Authors: Ardelan Mushin Idris, Hans-Michael Haussig
A Brief History of the Jewish Community in the Kurdistan Region
The history of the Jews in Kurdistan can be traced back to the last Assyrian Empire, which lasted three centuries from the beginning of the seventh century BCE. During the Second Temple period, the kingdom of Adiabene was situated in this region. Together with their king and his mother, the inhabitants converted to Judaism in the middle of the first century CE. The Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela, who visited Kurdistan around 1170, mentioned there were more than 100 Jewish communities in the region. Until the Jewish mass emigration to Israel in early 1948, Jews in Kurdistan lived dispersed in approximately 200 different settlements, including towns and villages such as Mosul, Erbil, Amadiya, Zakho and Dohuk. Their native language was neither Arabic – a language spoken by most Iraqi Jews – nor Kurdish, but rather various dialects of Neo-Aramaic, similar to those spoken by the Christians of the region. Kurdistan’s Jews were mainly farmers, weavers, textile painters, tradesmen, goldsmiths and shopkeepers. They were subjects of the Kurdish feudal lords, who also protected them from robbers and other feudal lords.
According to Iraqi statistics from 1947, the population of Jews in the Kurdistan region and neighboring areas was as follows:
|Province||Population of Jews|
In 1950, the Iraqi government was initially alarmed by underground emigration to Israel. However, it was finally legalized on the condition that Iraqi Jews sell all their property and renounce their Iraqi citizenship. Tens of thousands of Iraqi Jews quickly registered to emigrate in order to flee the anti-Semitic environment that had prevailed in Iraq since the 1940s and particularly after the outbreak of the War of Independence in Israel in 1948. Israel organized massive airlifts known as Operations Ezra and Nehemiah that eventually brought 130,000 Iraqi Jews – almost all from Kurdistan and most of these living in the Arab areas of central and southern Iraq – to Israel.
 Ben-Yaacob, Abraham, Art. Kurdistan, in: Encyclopaedia Judaica, Second Edition, Vol. 12, Jerusalem 2007, 389-391: 389.
 Ibid, 389.
 Ben-Zwi, Jizchak, nidḥē yisra’el, Tel Aviv 5723/1963 (3rd Ed.), 74-80: 77.
 Brauer, Eric, Jews of Kurdistan, completed by: Raphael Patai, translated into Arabic by Shakhawan Karkuki and Abdulrazzaq Botani, Erbil 2002, 11.
 Goodman, Josh, A fading generation: the Jews of Kurdistan, Yale Israel Journal, March 21, 2005, https://www.jcfk.org/opinion/71-a-fading-generation-the-jews-of-kurdistan#fn4.
Religious Conditions for the Kurdish Jews
Kurdish Jews performed their religious rituals regularly for many centuries. They had relative religious freedom. Some cities had more than one synagogue, such as Zakho and Amediyah. It is worth noting that the first Jewish woman to reach the level of rabbi lived in Kurdistan; the same woman was also the first in Jewish history to head a school for studying the Talmud (yeshiva). Asenath Barzani (1590-1670), the daughter of Al-Hakham Samuel Barzani, was not only known for her knowledge of the Bible and the Talmud, but also as a poet. Jewish feminists today refer to her as a historical role model.
At one time, a total of 45 synagogues were recorded in the Kurdistan region. They celebrated feasts and organized the congregational pilgrimage, which led to different shrines such as Nahum in Al-Qush, Jonah in Nabi Yunis (ancient Nineveh) and Daniel in Kirkuk.
The following historical table shows the number of synagogues in Kurdish cities:
|City||Number of synagogues|
Unlike other Jews in Kurdistan, most of the Jews of Erbil spoke Arabic. The majority of them emigrated to Israel in 1950-51. The history of the Slotet Qal’a, the citadel synagogue of Erbil, goes back to the sixth century BCE. However, due to numerous reconstructions only a few parts of the old building survived.
 Bedar, Adam, The Kurdish Jews in Iraqi Kurdistan and renewal attempting, Dubai 2018, 137.
 Melammed, Uri and Melammed, Renée Levine, Rabbi Asnat – A Female Yeshiva Director in Kurdistan (in Hebrew), Pe’amim. Studies in Oriental Jewry 82, 2000, 163, 178.
 Mariee, Farsat, Studies in the History of Judaism and Christianity in Kurdistan, Erbil, 2008, 19.
 Ibid, 21.
 Brauer, Jews of Kurdistan, 297.
Revival of the Jewish Community in the Kurdistan Region
When the Iraqi government decided to renounce citizenship of Iraqi and Kurdish Jews, the majority of them emigrated to Israel. Some 65 years later, in 2015 some Kurdish Jews returned to the Kurdistan region. In the same year, the government of the Kurdish autonomous region made an extremely important decision when it enacted a law ensuring equal rights to ethnic and religious minorities. The law mentions Christians, Yazidis, Mandaeans, Kaka’i and Zoroastrians, among other religious groups. However, Jews, Baha’is and some other groups were not identified by name. According to Sherzad Omer Mamsani, the former representative of Kurdish Jews in the Ministry of Endowment, after a delay of six months, a Jewish representation could be opened at the ministry. According to Mariwan Al-Naqshbandi, the official of relations, representatives of eight religions belong to the Ministry of Endowments, including Judaism, and it has the right to establish religious buildings. The representative of the Jews participates in all meetings and conferences. Sherko Jawdat has been appointed by the ministry of Endowment as a new representative of the Jewish community in the Kurdistan Region. According to him, it is not possible to give the exact number of Kurdish Jews due to security reasons and personal interests.
According to unofficial estimates, more than 400 Kurdish Jewish families lived in the Kurdistan region in 2020. The Jewish representation in the Ministry of Endowments is working to rebuild synagogues, but the ministry has not yet agreed to offer it permission. Furthermore, the Jewish representation started various activities and took part in many forums. One of their activities was a small gathering at Erbil’s Shanidar art gallery to commemorate 73 years since Jewish Kurds were exiled, first to Baghdad and then to the state of Israel. The Jews nowadays keep their identity hidden for fear of persecution. They meet for Shabbat – the holy day – in different homes every week. Religious celebrations like Hanukkah and Passover are celebrated privately in the homes of some community members.
In 2019, members of the Jewish community from Kurdistan gathered in the town of Al-Qosh on the Nineveh Plains in order to celebrate Hanukkah, also known as the Jewish Festival of Lights. The celebration is on the 25th day of Kislev, the ninth month in the lunisolar Hebrew calendar, which began on the eve of December 22 that year. The festival lasts for eight days and, according to the Hebrew calendar, ends on the second day of Tevet, which in 2019 was December 30. The ceremony is symbolized by eight unique candles on a special menorah, which is used only on this occasion. During each night of Hanukkah, another candle is lit. Ranj Cohen, a Kurdish Jew who participated in the festival, explained that the Jewish community from the Kurdistan Region celebrates the ceremony annually at the final resting place of their prophet Nahum, where they light “the final candle” on the eight-branch menorah (plus a “shamash” or taper to light the others).
According to Rabbi Daniel Edri, the Jewish community of Erbil is still in the process of being registered. In the meantime, the house of Rabbi Edri in the center of Erbil acts as the synagogue and other community institutions. However, they hope to find a new venue after the registration is complete.
 Graczyk, Agnieszka, Trapped within the law. Will the Kurdish Jews return to their homeland? Przegląd Narodowościowy / Review of Nationalities 8 (1), 2018, 157-166: 160.
 Bedar, The Kurdish Jews, 147-148.
 Based on a phone call with Sherko Jawdat on October 3, 2020 at 3 p.m. and a letter via Viber on October 6, 2020.
 “After a temporary suspension, the Jewish representation resumes its activities in Kurdistan,” https://www.kurdistan24.net/ar/newsreader/6c0df3ae-02d7-445b-83f5-1bb713fe9340, (accessed on September 5, 2020).
 Shilani, Mustafa, “Jewish community in Kurdistan Region celebrates Hanukkah,” https://www.kurdistan24.net/en/story/21650-WATCH:-Jewish-community-in-Kurdistan-Region-celebrates-Hanukkah.
 Information given by Rabbi Daniel Edri to Dr. Stefan Gatzhammer via What’s App on November 12, 2021.