Obama’s Kobani Crossroads

Obama has consistently disregarded the advice of his military experts on the ISIS threat. And he seems to have written off the Kurdish-Syrian town of Kobani, which may soon be overrun by ISIS.

Whatever the U.S. accomplished after about a decade of war in Iraq has, in a matter of months, deteriorated to a situation that may become unprecedented in its instability and threat to Western interests. Obama’s clumsy departure from Iraq, his military mismanagement of the mess that ensued, and his refusal to intervene in Syria – again, overruling his top security advisers – are what produced the current quagmire. 

The loss of Christianity in Mosul didn’t have to happen. Obama’s tardy airstrikes managed to prevent the Mosul Dam from falling, but the city may never be the same. Similarly, why did the Yazidis have to find themselves besieged on Mount Sinjar before the U.S. took action? 

Instead of preemptively stopping ISIS from spreading into Iraq, Obama effectively waited until some high-profile beheadings forced him to focus on the danger. While such gruesome murders can reliably rally public opinion in favor of military action, the duty of the Commander-in-Chief is to lead and take military action when and how national security requires it, and not just when terrorists provoke some tardy and token airstrikes into empty buildings.

As the next disaster is about to unfold on Obama’s watch, he should recognize that there is much more at stake with the fight for Kobani than just the loss to ISIS of a small town on the Syria-Turkey border.

Above all, letting Kobani fall means betraying our only ally fighting ISIS on the ground, and allowing them to be massacred while the world watches. What message does the U.S. send to Mideast partners and the world at large, if the Kurds are the only force providing the ground troops that Obama so desperately needs now, and yet Obama is unwilling to support them enough to avoid the horrific slaughter that will follow an ISIS victory in Kobani? 

Kobani also has geostrategic importance to the Iranian nuclear threat. The more ISIS succeeds at capturing territory and recruiting fighters, a trend bolstered by Kobani’s fall, the more desperate the U.S. becomes for help from Iran, which, as leader of the Shiite world, is the natural enemy of the Sunni ISIS fighters. Because Iran also has one of the most powerful militaries in the region, and has – even before the ISIS crises – outmaneuvered the West in talks to curb Iranian nuclear ambitions, Iran could easily leverage the situation to secure tacit Western acceptance of its nukes. Indeed, Iran has already signaled its fight-ISIS-for-nukes strategy

Even more important, as Iran watches how feebly the U.S. responds to the loss of Iraq and how Obama cowers from a relatively minor fight in Kobani, the Ayatollahs can rest assured that there really is no U.S. military option to stop their nuclear program. This conclusion becomes all the more inevitable, when they look at Obama’s waning influence at home, as he enters the lame-duck period of his presidency.

There is also a moral dimension to Kobani. Obama – in his  2009  and  2012  speeches on Holocaust Remembrance Day – proudly recalled how his great uncle helped to liberate a Nazi death camp. Yet Obama’s inaction in Syria has left about 200,000 dead, including many who were simply massacred, and Kobani may be where the next atrocities happen. Does the U.S. not hold itself to a higher standard than that of  Turkey, which has  thus far  chosen just to watch the fighting  a mere mile from its border? Turkish history already includes genocides against the  Armenian Christians and the Kurds (in the  Dersim Massacre), so it’s no surprise that the Islamist regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would let his army stand idly by, watching and waiting for ISIS to slaughter thousands of Kobani Kurds. But does the U.S. really want to be in the same camp as the Turks on this one? How much more shame will fall upon the United States, and the Obama legacy, when the Internet overflows with images of mass graves containing Kobani’s brave and abandoned fighters, along with Kurdish civilians who were too weak, infirm, or elderly to flee the approaching ISIS barbarism?

As if the above concerns weren’t enough to goad Obama into action, there is also the strategic impact of letting Kobani fall. As good as ISIS recruiting on social media already is, the popularity of this terrorist army among Islamists worldwide will surge when ISIS can boast about one more example of how even the mighty US military can’t stop them. 

Having foolishly telegraphed that he won’t send ground troops to confront ISIS, Obama can still try to convert his error into a feint, by doing the opposite and sending troops to Kobani. At least that would restore some element of unpredictability to how ISIS regards U.S. military moves in the region.

Obama is effectively a month away from the lame-duck portion of his presidency. If Republicans take Congress in next month's midterm elections, then Obama will become that much more ineffectual. But the president can still try to demonstrate some leadership by changing his strategic approach to Mideast threats — if only to prevent his legacy from going into freefall. If the Middle East has only one lesson for Obama, it is that much can go terribly wrong in very little time. With Iranian nukes around the corner and ISIS on the march, two years of Mideast deterioration is a frighteningly long time to be on Obama’s watch. 

Noah Beck is the author of The Last Israelis, an apocalyptic novel about Iranian nukes and other geopolitical issues in the Middle East.

U.S. bombs Islamic State after Obama call to prevent Iraq ‘genocide’

U.S. warplanes bombed Islamist fighters marching on Iraq's Kurdish capital on Friday after President Barack Obama said Washington must act to prevent “genocide.”

Islamic State fighters, who have beheaded and crucified captives in their drive to eradicate unbelievers, have advanced to within a half hour's drive of Arbil, capital of Iraq's Kurdish region and a hub for U.S. oil companies.

A Pentagon spokesman said two F/A-18 aircraft from an aircraft carrier in the Gulf had dropped laser-guided 500-pound bombs on a mobile artillery piece used by the fighters to shell Kurdish forces defending Arbil.

Obama authorized the first U.S. air strikes on Iraq since he pulled all troops out in 2011, arguing action was needed to halt the Islamist advance, protect Americans and safeguard hundreds of thousands of Christians and members of other religious minorities who have fled for their lives.

The United States also dropped relief supplies to members of the ancient Yazidi sect, tens of thousands of whom are massed on a desert mountaintop seeking shelter from fighters who had ordered them to convert or die.

“Earlier this week, one Iraqi in the area cried to the world, 'There is no one coming to help',” said Obama in a late night television address to the nation on Thursday. “Well, today America is coming to help.”

“We can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide,” he said.

The Islamic State was defiant. A fighter told Reuters by telephone the U.S. air strikes would have “no impact on us”.

“The planes attack positions they think are strategic, but this is not how we operate. We are trained for guerrilla street war,” he said. “God is with us and our promise is heaven. When we are promised heaven, do you think death will stop us?”

The advance of the Sunni militants, who also control a third of Syria and have fought this past week in Lebanon, has sounded alarm across the Middle East and threatens to unravel Iraq, a country divided between Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds.

In Baghdad, where politicians have been paralyzed by infighting while the state falls apart, the top Shi'ite cleric all but demanded Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki quit, a bold intervention that could bring the veteran ruler down.


Sunni fighters from the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot rejected as too extreme by Osama bin Laden's successors, have swept through northern Iraq since June. Their advance has dramatically accelerated in the past week when they routed Kurdish troops near the Kurdish autonomous region in the north.

Attention has focused on the plight of Yazidis, Christians and other minority groups in northern Iraq, which has been one of the most diverse parts of the Middle East for centuries.

“The stakes for Iraq's future can also not be clearer,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday. The Islamic State's “campaign of terror against the innocent, including the Christian minority, and its grotesque targeted acts of violence show all the warning signs of genocide.”

The U.S. Defense Department said planes dropped 72 bundles of supplies, including 8,000 ready-to-eat meals and thousands of gallons of drinking water, for threatened civilians near Sinjar, home of the Yazidis, ethnic Kurds who practice an ancient faith related to Zoroastrianism.

The Islamic State considers them to be “devil worshippers”. After fighters ordered them to leave, convert or die, most fled their towns and villages to camp out on Sinjar mountain, an arid peak where they believe Noah settled after the biblical flood.

“After we fled to the mountain, I returned one day to recover belongings and I saw the bodies of the elderly disabled men who had been shot dead by the Islamic State. They were too old to flee. I can't forget that scene,” said Akram Edo, who escaped to Kurdish-held territory with seven children.

His brother Hameed Edo, still back on the mountain with five children, told Reuters by telephone water was running out and no aid had arrived for the civilians trapped in the wilderness.

Mahma Khalil, a Yazidi lawmaker in Baghdad, said: “We hear through the media there is American help, but there is nothing on the ground…. Please save us! SOS! save us!” he said. “Our people are in the desert. They are exposed to a genocide.”


In the Kurdish capital, suddenly near the front line for the first time after a decade of war, defiant residents said they were stockpiling weapons and prepared to defend the city.

“People with children took them to their families (outside Arbil), but the men have stayed,” said Abu Blind, 44, working at a tea stall in Arbil bazaar. “They will have to trample over our dead bodies to reach Arbil.”

The Kurdish region has until now been the only part of Iraq to survive the past decade of civil war without a serious security threat. Its vaunted “peshmerga” fighters – those who confront death – also controlled wide stretches of territory outside the autonomous zone, which served as sanctuary for fleeing Christians and other minorities when Islamic State fighters arrived in the region last month.

But the past week saw the peshmerga crumble in the face of an advance by the fighters, who have heavy weapons they seized from Iraqi army troops that abandoned their posts in June. In addition, the fighters are flush with cash looted from banks.

Christians, many of them already refugees who had sought shelter in peshmerga-controlled areas, were suddenly forced to flee. Tens of thousands of Christians fled on Thursday when the Islamic State overran their hometown, Qaraqosh.

Shamil Abu Madian, a 45-year-old Christian, told Reuters he had first quit the city of Mosul when it fell in June. He initially sheltered in a town protected by the peshmerga, but was forced to flee again in panic in the middle of the night when the Kurdish peshmerga troops suddenly vanished.

“We were not able to take anything with us except some clothes in a nylon bag,” he said. “People are living on sidewalks, in public gardens, anywhere.”

A United Nations humanitarian spokesman said some 200,000 people fleeing the Islamists' advance had reached the town of Dohuk on the Tigris River in Iraqi Kurdistan and nearby areas of Nineveh province. Tens of thousands had fled further north to the Turkish border, Turkish officials said.


While the relentless advance of Islamic State fighters has threatened to destroy Iraq as a state, bickering politicians in Baghdad have failed to agree on a new government since an inconclusive election in April.

Maliki, a Shi'ite Islamist whose foes accuse him of fuelling the Sunni revolt by running an authoritarian sectarian state, has refused to step aside for a less polarizing figure, defying pressure from Washington and Tehran.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a reclusive 84-year-old scholar whose word is law for millions of Shi'ites in Iraq and beyond, has repeatedly pushed for politicians to break the deadlock and reunify the country. His weekly sermon on Friday, read out by an aide, was his clearest call for Maliki to go.

Though he did not mention Maliki by name, he said those who cling to posts were making a “grave mistake”.

Reuters photographs on Thursday showed the insurgents had raised their black flag over a checkpoint just 45 km (28 miles) from Arbil. U.S. oil majors Exxon Mobil and Chevron began evacuating expatriate staff from Iraqi Kurdistan on Thursday. Smaller oil companies also evacuated staff and cut back operations, and several saw their shares fall sharply on Thursday and Friday.

The Islamists' lightning offensive and the threat of U.S. military action sent shares and the dollar tumbling on world financial markets, as investors moved to safe haven assets such as gold and German government bonds.

Obama, who brought U.S. troops home from Iraq to fulfill a campaign pledge, insisted he would not commit ground forces and had no intention of letting the United States “get dragged into fighting another war in Iraq”.

Questions were quickly raised in Washington about whether selective U.S. attacks on militant positions and humanitarian air drops would be enough to shift the balance on the battlefield against the Islamist forces.

“I completely support humanitarian aid as well as the use of air power,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham tweeted after Obama's announcement. “However the actions announced tonight will not turn the tide of battle.”

Sunnis, Kurds shun Iraq parliament after no Maliki replacement named

Sunnis and Kurds walked out of the first session of Iraq's new parliament on Tuesday after Shi'ites failed to name a prime minister to replace Nuri al-Maliki, dimming any prospect of an early national unity government to save Iraq from collapse.

The United States, United Nations, Iran and Iraq's own Shi'ite clergy have pushed hard for politicians to come up with an inclusive government to hold the fragmenting country together as Sunni insurgents bear down on Baghdad.

The leader of the al Qaeda offshoot spearheading the insurgency, the Islamic State, has declared a “caliphate” in the lands it has seized in Iraq and Syria. Its leader vowed on Tuesday to avenge what he said were wrongs committed against Muslims worldwide.

Despite the urgency, the Iraqi parliament's first session since its election in April collapsed when Sunnis and Kurds refused to return from a recess to the parliamentary chamber after Shi'ites failed to name a prime minister.

Parliament is not likely to meet again for at least a week, leaving Iraq in political limbo and Maliki clinging to power as a caretaker, rejected by Sunnis and Kurds.

Under a governing system put in place after the removal of Saddam Hussein, the prime minister has always been a member of the Shi'ite majority, the speaker of parliament a Sunni and the largely ceremonial president a Kurd.

The Shi'ite bloc known as the National Alliance, in which Maliki's State of Law coalition is the biggest group, has met repeatedly in recent days to bargain over the premiership but has so far been unable either to endorse Maliki for a third term or to name an alternative.

Fewer than a third of lawmakers returned from the recess. Sunni parties said they would not put forward their candidate for speaker until the Shi'ites pick a premier. The Kurds have also yet to nominate a president.

Osama al-Nujaifi, a leading Sunni politician, former speaker and strong foe of Maliki, warned that “without a political solution, the sound of weapons will be loud, and the country will enter a black tunnel”.

He said his bloc did not have a candidate for a speaker so far and was waiting to see who the National Alliance would nominate for prime minister.

“If there is a new policy with a new prime minister, we will deal with them positively. Otherwise the country will go from bad to worse,” Nujaifi said.

Shi'ite lawmakers sought to shift blame to the Sunni and Kurdish blocs, saying the premiership was the last position to be named in the constitutionally-defined process. 

Mehdi al-Hafidh, parliament's oldest member who is tasked by the constitution with chairing the legislature's meetings until a speaker is named, said the next session would be held in a week, if agreement was possible after discussions.


Baghdad can ill-afford further delays. Government troops have been battling for three weeks against fighters led by the group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This week it shortened its name to the Islamic State and declared its leader “caliph” – historic title of successors of the Prophet Mohammad who ruled the whole Muslim world.

Speaking for the first time since then, the group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi vowed revenge for what he said were wrongs committed against Muslims, calling on fighters to avenge them

“Your brothers, on every piece of this earth, are waiting for your rescue,” Baghdadi purportedly said in an audio message that was posted online, naming a string of countries from Central African Republic to Burma where he said violations were being committed against Muslims.

“By Allah, we will take revenge, by Allah we will take revenge, even if after a while,” he said in the Ramadan message. Baghdadi also called on Muslims to immigrate to the “Islamic State”, saying it was a duty.

Fighting has raged in recent days near former dictator Saddam Hussein's home city, Tikrit, north of Baghdad. ISIL also controls suburbs just west of the capital and clashes have erupted to the south, leaving the city of 7 million confronting threats from three sides.

The United Nations said on Tuesday more than 2,400 Iraqis had been killed in June alone, making the month by far the deadliest since the height of sectarian warfare during the U.S. “surge” offensive in 2007.

In a reminder of that conflict, mortars fell near a Shi'ite holy shrine in Samarra which was bombed in 2006, unleashing the sectarian bloodshed that killed tens of thousands over the next two years. Samarra, north of Baghdad, is now held by Baghdad's troops with ISIL in the surrounding countryside.

Violence also struck the capital, where police found two bodies with their hands tied behind their back and bullet wounds in the head and chest in the mainly Shi'ite neighborhood of Shula, police and medical sources said. 

A bomb went off in Baghdad's western Jihad district, killing two passersby and wounding six more, police and medics said. 

The insurgents' advance has triggered pledges of support for Baghdad from both Washington and Tehran.

On Tuesday, Iran's deputy foreign minister said his country had not received any request for weapons from Baghdad but was ready to supply them if asked.

Iraq also flew Russian-made Sukhoi Su-25 jets delivered on Saturday for the first time, state television reported, although there was no independent confirmation.

Saudi Arabia pledge $500 million in humanitarian aid for Iraqis to be disbursed through U.N. agencies, a Saudi Press Agency statement said.


Parliament opened its first session with an orchestra playing the national anthem and the recitation of a Quranic verse emphasizing unity. Hafidh called on lawmakers to confront the crisis.

“The security setback that has beset Iraq must be brought to a stop, and security and stability have to be regained all over Iraq, so that it can head down the path in the right way toward the future,” he said.

Lawmakers stood at the arrival of Maliki, who waved to his long-time foe Nujaifi and shook hands with Saleh al-Mutlaq, another leading Sunni politician.

But anger among the three main ethnic and sectarian groups soon flared when a Kurdish lawmaker accused the government of withholding salaries for the Kurds' autonomous region. Kadhim al-Sayadi, a lawmaker in Maliki's list, shouted back that Kurds were taking down Iraqi flags.

“The Iraqi flag is an honor above your head. Why do you take it down?” he shouted. “The day will come when we will crush your heads.”

The dramatic advance by ISIL, which has dominated swathes of territory in an arc from Aleppo in Syria to near the western edge of Baghdad in Iraq, has stunned Iraq and the West. The group and allied militants seized border posts, oilfields and northern Iraq's main northern city Mosul in a lightning offensive in June.

Other Iraqi Sunni armed groups which resent what they see as persecution under Maliki are backing the insurgency.

Kurds have taken advantage of the advance to seize territory, including the city of Kirkuk, which they see as their historic capital and which sits above huge oil deposits.

Results of April's elections initially suggested parliament would easily confirm Maliki in power for a third term. But with lawmakers taking their seats after the collapse of the army in the north, politicians face a more fundamental task of staving off a breakup of the state.

Maliki's foes blame him for the rapid advance of the Sunni insurgents. Although Maliki's State of Law coalition won the most seats, it still needs allies to govern. Sunnis and Kurds demand that he go, arguing he favors his own sect, inflaming the resentment that fuels the insurgency.

The United States has not publicly called for Maliki to leave power but has demanded a more inclusive government in Baghdad as the price for more aggressive help.


Washington has so far pledged 300 mainly special forces advisers and said on Monday it was sending a further 300 troops to help secure the embassy and Baghdad airport.

Maliki's government, with the help of Shi'ite sectarian militias, has managed to stop the militants short of the capital but has been unable to take back cities its forces abandoned.

The army attempted last week to take back Tikrit but could not recapture the city, 160 km (100 miles) north of Baghdad, where ISIL fighters had machine-gunned scores of soldiers in shallow graves after capturing it on June 12. Residents said fighting raged on the city's southern outskirts on Monday.

On Friday, in an unusual political intervention, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric, called on political blocs to name the prime minister, president and speaker before parliament met on Tuesday.

Now that deadline has passed, a prominent Shi'ite lawmaker told Reuters he expected Sistani to keep up the pressure.

Maliki's close friends say he does not want to relinquish power, although senior members of his State of Law coalition have told Reuters an alternative premier from within his party was being discussed. Rival Shi'ite groups also have candidates.

Many worry that a drawn-out process will waste precious time in confronting the militants, who have vowed to advance on Baghdad. A Shi'ite lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “Things are bad. The political process is not commensurate with the speed of military developments.”

Israel tells U.S. Kurdish independence is ‘foregone conclusion’

Israel told the United States on Thursday Kurdish independence in northern Iraq was a “foregone conclusion” and Israeli experts predicted the Jewish state would be quick to recognize a Kurdish state, should it emerge.

Israel has maintained discreet military, intelligence and business ties with the Kurds since the 1960s, seeing in the minority ethnic group a buffer against shared Arab adversaries.

The Kurds have seized on recent sectarian chaos in Iraq to expand their autonomous northern territory to include Kirkuk, which sits on vast oil deposits that could make the independent state many dream of economically viable.

Washington wants Iraq's crumbling unity restored. On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Iraqi Kurdish leaders and urged them to seek political integration with Baghdad.

Kerry discussed the Iraqi crisis with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Paris on Thursday.

“Iraq is breaking up before our eyes and it would appear that the creation of an independent Kurdish state is a foregone conclusion,” Lieberman's spokesman quoted him as telling Kerry.

A day earlier, Israeli President Shimon Peres had a similar message for U.S. President Barack Obama, who hosted the dovish elder statesman at the White House.

Briefing reporters, Peres said he had told Obama he did not see unifying Iraq as possible without “massive” foreign military intervention and that this underscored Kurdish separation from the Shi'ite Muslim majority and Sunni Arab minority.

“The Kurds have, de facto, created their own state, which is democratic. One of the signs of a democracy is the granting of equality to women,” Peres said.

He added that neighbouring Turkey appeared to accept the Kurds' status as it was helping them pump out oil for sale.


Israel last Friday took its first delivery of the disputed crude from Iraqi Kurdistan's new pipeline. The United States disapproves of such go-it-alone Kurdish exports. [ID:nL6N0P11TE]

There are some 30 million Kurds on a swathe of land running through eastern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq and western Iran. They have hesitated to declare independence in Iraq, mindful of opposition from neighbouring states with Kurdish populations.

Israel's Foreign Ministry said there were currently no formal diplomatic relations with the Kurds. Israeli officials declined to comment, however, on the more clandestine ties.

“Our silence – in public, at least – is best. Any unnecessary utterance on our part can only harm them (Kurds),” senior Israeli defence official Amos Gilad said on Tuesday.

Asked on Israel's Army Radio whether Kurdish independence was desirable, Gilad noted the strength of the Israeli-Kurdish partnership in the past and said: “One can look at history and draw conclusions about the future.”

Israeli intelligence veterans say that cooperation took the form of military training for Kurds in northern Iraq, in return for their help in smuggling out Jews as well as in spying on Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad and, more recently, on Iran.

Eliezer Tsafrir, a former Mossad station chief in Kurdish northern Iraq who is now retired from Israeli government service, said the secrecy around the ties had been maintained at the request of the Kurds.

“We'd love it to be out in the open, to have an embassy there, to have normal relations. But we keep it clandestine because that’s what they want,” he told Reuters.

Ofra Bengio, an Iraq expert at Tel Aviv University and the author of two books on the Kurds, said last week's oil delivery and other commercial ties between Israel and Kurdistan were “obviously” part of wider statecraft.

“I certainly think that the moment (Kurdish President Masoud) Barzani declares independence, these ties would be upgraded into open relations,” she said. “It depends on the Kurds.”

The Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq has denied selling oil to Israel, whether directly or indirectly. The Israeli government declined to comment on Friday's oil delivery.

Vera B. Saeedpour, Scholar and Archivist of the Kurdish Culture, Dies at 80

From NYTimes.com:

Vera Beaudin was newly divorced and a recent arrival in Harlem when a stranger knocked on her door one night carrying flowers and coffee cake. She fell in love, married and learned about the plight of his oppressed people.

When he died five years later, Ms. Beaudin, who had taken her new husband’s name, Saeedpour, responded by starting the first library and museum in the United States dedicated to Kurds, an ancient, stateless people straddling three nations in southwest Asia.

She did this in a Brooklyn brownstone where five or six cats and a dog or two prowled and where people rented rooms on the upper floors. Soon, scholars, journalists, government officials, homesick Kurds and the just plain curious were beating a path to her door.

Read the full article at NYTimes.com.

Iraqi First Lady at Museum of Tolerance: I remember the Jews of Kurdistan

The wife of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani paid a visit to the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Friday, toured its Museum of Tolerance, and recalled her friendship with the Jews of her Kurdish hometown.

Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, the petite first lady of Iraq, briefly recalled the killings and tortures the regime of dictator Saddam Hussein had inflicted on her fellow Kurds.

She added, “In every person’s mind there is a small Saddam. Killing Saddam is nothing, but killing the Saddam in our minds is everything.”

The Journal, the only media outlet admitted to the event, asked whether the Iraqi government had approved her visit to the high-profile Jewish and ardently pro-Israel institution, which plans to build a Center for Human Dignity in Jerusalem.

Ahmed, owner of an Iraqi media group and a strong advocate for children’s rights, answered quickly, “I don’t ask for permission. I go where I want to go.”
residents of the Jewish quarter suddenly started to build and eat in outdoor huts — which the American visitors quickly recognized as the celebration of Sukkot.

When the guests said goodbye, they invited their hostess to tour the Museum of Tolerance, if she were ever in Los Angeles. Two weeks later, she called to say that she was on her way.

Book details journey to a father’s distant land — Kurdish ‘Jerusalem’

“My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq,” by Ariel Sabar (Algonquin Books).

There are no more Jews in Zakho. Once the center of Jewish activity in Kurdish Iraq, the isolated town, a dusty vision of biblical landscape, was known as the “Jerusalem of Kurdistan.” Residents spoke the ancient Aramaic language, which they kept alive, along with their faith and distinctive culture, for almost 3,000 years. In the 1950s, after the Iraqi government turned against the Jews, the entire community moved to Israel, as part of Operations Ezra and Nehemiah. More than 120,000 Jews were airlifted from Iraq, including 18,000 Kurdish Jews; other Kurdish Jews arrived from Syria and Iran.

Yona Sabar was born in Zakho, and was the last boy to have his bar mitzvah there. He lived in a mud home, whose roof his family sometimes slept on in the heat, and he enjoyed meeting his grandfather in shul, where the old man sat up every night, conversing with the angels.

In Israel, his once-successful merchant family was impoverished; while the Muslims and Christians in Zakho had respected them, the Kurds were looked down on as the very lowest class in the new State of Israel. Sabar, unlike most of his fellow villagers, graduated from high school in Israel (while working full time to help support his family) and Hebrew University, where he studied language with a special interest in Aramaic. He received his doctorate in Near East Languages and Literature from Yale, and now is a distinguished professor at University of California Los Angeles. His ranch-style house in Los Angeles bears no resemblance to his childhood home, where hens and customers crisscrossed the dirt floor at all hours.

The remarkable arc of Sabar’s life is at the center of his son, Ariel Sabar’s, outstanding book, “My Father’s Paradise.” In telling his father’s story intertwined with the family’s tales, journalist Sabar reconstructs the little-known history of the Kurdish Jews, who lived in harmony with their non-Jewish neighbors. In Zakho, Muslims would bring tea to their Jewish neighbors on Shabbat, when the Jews weren’t able to cook. Jewish men wore the same baggy trousers and embroidered shirts as Muslims, “even if a few strands of tzitzit poked out from beneath their shirts.”

“My father had staked his life on the notion that the past mattered more than anything,” the younger Sabar writes, adding, “He sublimated homesickness into a career.”

“My Father’s Paradise” is also a deeply personal story of a distant father and son who were ultimately reconciled. Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, Ariel Sabar found his father embarrassing, regarding him as the uncoolest person he knew, with his unstylish clothing and beat-up car, and his passion for ancient languages rather than popular culture.

But, after moving across the country to attend college, falling in love with and marrying a non-Jewish woman and working hard in his first reporting jobs, Sabar was drawn to write about his father after the scholar consulted on the television series, “The X-Files,” about the language Jesus might have used. For the first time Sabar asked his father, as he might have questioned any source, about his life in Zakho. His story in the Providence Journal, “Scholar Dad Goes Showbiz: ‘I Am the Walrus’ in Aramaic,” brought him a greater response than all of his previous articles combined. He then thought that he had said everything he had to say about his father.

Several years later, after he and his wife had their first child, a son, Sabar began seriously thinking about “fathers and sons,ALTTEXT and what is it we inherit,” he said in an interview. “Would [his son] feel the way I did about my father? That this guy had nothing to teach me, that I didn’t care where he came from, that I was my own person? It took me back to some long-neglected questions.” Now, looking back, he’s not proud of the way he treated his father.

Aware that his potential sources — Kurdish Jews like his father who remembered life in Iraq — were aging, Sabar felt a sense of duty to preserve their past. And, as a journalist, he sensed he was onto a great story. He quit his newspaper job and moved to Maine, where his wife returned to work as a physician; he began researching and traveling, tracking down relatives and family friends. His father still had the Kurdish sensibility, where people survived by keeping their heads down, so he wasn’t altogether comfortable about being the subject of a book.

Collecting an impressive amount of detail, Sabar created a compelling narrative. The Jews of Zakho had little in common with the Jews of Baghdad, who spoke Arabic, built huge synagogues and yeshivas, ran large businesses and held government jobs. In the 1940s, the remote Jews of Zakho had no idea of what was happening to the Jews of Europe, nor did they know of a deadly pogrom in Baghdad in 1941.

Sabar conveys the life of Zakho, with its storytellers, beggars, traders, smugglers, loggers, Arab tribesmen, cheese makers, and the one dyer of fabrics, his great-grandfather the mystic. Girls didn’t go to school, but instead learned to do heavy chores and to cook specialties whose descriptions may send readers in search of a Kurdish kosher cookbook. His grandmother Miryam’s life was full of loss, including having her firstborn, a daughter, never returned by a tribeswoman who agreed to be her nursemaid when Miryam was ill. She had lost her own mother at a young age and was married at 13 to a cousin, who proved to be kind.

In Israel, Miryam was lost, never learning Hebrew, and even though her neighbors would sit around and speak of children, she wouldn’t mention that two of her sons were university professors, her two daughters teachers, another son a vice principal of a school and another a bank officer, for fear that boasting tempts the evil eye. The author knew her as the grandmother who coaxed him in Aramaic, “You didn’t eat anything” and ate only after everyone else finished. He learned the full and vivid story of her life through transcribed and translated interviews he did with her as a student, while studying her language.

In 2005, father and son traveled to Zakho together — a dangerous time for Americans and Jews in Iraq — and were greeted with kindness; many people remembered Sabar’s grandfather and could tick off the names of the Jewish families they did business with, and some spoke of missing the Jewish presence. The Jewish neighborhood was now the poorest section of town, and the shuls had become private homes. The Sabars realized that the generation that recalled Jews fondly, remembering the brotherhood they experienced, wouldn’t be around much longer.

“Journalism can be pretty cynical. But to cross the border and see the sign, ‘Welcome to Kurdistan of Iraq’ — I was euphoric” the author says. Zakho is grittier than he expected, and it’s also fast-growing, with traffic, construction and Internet cafés, not like the sleepy mountain town his father left. While there, they attempted to track down Yona’s long-lost sister.

Ariel Sabar explains that for his father, the idea of paradise is not only Zakho, but also the Israel he had dreamed of, and even California, where he finds much tolerance of difference and is able to preserve his mother tongue. In the unlikely setting of an upscale L.A. mall, drinking iced coffee under the palm trees, he also experiences a kind of paradise, where he’s able to negotiate past and present.

Today, the younger Sabar, 37, is covering the presidential elections for The Christian Science Monitor. He and his wife raise their two children as Jews, playing Kurdish music at home, teaching them the Hebrew alphabet and prayers.

When asked how his father feels about the book, Sabar said, “He saw that I had gone on a journey not unlike his own, to preserve those parts of the past we can take with us. He has a measure of pride that his son, in his own way, would follow in his footsteps.”

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.

Holocaust Programs Focus on Education

What do the Kurds have to do with Holocaust? More than you might think.

When Fran Lapides discusses the plight of this Middle Eastern minority group with her high school students, she notes the similarities to the way the Jews were persecuted during the Holocaust.

“Why do some people choose to treat the Kurds differently than other Iraqis?” the Milken Community High School social science chair asked her history classes. According to the educator, the rampant bigotry and racism is the same as the Jews faced in the Holocaust.

Using resources and teaching methods suggested by Facing History and Ourselves, an international educational and professional development organization, Lapides incorporates the Holocaust to illustrate stereotyping and hate connected with other significant historical and current events.

As Yom HaShoah approaches, thoughts of the Holocaust inevitably permeate the minds of Southland Jews. Faced with the challenge of communicating these horrors to children and hoping they can learn from it, various local educational programs strive to train teachers to teach this difficult subject matter.

Having participated in Facing History and Ourselves’ training several years ago, Lapides and her staff have used the organization’s resources for more than 10 years.

“First you look at the individual,” Lapides said. “You look at yourself and how ‘the other’ is created and why people sit back and don’t protest.” Using the Holocaust as a case study, Facing History and Ourselves addresses how the Jews became “the other” in Nazi Germany and why individual Germans responded to Hitler.

With offices in seven cities around the United States, Facing History and Ourselves offers a more than a dozen teacher training opportunities yearly. The Los Angeles office was established in 1994. More than 1,400 local educators use its resources, and more than 130 local public, private and religious schools use the Facing History and Ourselves program in their curricula. Through the training, the organization aims to teach children morals.

“We’re trying to get teachers to show their kids that it was habits of mind, people’s failure to make ethical decisions as citizens, that made the rise of the Nazis possible,” said Bernie Weinraub, a Los Angeles program associate.

Building on the idea that each person can make a difference, Facing History and Ourselves organizes a variety of events throughout the year. Currently, the organization is sponsoring a multimedia exhibit at the Los Angeles Central Library titled, “Choosing to Participate: Facing History and Ourselves.” The traveling exhibition features dramatic stories of ordinary Americans who took a stand in their own communities, and how their everyday choices affected the course of history.

Similarly, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is in its 20th year of conducting a Holocaust education workshop for teachers. The four-session program, which is offered each spring, includes lectures, a visit to the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum and a meeting with Holocaust survivors.

This year’s theme was “From Anti-Semitism to Genocide: Teaching Hope and Humanity in a World Threatened by Terrorism.” Classes were held in February and March.

“A Holocaust education model can be a very effective way to teach humanity and empathy to students,” said Marjan Keypour Greenblatt, associate director of the ADL’s Southwest Region.

The ADL and the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles are targeting local Catholic school educators in offering a new course, the Bearing Witness Summer Institute: Anti-Semitism, The Holocaust and Contemporary Issues, which will be offered June 23-25. The program will address issues of diversity, prejudice and bigotry in contemporary society.

Lapides recalled one year when she taught a Holocaust elective class at Milken, saying, “The change in the kids over the three months of in-depth study was evident. [Holocaust education] makes kids so much more aware of what they’re doing and how they’re treating others, and in our world today, it’s so important as we become a more diverse community.”

The “Choosing to Participate: Facing History and
Ourselves” exhibit is free and open to the public at the Central Library in
downtown Los Angeles through May 4. For more information, call (213) 228-7000 or
visit www.lapl.org .