The following article was originally published in Ekurd Daily on November 30, 2016.
HEWLÊR-Erbil, Iraq’s Kurdistan region,— Kurdistan has always believed in living peacefully and with respect for different faiths,” Sherzad Omer Mamsani wrote in a statement in Hebrew and Kurdish published on Wednesday. It was based on a speech he gave in Erbil to guests commemorating the Jewish community in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
The event was held for the second year in a row under the auspices of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s directorate of Jewish affairs.
Looking back 71 years to the period at the end of the Second World War, the statement described the difficulties Jews faced in Iraq in the 1940s, which reached a crescendo with the pogrom in Baghdad of June 1, 1941, often called the Farhud.
According to Mamsani, up to 200,000 Jews were expelled or fled Iraq.
The timing of the ceremony in Erbil, which was attended by locals and politicians, coincides with the Knesset decision two years ago to mark November 30 as the day of “Exit and Deportation of Jews from Arab Lands and Iran Day.” It commemorates the uprooting of 856,000 Jews from the Middle East that was triggered by the UN Security Council passing the partition plan that led to the creation of Israel in 1948.
For Jews of Iraq, the discrimination that led to the expulsion began more than a decade before.
According to research by Shmuel Trigano at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Jewish schools were closed in the 1930s, and Jews were expelled from public service.
Iraq initially tried to prevent Jews from emigrating in 1948, only to pass a law in 1950 allowing them to leave but stripping them of citizenship if they did. Most Jews left the country, some under Operation Ezra and Nehemiah, an Israel government airlift.
A community of Kurdish Jews existed in Jerusalem since 1812, and many came to British Mandate Palestine in the 1930s. The Kurdistan region has often tried to distinguish between the Jewish experience in Kurdistan, which locals say was one of coexistence, and the rest of Iraq, where there was persecution.
According to an article in 1966 in The Sentinel, more than 50,000 Kurdish Jews, some from Iran, settled in Israel in the 1950s.
Since last year, the Kurdistan region and Mamsani in particular have worked to raise the issue of Jewish history in the region, and shed light on persecutions of Jews in Iraq. There is a Jewish religious site named for the tomb of the prophet Nahum near Dohuk.
In the speech and statement yesterday, Mamsani highlighted issues facing the Kurdish region, including its desire to protect minorities that are threatened by terrorism and Islamic State. “After the elimination of Daesh [ISIS], we await the good tidings of the international community,” he said.
Reference was made to the fact that the KRG is hosting almost two million refugees, and that international organizations should support the region. Mamsani noted that Kurdistan seeks to “live in peace and respect all faiths.”
A poster at the event showed historical black and white photos with an image from the statue commemorating the Halabja massacre of 1988, when Saddam Hussein’s regime gassed 5,000 Kurds. On the poster were symbols from various religions in Kurdistan, including a blue Star of David, a unique testament to one of the few places in the Middle East today where local governments host events related to Jewish history.
This article originally appeared in Ekurd Daily.