and “isn’t this amazing”…but a whole area where people are openly tolerant and openly supportive even of Jewish historical memory, history and open to Israel, is the one place where there is too often a kind of contempt for them. A suspicion, as in “how can they like us”?

There is a very real and interesting story to be done about Kurdish-Jewish relations and history, and a comparison with the regional state of affairs relating to anti-semitism and history. And media should not spurn that or mock it, or have just a critical eye about it.

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