Institute of Asian and African Studies
  • Mount Scopus, Jerusalem, 91905, Israel


  • Professor Moshe Sharon
  • Chair in Baha’i Studies
  • Director of the Corpus Inscriptionum Arabicarum Palaestinae
March 12, 2004
  • The Committee for Research Students
  • The Hebrew University
  • Jerusalem

Re: PhD dissertation “Tribal Chieftains and their Jewish Subjects in Kurdistan: A Comparative Study in Survival” By Mordechai Zaken

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 20th 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 second was the decision to widen the scope of the research beyond its original plan, and include in it the comparative study of the Assyrian Christians. This obliged Dr Zaken, to divert his attention from the main subject and spend almost two years in studying a new subject, which resulted in a detailed research that can stand on its own. It is true that this diversion greatly enriched the thesis, which now presented the original topic in a wider perspective, but even without it, the work could have been sufficient to fulfill the necessary demands for a PhD dissertation.

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)