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Tribal chieftains and their Jewish subjects in Kurdistan : a comparative study in survival

by Mordechai Zaken

  Thesis/dissertation : Thesis/dissertation

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Jews and Assyrians in and around Kurdistan: A comparative study   (2013-07-07)


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This PhD thesis is an important study about the Jews and the Assyrian Christians in and around Kurdistan during the 19th and the 20th centuries.

It has been described by experts as an importnat contribution to the study of the Oriental Jewish diaspora, to the history of the Jewish community in Kurdistan, to the study of the tribal Kurdish society.

The focus on the Jews is mainly during the first half of the 20th century, until 1951-52, or until the mass migration of the Jewish community to the land of Israel.

The focus on the Assyrian Christians is limited to a period of 90 years, between 1843 and 1933.

Interstingly, the research of the Jews of Kurdistan had been based on oral history project conducted by the writer of this thesis and based on hundreds of interviews with 60 jewish informants or so, originally from Kurdistan.

Attached please find some excerptes from the reviews of the PhD Thesis readers or referees as submitted to the Office of Research Committee of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem during 2004.

First by Professor Joyce Blau of Inleco (Institut National des Langues et Civilizations Orientales, in Paris), dated June 20, 2004:

The aim of the author of the thesis was exhaustively to describe the relations between the Kurdish chiefs and their Jewish subjects daring the first part of the 20th century in northwestern Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdistan was then part of a country newly created by the British powers and composed of three "vilayet" or provinces which had been part of the defeated Ottoman Empire; the province of Mosul, with a Kurdish territory; the province of Baghdad, with a Sunni Arab majority; and the province of Basrah or Bassorah, with a Shi’ite Arab majority. Great Britain, to which the League of Nations had given a mandate over the new state, entrusted the governance of the new Iraqi state to Sunni Arab princes. The Kurds and their Jewish, Christians and Turcoman neighbors in the Kurdish province of Mosul found themselves, willy-nilly, citizens of an Arab country.

Mr. Zaken has undertaken the study of precisely this recent history of a few Jewish communities which lived in the former, prestigious principality of Bahdinan, in northwestern Iraqi Kurdistan. He did this remarkably well. His documentation is based on firsthand information, and is of the highest value.

Mr. Zaken collected his data from men and women from various areas of Bahdinan, where they had lived either in cites or villages, and most of whom had immigrated to Israel in the 1950s. He interviewed more than 50 people, many more than once. These discussions, which add up to hundreds of hours of interviews, most of which were taped, were then analyzed and classified. The task of gathering and ordering all this fieldwork was immense, and the candidate is to be congratulated on the methodology that he chose. This part of Mr. Zaken’s thesis, concerning Jewish life in Bahdinan, well complements the Impressive work of the pioneer ethnologist Erich Brauer.

Chapter II, which deals with the Jews, Kurds and Arabs between 1941 and 1952 is important because it raises the issue of the emerging conflict between the Zionist movement and the incipient national movements in the Arab countries. This problem, which was aggravated by the establishment of the Stale of Israel in 1948, was profoundly to affect the situation of the Jews in the Arab countries. However, in Iraqi Kurdistan the Kurdish chiefs, who Were concerned by the conflict only indirectly, were not willing to break ties forged with the Jewish communities over the course of thousand of years of co—existence, which on the whole were useful to them, particularly when the Jews, in contrast to the Christians, as we see later in Mr. Zaken’s thesis, could not be suspected of harboring sympathy for the “European enemy”. Many agha and Kurdish chiefs regretted the massive departure of the Jews for Israel in the early 1950s. Note, in particular, the ties which united the Barzani dynasty to the Jewish people, which Mr. Zaken describes at length and so well in several chapters of his thesis. These were not one-way ties, for even today, in spite of the departure of nearly the whole Jewish population of Kurdistan for Israel, the links have not been definitively broken, and there are many Kurds who recognize their debt to the Jews. In order to defame the Kurds in the eyes of the Jslamicist-milieux, a thesis is now circulating in Turkey which ‘proves the Jewish origin of the Barzani family’ Questioned about this, an eminent member of the family, not in the least upset, told me; ‘So much the better. I am convinced of our Jewish origins”

Chapters III to VI describe in detail the daily lives of the Jewish communities of Bahdinan during the first half of the 20th century. The candidate has brought out the fact that what differentiated the Jews of Kurdistan from their European co—religionists are the ties that connected the Jewish communities to the land and its fruits. Many communities were involved in agriculture, often sharing their work with their Moslem and Christian neighbors in villages that were half Jewish and half Christian, or half Jewish and half Moslem The inhabitants of those villages cultivated and inherited their lands, which they bought and sold freely.


The candidate tried to be exhaustive: the result of his quest for oral documentation was considerable. This huge amount of information has not only been well classified, hut the candidate succeeded in making it a smooth and agreeable read. This detailed study has made a major contribution to the study of the recent history of the region of Iraqi Bahdinan.


The VIIth and last chapter, titled ‘The Assyrians among the Kurds, Turks and Arabs: 1843- 1933” is devoted to the history of the Christian communities of Kurdistan. It was surely not easy for the candidate to describe the complex history of these communities, among the most ancient in the world.

The dates proposed by the candidate - - 1843 et 1933 - are well chosen because they mark two important stages in Christian history. At the beginning of the 1840s, the famous British archaeologist Austen-Henry Layard, working together with the French consul P.E. Botta, discovered the site of ancient Nineveh, capital of the Assyrians. This discovery amazed the whole world, and the Christians living around Nineveh became the object of widespread curiosity. Serious people opined that the “Chaldeans and the Nestorians were the sole human survivors of Assyria and Babylonia (J.P. Fletcher). On the heels of such statements, Protestant missionaries, especially Anglo-Saxons, hurried to seek out the “lust tribes of Israel” which had just been discovered. And as Mr. Zaken says, it was from that time that the Anglo-Saxon missionaries popularized the name “Assyrian for the Nestorian peoples who were not attached to the Church, just as the Catholic Church had popularized the name “Chaldean” for the Uniate Christians. So those Christians entered history.

The date of 1933 marked the massacre of the Assyrians who, betrayed by the British who had promised to give them an autonomous territory in Iraqi Kurdistan, no longer played a political role in Kurdistan. Mr. Zaken’s advisory committee was certainly correct to suggest that he devote a chapter of his thesis to the history of these Christian communities of Kurdistan. In fact, the title of Moti Zaken's thesis might well have been broadened to include Christians as well since, as he himself says “this dissertation, concentrates on Jews and Christians who lived north of the Great Zab River and east of the Tigris Valley" (p.16) and since he does devote a major chapter of the work to the Christian communities who shared the lives of Jews and Moslems in Kurdistan. It is very useful to describe the minority communities who lived side by side, spoke the same language sang the same snags, dressed in the same way, and who, on the whole, had a common culture. But the candidate tells us little about the most interesting thing, i.e., the common history of Jews and Christians who, we have it horn the Jews and Christians themselves, lived in tight symbiosis in the villages and cities of Bahdinan. That history is yet to be written.

In sum, Mr. Zaken's thesis is highly original in both subject and method. The project he undertook is a significant one, in an academic area where there is still a dearth of knowledge, and his work complements the previous research which does exist. He made excellent methodological choices both in doing an impressive number of first hand interviews, a in the careful and detailed way he treated the material he obtained; his data is highly valuable. His work is an important contribution to the study of the Jewish diaspora, to the study of the specificities of the Kurdish Jews, to the study Jewish relations with Moslems and Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan, and to the study of Iraqi Kurdistan itself. I highly commend this thesis, and congratulate Mr. Zaken on His work


Further, I strongly encourage the speedy publication of this thesis.


Mr. Moti Zaken shows obvious talent in historical analysis and I hope that he will find a way to continue his very promising research



June 19th, 2004

Joyce Blau



The second review is by Professor Moshe Sharon, Chair in Baha'i Studies and Director of the Corpus Inscriptionum Arabicarum Palaestinae  at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (dated March 12, 2004):

This is an original, comprehensive study on the Jewish community in Kurdistan in the last stages of its existence, during the first half of the 20<sup>th</sup> century. The scope of this study is far wider than its name. It emphasizes the various aspects of the relationships between the Jews and their lords – the Kurdish shaykhs- and the Kurdish population.

In spite of the fact that the thesis focuses on these relations, it also places them within the wider context of the social, political, and economical life of Kurdistan in general.

A relatively small part of the study is dedicated to historical developments, while its major part deals with means of survival of the urban and rural Jewish communities that lived among the non-Arab Muslim and tribal society whose political leadership came usually from the Sufi orders.

Many years were needed to accomplish this study, for two main reasons: First, the quality of the documents gathered and researched. These are, on the whole, oral testimonies of Kurdish Jews who migrated to Israel. By carefully collecting these sources, Dr Zaken rendered a great service to the study of the history of the minorities in the Middle East in general as well as to the history of the Jews. The testimonies now exist on audiotapes, and they were deciphered, transliterated, processed and stored for usage in future researches. 

The final product is a unique comparative study of two non-Muslim communities and their fight for survival within non-Arab Muslim population. While one community (the Christian) made an effort to take an active part in the political life, and paid dearly for it, the other (the Jewish) attempted not to stand out, remained submissive, and searched for every possible method of survival in tough environment.

The study portrays the life of individuals and communities and of their relationships with the government, and its judicial system, as well as with the Kurdish tribal law. Of great significance are the chapters in the research dedicated to the methods adopted by Jews in order to survive in conditions of complete inferiority, submissiveness and dependence, and with no measures of self-defense or safety outside the tribal framework. Similar to ether Jewish communities in exile, the Jews learned to take advantage of every possible opportunity to overcome periods of distress, and the study reviews the various methods of survival used in such cases.

A significant part of the research was dedicated to the economic life of the Jews. It describes the skills of innovation, inventiveness, enterprise and initiative, which characterized the economic activity of the Jews. Particularly interesting are the parts in the study describing the Jewish peddler who roamed around, frequently in hostile territory, having to protect himself not only against thieves and robbers but also against “partners,” imposed on him. The richer Jews, mainly in the large urban centers had to search for every way to defend their property and to use their wealth to survive and to contribute to the survival of the community.

I have no doubt that in his unique research the author has shown originality, independence and made major contribution to the study of the minorities in the Middle East, as well as to the social history of the Jews in modern times. I therefore recommend for this thesis the grade of Cum Laude.




Moshe Sharon



(A short English translation from the Hebrew original)



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