A few hours’ drive from the former front line with the Islamic State terror group in Iraq live a group of Jews, erstwhile residents of Israel, who have found prosperity and relative peace. Yet they are befuddled and resentful at finding the doors of the Jewish state closed to them.
Like dozens of other holders of Israeli identity cards who have left the Jewish state over the years to return to the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq, Assaf Eliyahu cannot come back to Israel even if he wanted to, because Israel won’t renew his transit permits.
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“You have nothing to worry about; Iraqi Kurdistan is safer than Tel Aviv,” Assaf’s younger brother Aharon Eliyahu said when I met him at my place in Israel. It was mid-September, just a few days before I was set to board a plane to meet Assaf and other Jews, and cover the Kurdish independence referendum.
I had brought Aharon to my place mainly so that he could assuage my fiancee’s concerns and secure her approval for my trip. I figured that if she could hear it was safe from a Hebrew speaker who came from the region, it would calm her nerves a bit.
Even though I knew my journey would be hard on her, I was determined to go through with it. From the moment I heard of the presence in Iraq of Jews who used to live in Israel, I knew I had to see them with my own eyes.
I was intrigued: Why would Hebrew-speaking Jews give up their lives in a developed country with relative security and economic stability and go live an hour’s drive from IS strongholds?
The big Kurdish aliya
The story of the Jewish Israelis still living in northern Iraq goes back to the early 1990s, when some 4,500 Kurdish Jews — practically the last members of the Jewish community in all of Iraq — made their way to Israel.
A few years later, in a story many immigrants to Israel from Western countries can relate to, it emerged that some of the Kurdish newcomers were having problems adapting to Israeli culture, language and the overall atmosphere. Several hundred eventually decided to pack their bags and return to their homeland, community members say.
The Kurdish people in Iraq, seen as one of the most moderate Muslims communities in the Middle East, had no problem welcoming back their Jewish neighbors.
‘The Arabs would slaughter us’
We land at the international airport in Irbil, the capital city of the Iraqi Kurdish region. Assaf is waiting for me right outside the building. I’m not sure if he is trying to calm me down or mess with me, but the first thing he does when we get into the car is to pull out his gun.
“Did you ever need to use it?” I ask him. “No,” he replies, “but if an Arab from IS comes, we’ll shoot him right in the head.”
We head toward the city of Dohuk, about three hours’ drive north. Lining the dark road are posters bearing the photos of Kurdish “martyrs” killed fighting IS.
On the way, I count at least four checkpoints manned by peshmerga, the armed Kurdish forces.
“We have no choice, we must set up these roadblocks,” Assaf says. “If we didn’t, the Arabs would slaughter us.”
We arrive at Dohuk at five in the morning and pull up by a shawarma stall that, surprisingly, is swarming with hungry customers. “Pita or lafa?” Assaf asks. I say I’m not used to eating meat first thing in the morning.
“So you’d better change your habits,” he replies. “Shawarma is like coffee — the first one of the morning will always be the best.”
Saddam Hussein’s private road
After our breakfast, we continued northward to see one of the areas most beloved by the late Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein — the picturesque village of Amadiya, which stands on a 1,400-meter-high mountain that, on a cloudless day, provides views of Turkey.
On the way to the village, we drive on what used to be Saddam’s private road and pass by several of his sprawling vacation homes, some of which have been razed by the Kurds.
Having heard there’s a synagogue in the village, I begin to ask around for it. But after two hours, I have to concede defeat — there isn’t a single local who can point me in the right direction.
In Israel today, many Kurdish immigrants and their descendants still bear the last name Amedi, which they link to roots in the vicinity of Amadiya.
‘I earn more money in Kurdistan’
The next day, Assaf takes me to a nice local restaurant. The walls are plastered with Kurdish flags and pictures of Masoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdish region. The air is heavy with the scent of grilled lamb.
As I tuck into my kubbeh, I try to find out what drove Assaf to leave Israel.
“It wasn’t planned at all. At first, I went back to Kurdistan only as a vacation,” he says. “I helped a friend of mine open a bakery. The bakery worked great so I opened another one, and then I started to realize that I actually earn more money in Kurdistan than I do in Israel.
“Life in Kurdistan was easier, so I decided to stay here permanently.”
Later, Assaf would meet his future wife, Asna, a school teacher. Asna, and the couple’s two children, are Jewish; unlike her husband, who is relatively fluent in Hebrew, Asna only knows a few basic words like shalom and toda.
By the time we finish our meal, it’s time for Assaf to go to work. He introduces me to his cousin Nissim Eliyahu, like him a holder of a blue resident’s identity card who moved to northern Iraq after a few years living in Israel. He is younger than Assaf, and his Hebrew is even smoother.
Nissim walks up to me with a huge smile on his face. “What’s up, my dear brother?” he asks loudly, in perfect Hebrew. It’s hard to get used to the fact that people speak the Holy Tongue freely in the streets of northern Iraq, without a trace of apprehension.
‘Turkey is worse than IS’
Nissim takes me to a carpet factory owned by his family. On the way, we meet Tzadok, Chaim and a few other Jews from his and Assaf’s extended family who are excited to see a journalist from Israel.
After touring the family carpet factory, we head back toward Assaf’s house. I prod Nissim for the reason his family left Israel and returned to Kurdistan.
“To tell you the truth, I was a little boy when that happened. My dad was the head of the family and he decided everything,” he says. “After IS started to conquer territory in Sinjar and the Kurdish region, we had no option but to stay here, because where would we go? Turkey, for us, is worse than IS, and Iran also isn’t any better.”
I ask Nissim about the option of returning to Israel and hear that, as in many cases, bureaucracy is the main obstacle. “Maybe I can go back since I have a travel document from the Israel government,” he says. “But what about the rest of my family? How can I save myself and leave them behind?”
At the end of the day, we arrive at Assaf’s place. We relax on the couch in his spacious living room and continue our conversation over a cup of tea and sweets.
“Friday nights we would go out to the Ha’oman 17 nightclub in Jerusalem or to pubs and clubs in Tel Aviv,” he recalls.
“I also had season tickets to Beitar Jerusalem soccer games, and on Saturdays I would go to all their games, both home and away,” he adds enthusiastically. He repeats some of the fan chants from Teddy Stadium.
While Assaf reminisces about the good times in Israel, Asna, his wife, comes in and places a pile of documents on the table — identity cards and drivers’ licenses issued by Israel.
‘We’re stuck here in Iraq and Israel is abandoning us’
It is hard for me to hear of Assaf’s Israeli experiences and his longing for friends and family in the Holy Land.
“Not one day passes when I don’t think about my brothers who live in Israel,” he says. “I’m tired of talking to them on Facebook and Skype; I want to see them in reality, to hug them.
“I have a blue identity card, I have friends and family in Israel; as far as I’m concerned, I’m Israeli,” Assaf adds, his voice tinged with frustration. “I do not understand why suddenly, after so many years in which the state renewed our transit documents and made it possible for us to come to Israel, they decided to stop. Now we’re stuck here in Iraq, and Israel is abandoning us.”
In a statement, the Israeli Interior Ministry said the issue of Kurdish Jews who are unable to renew their transit permits is “being processed by the humanitarian committee established under the Citizenship Law.”