ARBIL, Iraq — A new magazine in Iraq's Kurdistan region has caused furor among conservative Muslims with a rousing call for Jews to leave Israel -- and come back to Iraq.
The magazine, "Israel-Kurd", is the brainchild of Dawood Baghestani, the 62-year-old former chief of the autonomous northern region's human rights commission.
The glossy, full-colour monthly in Kurdish and English has a lofty mission: to help solve the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict by convincing more than 150,000 Kurdish Jews living in Israel to return to Iraqi Kurdistan, Baghestani told AFP.
"The biggest reason behind the complexity of the Palestinian problem is the unjust practices of Arab regimes against the Jews -- there are more than 1.5 million Jews originally from Arab countries in Israel," Baghestani said.
"If the Jews had not been subject to an exodus, the Palestinians wouldn't have been either," he said, referring to the flight of 700,000 Palestinians from the newly created Jewish state in 1948 during the first Arab-Israeli war.
"If the situation in our new federal and democratic Iraq, and particularly in Kurdistan, becomes stable, then many Jews would want to return and reduce the number of Jewish settlements in Palestine."
The latest edition of the 52-page magazine, which has a circulation of around 1,500 copies, features a woman draped in an Israeli flag on the cover.
Inside are stories about Kurdish Jewish traditions and photographs from the first half of the twentieth century, as well as arguments on how a return of Jews would help to build a wealthy and strong Kurdistan.
But many people in Iraq are not buying the argument.
"I'm suspicious. I don't see the point of this kind of publication," said Zana Rustayi, a representative of the Islamist Jamaa Islamiya party in the regional assembly.
"The Kurds are part of the Muslim nation, and Kurdistan is part of Iraq."
Iraq has no relations with Israel, and the country was an implacable foe of the Jewish state under the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein, who was overthrown by the US-led invasion in 2003.
A Sunni member of parliament in Baghdad, Mithal Alusi, was suspended from parliament and threatened with charges last year after visiting Israel for a conference. The decision was later overturned by the constitutional court.
Kurdistan does have a warmer history with the Jewish state, however. Many of the current crop of Kurdish leaders have visited Israel in past decades.
Jews lived in Kurdistan for centuries, working as traders, farmers and artisans.
But the creation of Israel and the rise of Arab nationalism in the mid-twentieth century dramatically altered the situation, spurring most of Kurdistan's Jews to leave.
Baghestani -- who has been to Israel four times, including on a clandestine trip in 1967 -- denies that he works for the Israelis.
"What I am asking for is enshrined in the constitution: every Iraqi has the right to return to one's homeland. Jews who were Iraqi citizens were subject to injustice," he said.
"If every Arab country allowed the Jews to return, ensured their safety and gave them back their land, Palestinian refugees would be able to return to their territory because Israel would not need so much land."
Mahmud Othman, a Kurdish Coalition MP in Baghdad, disputes this. He says that while relations with Israel may be a nice idea, such a move would not be pragmatic for a region ringed by other Muslim states.
"Kurdistan needs the Arabs. We are living in an Arab country and we are federal region within Iraq. We don't need a relationship with (Israel), we need a relationship with Arabs, we need a relationship with Iran, we need to be close to Turkey," Othman said.
"I haven't heard of any Jews in Israel trying to return to Kurdistan. I think they're better off there."
Al Arabiya mentions that most Kurds are not opposed to the idea, except for those living in old Jewish areas concerned about losing their homes to potential Jewish returnees, which number 150,000.
According to Kurdistanica.com: There existed a large community of exiled Jews in Kurdistan from the time of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. These exiled Jews, according to the Talmud, were granted permission by the Jewish authorities to proselytize and succeeded spectacularly in converting nearly all of central Kurdistan to Judaism.
Another section states: Many aspects of Kurdish and Jewish life and culture have become so intertwined that some of the most popular folk stories accounting for Kurdish ethnic origins connect them with the Jews.
The tombs of Biblical prophets like Nahum in Alikush, Jonah in Nabi Yunis (ancient Nineveh), Daniel in Kirkuk, Habakkuk in Tuisirkan, and Queen Esther and Mordechai in Hamadân, and several caves reportedly visited by Elijah are among the most important Jewish shrines in Kurdistan and are venerated by all Jews today.
The Alliance Israelite Universelle opened schools and many other facilities in Kurdistan for education and fostered progress among the Jewish Kurds as early as 1906...Operations of the Alliance continued until soon after the creation of Israel.
According to recent reports, Israel is cultivating a military relationship with the Kurds in the region - a relationship which would allow them to use the Kurds to strike at Iran and others in the region if needed.
Seymour Hersh in the June 28, 2004 issue of the New Yorker writes:
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government decided, I was told, to minimize the damage that the war was causing to Israel’s strategic position by expanding its long-standing relationship with Iraq’s Kurds and establishing a significant presence on the ground in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan.
Israeli intelligence and military operatives are now quietly at work in Kurdistan, providing training for Kurdish commando units and, most important in Israel’s view, running covert operations inside Kurdish areas of Iran and Syria.
Israel feels particularly threatened by Iran, whose position in the region has been strengthened by the war. The Israeli operative include members of the Mossad, Israel’s clandestine foreign-intelligence service, who work undercover in Kurdistan as businessmen and, in some cases, do not carry Israeli passports.
The former Israeli intelligence officer acknowledged that since late last year Israel has been training Kurdish commando units to operate in the same manner and with the same effectiveness as Israel’s most secretive commando units, the Mistaravim.
The initial goal of the Israeli assistance to the Kurds, the former officer said, was to allow them to do what American commando units had been unable to do—penetrate, gather intelligence on, and then kill off the leadership of the Shiite and Sunni insurgencies in Iraq.
There are fears that the Kurds will move to seize the city of Kirkuk, together with the substantial oil reserves in the surrounding region. Kirkuk is dominated by Arab Iraqis, many of whom were relocated there, beginning in the nineteen-seventies, as part of Saddam Hussein’s campaign to “Arabize” the region, but the Kurds consider Kirkuk and its oil part of their historic homeland.
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