Iraq's Kurdish Jews Cautiously Return to Homeland Iraqi Kurds are welcoming their former Jewish neighbors, some of whom fled their homes more than 50 years ago as part of the broader Middle East conflict.
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Iraq's Kurdish Jews Cautiously Return to Homeland

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Iraq's Kurdish Jews Cautiously Return to Homeland

Iraq's Kurdish Jews Cautiously Return to Homeland

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For the last 50 years, Iraq and Israel have been sworn enemies - part of the broader Arab-Israeli conflict; one of the casualties of this conflict - the ancient Jewish community in Iraq, which emigrated en masse in 1951. This exodus included most of the Jews who were natives of Kurdistan in northern Iraq. Unlike their Arab counterparts, Iraqi Kurds tend to be less suspicious of their former Jewish neighbors.

As NPR's Ivan Watson reports, Jewish Kurds have begun making discreet return visits to Kurdistan.

IVAN WATSON: Lana was a teenager when her family emigrated from Kurdistan. It was 1994, Saddam Hussein had recently lost control of northern Iraq, and rival Kurdish militias were battling each other to fill the power vacuum. Lana's family traveled over land to neighboring Turkey with a dozen other Kurdish families of Jewish origin. Lana says the voyage was a closely guarded secret, organized and financed by Israel, which was soon to become her new home.

LANA: (Through translator) They told us not to tell anyone we were leaving. To avoid giving away our plans, they even warned us not to sell off our property.

WATSON: Until their departure, Lana's family survived in Iraq by telling people they were Muslim converts. Today, Lana is 28 years old. She has long, red-tinted hair and a small nose ring, and she's a citizen of Israel who speaks Hebrew and Kurdish fluently. Last year, Lana returned for the first time in more than a decade to live here in Kurdistan with her new husband, an Iraqi Muslim Kurd named Hano. He says the two met in Europe and fell in love.

HANO: (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: I didn't think twice about marrying a Jewish woman, Hano says. My parents always told me stories about how much they liked their old Jewish neighbors.

Unlike the Arab majority in central and southern Iraq, the Kurds of northern Iraq don't tend to see Jews or Israel as sworn enemies. In the 1960s, Israel's Mossad intelligence agency provided equipment and training to Kurdish rebels who were battling the government in Baghdad. To this day, locals call a neighborhood of old sagging brick houses in the Kurdish city of Suleymaniyah, Jewlakan.

This used to be the Jewish quarter of the city. An old Kurdish shopkeeper named Haji Abdullah Salah says it was a sad day when almost all the Jews left town.

Mr. HAJI ABDULLAH SALAH (Shopkeeper): (Through translator) The government ordered them to leave at that time and they shouldn't take anything except their own clothes.

WATSON: Before locking up his shop to go answer the Muslim call to prayer, Haji Abdullah added that the last Jew in Jewlakan was a man they called Shalomo who stayed behind long after the others had left. Locals say Shalomo died here in Suleymaniyah a few years ago.

(Soundbite of chanting)

WATSON: Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, there has been a trickle of Kurdish Jews making discreet return visits from Israel to the land of their birth. Seventy-one-year-old Kak Ziad Aga says a Jewish classmate from his childhood recently got a warm welcome during a return visit to the Kurdish town of Koya Sinjak.

Mr. KAK ZIAD AGA: (Through translator) It was a really exciting moment after 50 years to see my classmate again.

WATSON: Ziad Aga says he doesn't see any problem in allowing Kurdish Jews to come back to Kurdistan, but the subject is extremely sensitive for the Kurdish authorities. They are frequently accused by Arab media and Iraqi insurgent groups of collaborating with Israel, charges the Kurdistan leadership denies.

As for Lana and Hano, the young Israeli Kurdish couple, they asked that their full names not be broadcast for fear of becoming targets, but the young bride is clearly proud of her mixed heritage.

LANA: (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: Above all, Lana says, I consider myself a Kurd - an Israeli Kurd.

Ivan Watson, NPR News.

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