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50 Miles from ISIS

Ari Greenspan and Ari Z. Zivotofsky

Of course we got raised eyebrows as we boarded a plane to Iraq, yet Kurdistan proved to be a welcoming, friendly place where our yarmulkes elicited comments such as “We love Jews.” We wanted to know what remained of an ancient Jewish community that fled to safer shores in the last century: We discovered a lot of ignorance, but an equal amount of Jewish pride.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

We’ve searched for Jews and examined remnants of communities all over the globe — but to travel to Iraq? With some of its territory overrun by ISIS and in the throes of civil bloodbaths, that was one place we never imagined we’d get to, at least in this decade. Yet several months ago when we heard that the government of Kurdistan — a semiautonomous region in northern Iraq — had appointed a Jewish affairs representative, we just had to go and see for ourselves. We decided to be his guests. For those of us living in the West, Iraq conjures images of perpetual war and incessant terror attacks. There was Saddam Hussein, the Iraq-Iran war, the US-led invasion of Iraq, as well as the subsequent power vacuum and the lightning-fast emergence of the deadly ISIS. Yet our back-channel investigations and research with various security organizations told us that safety in Kurdistan — even wearing our kippot publicly — was not a concern despite it being in Iraq. Well, even if walking the Kurdish streets was safe, we still had to decide to either fly viaJordan and over ISIS-controlled areas or via Turkey. Despite the decades-long tensions between Turkey and Kurdistan — last year alone Turkey killed more than 3,000 Kurds and the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK is viewed as a terrorist organization engaged in an ongoing militant struggle for an independent Kurdistan on Turkish soil — Turkish Air still flies there frequently, and so we set off from Tel Aviv to Istanbul.

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