Two interesting facts emerge from this article in Middle East Eye about Kurdish Jews: Mawlud Afand, the editor of the Israel-Kurd magazine abducted in 2012, was released from Evin prison in Tehran in 2015 ( but Point of No Return has reason to believe he is still in Iran). The other is that Sherzad Omar Mamsani, who was temporarily suspended as head of the Jewish directorate in Kurdistan, is self-appointed and not altogether trusted. Since the Kurdish-Jewish community has not existed since 1950, the 'Jews' referred to in this article are most likely 'Ben-Ju' of Jewish ancestry.
Nash Didan, a short film by a young Israeli about her Kurdish grandmother (with thanks: Michelle)
In Iraqi Kurdistan, which prides itself as a bastion of tolerance in the region, and which will vote in an independence referendum in September, a higher, yet debated, number reside.
As many have converted to Islam and Christianity over the years and others pose as Christians and Muslims, statistics are unclear and call into question what defines a "Jew".
Mordechai Zaken, historian and former adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has said that most of the several dozen families that had some distant family connection to Judaism immigrated to Israel in the aftermath of the Gulf War.
"Most of these people are Muslim Kurds who perhaps have a grandmother or great grandmother of Jewish origin who converted to Islam two or three generations ago," he told the Jerusalem Post.
Decades into life without a Jewish support system - synagogues, rabbis, collective holiday celebrations - the once flourishing sense of Jewish community has faded.
Additionally, incidents reminding Jews to proceed with caution have not been consigned to the 20th century.
In 2012, Mawlud Afand, the publisher of the now discontinued Israel-Kurd magazine, which one Sulaimaniya man remembers buying covertly "like [he] was buying cocaine," was kidnapped and imprisoned in Iran after repeated warnings to cease publication, according to those close to him. He was released in 2015.
A seemingly progressive development came in 2015 when the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) passed the Law of Minorities, which gave a handful of minority religions - Zoroastrianism, Yarsanism and Judaism among others - the right to official representatives in the KRG through the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs.
The Jewish representative appointed by the KRG was Sherzad Mamsani, a man who says he lost his right hand in a 1997 bombing in which he says he was targeted for his faith.
Among his goals, he said, is the restoration of the region's Jewish historical sites, erection of synagogues, and the carrying out of a public relations effort to improve the perception of Jews.
One Kurdish Jew, who did not want to give his name, remembers vividly his father's reaction when he first heard the news of Mamsani’s appointment.
"My father was so happy, he cried at the first mention of a Jewish representative," he said.
But two years into his post, Mamsani has struggled with his own image in Jewish communities.
Just months after his appointment, Zaken told the Jerusalem Post that Mamsani was "someone who does not distinguish between truth and lies in his eagerness," adding that his "publicity campaign" is "causing confusion" and "damaging the KRG".
Zaken, the author of Jewish Subjects and Their Tribal Chieftains in Kurdistan, accused Mamsani of inflating the number of Jews in Kurdistan for political gain.
Most recently, Mamsani has controversially undertaken a mission to conduct a census of Jewish families in the region by aggregating documents, an initiative he once described in a 2016 Times of Israel interview as "insanity" and an idea that would let "enemies find us and kill us little by little".
"Information can be bought in Iraq," worries one Jewish man with his information, given over by a family member, now on file.
While some families have cooperated, others have balked at what they see as a double standard initiated by a leader who claims to have, but has not proved to have, Jewish roots and official connections.
KRG's Director of Relations and Religious Coexistence, Mariwan Naqshbandy, confirmed to MEE that Mamsani was granted his post, which is unpaid, without presenting paperwork or community input, but simply after putting himself forward for the role.
One Jew who has met Mamsani, speaking on behalf of his family, said: "We didn't turn over paperwork. I haven't seen good or bad things yet - I just don't trust him.
"Lots of Jewish people are asking who he is. They don't want to show their documents. They want proof [of who he is] before coming out."
But confirmation won't be coming from what many believe to be the most validating source: Israel.
"Sherzad is not an Israeli citizen, has no [sic] an Israeli passport and has no connection to the Israeli government or any official standing in Israel," Margalit Vega, the director of Israel's Gulf States Department at the Foreign Ministry, wrote in an email to MEE.
Earlier this year, Mamsani temporarily stood down for what he called "some reasons," and he himself admits to having many critics.
"Most of my community [is] anti-Sherzad," said Mamsani, who repeatedly stresses that he's not a politician.
The Jewish representative seems to be most favourably viewed on foreign trips and in external publications, where he is painted as a brave champion for religious minorities who, as Mamsani puts it, "stands in the centre of the fire among radical Islamic countries".
Read article in full