Saturday, September 22, 2018

Jews of Kurdistan: free, equal but ultimately oppressed

Until their exodus in 1950,  Jews had been living in Kurdistan since Assyrian times. They were under the patronage of tribal chieftains or aghas. Here is the second of a two-part rare account of Kurdish-Jewish life from the PhD thesis of Mordechai Zaken, one of Israel's leading specialists in Kurdish-Jewish studies. It has been published as a book and translated into Arabic. (Part I was posted on 21 September 2018)


The Jews had been an important part of urban Kurdistan. In Sulaimaniya in 1800, sixteen years after the establishment of the city, a Jewish traveler, Edelman, reported that the Jews in Sulaimaniya “enjoy equal rights” from the authorities and live a “life of comfort and paradise, friendship and brotherhood.” David D’Beth Hillel reported in 1826- 27, that the pasha’s treasurer was the president of the Jewish community.

 Most Jewish families in Kurdish urban centers earned their living as merchants. In Zakho alone, approximately half of the Jewish population earned their living by means of trade. In 1945, a Jewish emissary who visited Zakho reported that the Jews there worked in agriculture, crafts, smuggling, and the transfer of lumber on rafts.

 Like the Jews of Zakho, many Jews in Dohuk, Aqra, Amadiya, Arbil, Kirkuk and Sulaimaniya dealt in commerce. Jewish merchants maintained regular commercial contacts with associates in Baghdad, Kirkuk, Arbil and Mosul. Several enterprising merchants traveled as far as Moscow, Tiflis, Tabriz, Esterkhan, Bombay and Calcutta.  In Kurdish, the general term for merchant is bazirgan .  Most urban Jews lived in separate neighborhoods (New Aramaic, ma ḥalıt hozaye , Kurd., majalah cûleke ), and they had representatives in the municipal administration based recently on the new municipal law of 1929.  The Jewish communities had been traditionally recognized as a millet or religious community.

 In modern Iraq,  one of four parliament seats reserved for the Jews was for the northern Kurdish region. Many earned their living from trade and were merchants, peddlers, shop-keepers, loggers, raft-men and muleteers. Others worked as craftsmen, jewelers and farmers.  Most Jewish peddlers came from urban centers; only a small number of rural Jews worked occasionally as peddlers. In any case, most if not all their routes passed through rural and tribal regions. The city best known for its Jewish peddlers was Zakho, which was surrounded by hundreds of satellite villages. Peddlers would tour the villages, back and forth, usually in the spring and fall. The peddler would develop unique relationships with tribal Kurds who used to host him during his stopover in their village. These hosts were called mare- bēsa ( NA, house-owner, host) for they hosted the Jewish peddlers in their home during their trips. The peddler would receive hospitality, some food, usually bread and tea, and shelter at the house of his host. He would cook his own kosher food and use his own pan and plate, according to Jewish dietary law. From time to time, he would give his host and his wife gifts or other desired goods. In addition to material goods and merchandise, the peddlers circulated reports and folktales as entertainment in the isolated villages they visited. Becoming storytellers became almost second to being peddlers. Throughout the time, Jewish peddlers developed the requisite skills of storytelling and some became noted storytellers. This quality helped them in their relations with the Muslim villagers, and smoothed their trade routes into the villages. Bois stressed that among the Kurds, çirokbêj (Kur., storytelling) is “highly esteemed.”

 The Jewish storyteller would sit in the dîwanxane (Kurd., guest room/house) of the local agha and tell news of tribal feuds and folk tales. According to Rand and Rush it seemed as if he “had saved his tales” from the entire year and “they burst forth like a fountain of water.”  Jews lived in hundreds of villages throughout Kurdistan. Layard, around the middle of the 19 th century, came across a large camp of nomadic Jews and visited their tents. It was on the road between Bashqala and Van, but according to Layard, there were many flock-keepers like them, spread throughout the mountains.

 Hay concluded (1921) that the country between the two Zab Rivers was predominantly agricultural, and commerce was of secondary importance. Large numbers of Jewish villagers labored in agriculture, as farmers, owners of livestock, vine growers and the like, either on their own land, leased land or as day workers.

 Van Bruinessen argues that until the beginning of the 20th century, Kurdish villages were self-sufficient in most products: and "most of the specialized crafts were practiced by the Christian and Jewish minorities in Kurdistan."  Rural Jews labored mostly as weavers or dyers, occupations that were essential for the Kurds. There was hardly a village without one or two Jewish families who had no contact with their fellow Jews. Hence we "understand the original, tragic meaning of exile and dispersion," noted W. J. Fischel.

 Jews were rarely harmed within their village or within the inhabited jurisdiction of their patron tribe. Within the tribe, the agha would usually protect the Jews from the local tribesmen and villagers. Around 1913, Sykes met three Jews from the Hakkārī region “traveling unarmed with various goods.” Sykes argued that these Jews “are practically immune from robbery and can travel in their own districts without fear.”  Many villages had one or two Jewish families, while at least one village recently, Sandur, not far from Dohuk, was entirely Jewish.

During the early part of the 20th century, three Muslim Kurdish families still lived in Sandur, but their work on Saturdays troubled the harmony of the Jewish Sabbath . The Jewish mukhtar of Sandur, who was well-connected, asked a powerful friend, a judge from Dohuk, to relocate the Muslim Kurds from Sandur. Based on the agreement, the Jews were obliged to buy the houses belonging to the Kurds who moved to the outskirts of Sandur, leaving the core of the village to the Jews.

 Indeed in recent centuries the Jews leaned on the rabbis in Baghdad, as can be seen in the responsa literature, but the Jewish learning shined in the 17 th century, with a Jewish feminine precedent. Asenath Barzani (1590 – 1670) was a daughter of a noted scholar, Rabbi Samuel Barzani (b.1560) who taught in Mosul, Aqra and Amadiya. She married her father's favorite student, Yaacob Mizrahi, who pledged she would not be bothered with domestic work and would only focus on religious studies. Following his death, she became the head of the yeshiva  and the main rabbinic scholar in Kurdistan. Until recently, the education in urban centers was basic, as most children attended classes of rabbis at the synagogue for a few years until they joined the workforce. Writing was not common among them, and only a few individuals knew to read and write. The girls knew only how to recite the "Shema Yisrael."

 Their main requirement was the household duties such as cleaning and cooking. Tradition was very important for the Jews of Kurdistan. They observed their traditions and no Jew ever worked on Shabbat . Education  changed somewhat when the "Alliance Israelite Universelle" began its activity in the early 20th century among the Jews of Kurdistan. They opened schools in Mosul, Kirkuk and in Sena (also spelled Sinna, Senneh, Sanandaj), the capital of Persian Kurdistan, one for boys and one for girls. Until the Iranian Revolution (1979), the city had a small Aramaic-speaking Jewish community of about 4,000 people.

 An old tradition among them has been pilgrimage to the grave, known as ziyara (NA., visit) of the Biblical and righteous rabbis, the most popular of which was the graveyard of the  prophet Nahum which is supposedly in Alkosh near Mosul, "which seems to have the quality of a national sanctuary for the Kurdish Jews." While pilgrims would visit the shrine throughout the year, during Shavuot , known as 'ez- ziyara (NA, “the holiday of pilgrimage”), several thousand people would come to stay at the compound of Nahum's grave . Rich noted in 1921 that Jews from all parts of Kurdistan, as far as Urmia and Julamerk (Hakkari) and Kotchannes come on pilgrimage to it.

 Every year, the Jews of Kurdistan used to go out to the countryside at the end of Passover to spend time with the family and celebrate. This was a secular, civil, communal tradition of recreation in nature, known as "Seharane,  " a picnic in the countryside, for a few days on meadows alongside streams, with plenty of food. Beginning in 1975, the annual Saharane celebration was celebrated in major parks in Israel, but it took place during the holiday of Sukkot (Tabernacles).

 The Saharane celebration in Israel now takes place at Sukkot.

Just before the time of their final mass migration to Israel during 1951-52, about 25,000 Jews had been scattered throughout 200 villages and several towns, the overwhelming majority of which were in Iraq, 150 in total, 24 in Turkey, 19 in Persia and one community, al-Qamishli, in Syria. In Iraq, they lived within the boundaries of the provinces of Mosul, in Zakho, Dohuk, Aqra, Amadiya and Zibar,  as well as within the provinces of Kirkuk, Arbil and Sulaimaniya.

In the previous centuries Kurdistan was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, but the Turks allowed local principalities to rule. During 500 years or so, no major political change occurred until the middle of the 19 th century when Turkey crushed the Kurdish principalities in an attempt to restore its central authority. "The Jews were severely affected by the struggle and bloodshed," even more than they were affected by tyranny and caprices of some of the aghas. The collapse of the Kurdish principalities, notably Bohtan and Soran, shaped the fate of the population, as well as judicial and  trumpet, and compelled the Jews to stop their ceremony.

 Another bizarre practice that was widely reported had been the removal of corpses of Jews from their graves at night, cutting off the heads and throwing them into the river because of a belief that this would hasten the rain. Benjamin II was also astonished by the submissive manner in which the Jews accepted their fate: "My heart is burned from sorrow on [for] my people...Our poor brethren think that it is their destiny to suffer, and submit patiently to their fate; the slightest improvement of which they consider an unexpected happiness."

 Nevertheless, he also provided brighter pictures of "freedom from all oppression." Many were very wealthy, particularly those families engaged in agriculture that owned land and herds." Trying to explain the enduring Jewish presence despite their oppression, he explained that "they can trade throughout the country as much as they like." The fact the Jewish emigration had never stopped, indicates that his explanation was decent but partial. Nevertheless, the tribal dues they paid and the greedy aghas who wanted to keep the flow of a reliable source of income enabled their survival. The dues or commissions are known as aghatusa or aghwusa (Aramaic, the right of the agha for dues; Kurd., aghatiy ).

A major occurrence in Kurdistan during the third and fourth decades of the 19th century involved the struggle between the major Kurdish principalities and the central Turkish administration. After so many years that partial control of Kurdistan was suitable for the Turkish government, the administration began changing its policy and seeking full control over the Kurdish and other peripheral principalities. Before the mid-nineteenth century, Amadiya underwent a change that affected the city and its Jewish community. In 1828, Mîr (Kurd., prince) Muhammad of Rawanduz also known as Mîrê Kor (Kurd., the Blind) laid siege to the town and conquered it. He plundered Amadiya and mistreated in particular its Jewish inhabitants, an important segment of the population who “were treated with merciless cruelty and oppression .”  Many Jews were forced to migrate and the less fortunate were subjected to his tyranny.

 Around that time the Jewish community of Amadiya had lost its premiere status to the Jewish community of Zakho. By 1838, the Blind Mîr succeeded in subjugating other urban centers with Jewish populations, such as Rania, Koi, Arbil, Aqra and Zakho, penetrating as far as Jezira and Mardin. It is unclear whether Jews were treated as badly in these centers as in Amadiya. In 1838, the Turkish army captured Mîr Muhammad and subsequently 13 executed him. This was one of the last semi-independent entities ruled by Kurdish tribal leaders. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, the Turkish authorities administered this district more or less directly.

 Following the removal of the Blind Agha, the Pasha of Mosul ruled Amadiya with an iron fist. The condition of the Jews improved a little, but they were obliged to carry water and stones from the plain up to the citadel, and to do every form of degrading work, which impeded their industry. Within a short time, this once flourishing community was reduced to a community of one hundred families.  The economic conditions of the Jews deteriorated following the increasing political insecurity.  The situation in Amadiya continued to worsen. In 1871, during another war over the city, the Muslims attacked the Jewish community; they robbed the two synagogues and took the Torah scroll ornaments.  No wonder that in 1881, the number of Jewish families reported to be living in Amadiya had been reduced to only 50.

 These events ended the supremacy of the Jewish community of Amadiya and led to the emergence of the Jewish community of Zakho as an important urban Jewish center. In 1863 the chief Rabbi in Istanbul learned of forced conversions, forced labor, removal of bodies from their graves, prohibition to buy estates and to tend the herds, which were occurring mostly in the communities of southeastern Turkey. Nevertheless, the picture was not always gloomy. In some towns, the local governors maintained their duties to protect the Jews. In 1880, Mordechai Edelman reported from Diyarbakir that the "local governor is a human lover who behaves well with God and people," and "defends our miserable brothers from any trouble fallen upon them" because of the locals' "eternal hostility." Binder who visited Kurdistan in 1886 commented that the Kurds robbed the country in their way and the Turks in their way.

 This two-pronged activity has been the fate of the population for centuries. In 1892, the Jewish leadership of Zakho complained that the Kurds carried out a pogrom, burning houses and synagogues. Seven Jews were killed and many others imprisoned and tortured, and the taxes levied on the Jewish community increased drastically.

 In 1895, an anti-Jewish incident occurred in Sulaimaniya when 21 Muslims attacked several Jews who were traveling out of town, and inflicted on them a “cruel pounding.” The perpetrators then entered the town and began attacking the Jews who closed their stores and locked themselves up inside their homes. Six Jews, who had been caught in the streets, were badly tortured and their lives endangered. The aggressors broke into Jewish homes, plundered their property and raped their wives; they violated the synagogue and tore the Torah scrolls, taking gold and silver instruments. The governor of the town ( mutasarrif ) dispatched soldiers, but the rioters outnumbered them. On the following day, the army intervened and restored public order by arresting fifty insurgents. The assailants explained that their shaikh had incited them, but the shaikh denied these allegations. He was eventually released. Apparently, several Muslims had joined a group of Jews who were sitting in an orchard near the synagogue, drinking alcohol. The shaikh, who saw them sitting together with a group of Jews drinking alcohol (probably ʿarāq ), became infuriated and ordered the attack on the Jews. Some Kurds followed his order and the Jews remained locked up in their homes for 7 days until the rioters were caught, to the relief of the Jews. For some time, soldiers patrolled the Jewish neighborhood in order to keep law and order. Shortly afterwards, 20 rioters were sentenced reportedly to between 15 and 18 years in prison. The remaining two rioters were expelled from Sulaimaniya.

 The decisive response of the authorities seems justified, but it had been much excessive in comparison to the lack of response, or even worse, the leniency, of the authorities to offenders of Jews in other times and places in Kurdistan. It is possible that the communal nature of the attack motivated the authorities to react, in this case. The authorities handed down long sentences against the insurgents, sending a clear message to the community that such acts of communal rioting against the Jews would not be tolerated. As suggested, it seemed to be an atypical incident and the authorities dealt with the perpetrators severely.

Read paper in full

 Mordechai Zaken, “Tribal Chieftains and their Jewish Subjects in Kurdistan: A Comparative Study in Survival,” The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2003).

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