Outcasts in Iraq, Assyrians look longingly at the Jewish homeland

One day in 1943, Labor Zionist essayist Hayim Greenberg was visited in New York by a stranger claiming to represent, of all things, the Assyrian nation.

It appears you Jews are about to get yourselves a state, the visitor said. Can you spare a corner of it for an old neighbor?

Greenberg was dumbfounded, he later wrote. When Jews and Assyrians last crossed paths, our northern kingdom was destroyed and 10 tribes were lost. Now they want our help?

But you saved us once before, the visitor persisted, when Jonah warned Nineveh to repent. Now we're reduced to 30,000 battered souls, clinging to a mountainside in northern Iraq, beset by Arabs, Turks and Kurds alike. All Europe spurns us. You are our last hope. Besides, after Hitler, you may not need as much space as you thought.

"It doesn't matter how I answered," Greenberg wrote, quoting the visitor's own conclusion: "History is brutal, and — who knows the ways of providence?"

As providence would have it, those two paths crossed again earlier this year at the United Nations. Hadassah, the women's Zionist organization, was appearing before an obscure U.N. committee that approves non-governmental organizations seeking U.N. affiliation. Also on the schedule that day was the Assyrian National Congress.

Neither organization passed muster. The committee "was not what I would call a friendly group," said Bernice Tannenbaum, a former Hadassah president who came to testify. She faced a barrage of venom from Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian delegates. The Syrian actually quoted the defunct "Zionism is racism" resolution. Most countries were sympathetic, but the Syrian-Lebanese hostility was enough to block consensus. "It was very disheartening," she added.

The Assyrians, by contrast, were rejected outright — after furious denunciations from nearly everyone present. They never even replied, because they hadn't sent a representative. The State Department warned them in advance that it would be pointless. Disheartening? You should only know from disheartening.

"I'm not surprised," said the president of the Assyrian National Congress, Sargon Dadesho, a full-time Assyrian rights activist in Modesto. "We have long been opposed by the Iraqi observer and his gang, the Arab countries."

Assyrians don't lack enemies, and Iraq easily tops the list. With Dadesho, though, it's personal. A militant nationalist, he's been targeted by Baghdad for assassination. A hitman was sent to Modesto in 1990, but the FBI nabbed him outside Dadesho's home. Dadesho won a $1.5 million judgment against Baghdad in federal court, which he's still trying to collect.

Assyria first emerged 4,000 years ago as a mighty Semitic empire, ruling the expanse between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that the Greeks called Mesopotamia ("between the rivers"). For 1,500 years, from their fabled capital in Nineveh, they battled Babylonia and Egypt for control of the Middle East. A military defeat around 610 set off a long decline.

Since then they've farmed quietly in villages along the Euphrates. They practice an ancient form of Christianity, the Nestorian rite, and speak Aramaic, the language of the Talmud. In 1915 they tried to throw off Turkish rule but were butchered, along with another Christian tribe, the Armenians. Thousands fled into exile.

After World War I the League of Nations promised the Assyrians autonomy in their homeland, which they call Ashur or Bet Nahrain (Aramaic for Mesopotamia). But Britain gave the region instead to the newly formed Kingdom of Iraq. Ever since, Iraq has been trying to assimilate them forceably into its Arabic-speaking majority.

"The trouble is, they consider us a religion, not an ethnic group," said former Illinois state senator John Nimrod, president of the Assyrian Universal Alliance, an umbrella for rival Assyrian groups. "What we're trying to do is tell the world who we are. We've been trying for years. But nobody notices."

If they're invisible, it's partly because they're terribly inconvenient. Their Bet Nahrain happens to overlap the homeland of another stateless nation, the Kurds. Like them, the Kurds were promised autonomy after World War I and then betrayed. Divided among Turkey, Iraq and Iran, the Kurds have been battling everybody ever since.

Today, thanks to widespread revulsion of Saddam Hussein, Kurds have a measure of U.S.-protected self-rule in northern Iraq. They're in no mood to share it with the Assyrians, whom they outnumber 10 to 1. Armed clashes are reported almost monthly.

The Assyrians have another problem. They're hopelessly divided. "They have dozens of organizations, and they all hate each other," said an exasperated U.S. official. Last fall, when the Iraqi opposition assembled its warring factions for a CIA-backed convention in New York, Washington made sure five seats were reserved for Assyrians on the 100-member executive council. "Unfortunately, we had 16 groups demanding those seats," said the U.S. official. "Nobody was willing to give in. It was a nightmare."

Nimrod, the Chicago leader, has been trying for years to forge unity under his Assyrian Universal Association. He's got two dozen groups sitting together. He's also built respectful ties with government officials in countries where Assyrians live, from Washington to Tehran.

He's up against tall odds, though, none taller than Dadesho, who is tough to tame. He infuriates Baghdad, calling Assyrians "the indigenous people" of Iraq. He also defends other Christian "indigenous peoples" in the region, from the Copts of Egypt to the Nubians of Sudan. Some observers say his rhetoric helps intensify Arab hostility.

Through it all, Assyrians continue to look with longing and envy at their old neighbors, the Jews. It's hard not to — Jews are the one non-Muslim minority in the Middle East who've successfully stood up to the Arab majority. Jews have also succeeded spectacularly at the very thing the Assyrians have done worst: garnering sympathy from the Christian West.

Nimrod, who used to represent the mostly Jewish suburb of Skokie in the Illinois Senate, brings the topic up repeatedly, usually trailing off a moment later. "There have been some contacts in the past," he said. And later: "There are many similarities. Your language is our language." And finally: "What makes for strange bedfellows is that Israel is close to Turkey." That makes cooperation impossible.

History is brutal.