Looking to distinguish itself from the rest of Iraq and deepen ties with the Kurdish diaspora, the autonomous region of Kurdistan is courting religious minorities, including Jews.
Some 300,000 Jews are descended from refugees who fled the region after the establishment of Israel in 1948. Today, most of them live in Israel, though a small community, numbering perhaps several hundred families, still exists in Kurdistan. Few if any practice any form of Judaism, but a sizable portion identify as "Kurdish-Jews" and in recent years have sought to reconnect with their Jewish roots.
In recent months the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has made overtures to religious minorities including Jews, Yazidis, Bahai, and Zoroastrians.
In October of 2015 the KRG appointed its first Jewish representative, Sherzad Omar Mamsani. Last week the KRG marked its first ever official Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony in the regional capital of Erbil.
Mamsani called upon Jews whose ancestors lived in Kurdistan to return to the northern Iraqi province to visit – and even to live.
“The number of known Jews or families with Jewish heritage grows as we discover individuals who have been quiet for decades, or as some Kurdish and Iraqi Jews return from the diaspora for long-term business,” said Mamsani. “Jews would be surprised to find that they are freer and safer here than in certain European capitals.”
“We believe they can live here,” Jaffar Ibrahim Eminki, a deputy speaker in the Kurdish parliament, told Fox News.
But with ISIS just 50 miles from heart of Kurdistan and continuing Iraqi sovereignty over the region, some Jewish activists in Iraq understand the likelihood of Jews immigrating to the area are slim.
“They are not moving back from anywhere; they are simply more comfortable revealing a Jewish connection,” said Edwin Shuker, an Iraqi Jewish businessman involved in the preservation and restoration of Jewish religious sites in the Middle East.
“This is the oldest Jewish community in the world that has managed to keep its identity in exile. People who are of Jewish descent have now been more willing to associate themselves with the Jewish heritage.”