It was cold and dark when we arrived.
The beams of light from our clunky sedan on the potholed road seemed to be the only thing piercing the darkness.
To the north, Mount Shingal, which we had just crossed, lurked. To the south lay the city of Shingal, and beyond that the front line with Islamic State. Our destination was a small house occupied by a Kurdish peshmerga de-mining unit. The peshmerga are the armed forces of the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
When we arrived, the fire was cracking outside in a makeshift hut. Several men in uniform were splayed out. A large kettle for tea was brought. One of the first things the tall, athletic major took interest in was that I was writing for an Israeli newspaper.
“Do you know why we like Israel?” “The help in the 1960s, when Israel supported Kurdish resistance?” I wondered.
“That is a tiny reason,” said the major.
“We had Jews in this region, in our communities and we say ‘blood is blood’ and it is something you cannot abandon. We have gone through the same things, both suffered a lot.”
He pointed out that the Jewish people had suffered up until the foundation of Israel. “We have many of the same enemies around us and we are struggling for our state.”
Elements of this story appeared in most conversations I had in Kurdistan, in northern Iraq, last year. Some men claimed to have Jewish cousins. They were eager to show photos of Jewish houses in Aqrah, where some peshmerga we met were from. In Amadiya there were stories of “holy Jewish graves” from times of old. In the town of Alqosh there is the grave of the Jewish prophet Nahum, which some Jewish groups have shown interest in helping preserve and encourage visits to.
Hussein Yazdanpana, the leader of an Iranian Kurdish party that is in exile in Iraqi Kurdistan and has been fighting Islamic State, is enthusiastic about Kurdish-Jewish ties. Meeting him at a frontline observation post west of Kirkuk city, he spoke about the Holocaust and the shared suffering of Jews and Kurds as well as common values such as freedom and democracy.
“I look forward to good relations with Israel and the Jewish people in which we fight terrorism together in this region.”
In meeting throughout Kurdistan, the constant refrain is that the Kurds are today living in their independent year.
While other nations in the world gained independence long ago, such as Israel in 1948, the Kurdish nation of 30 million is divided between Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. In Iraq they are closest to a functioning independence state, running their own affairs with an autonomous government. In Iran they suffer under the Persian-speaking and Shi’a dominated regime. In Turkey, although Kurds have representation in parliament, the Turkish government has been fighting a war with Kurdish communist guerrillas from the PKK party since last year. Cities are under curfew and thousands have died.
In Syria, the Kurdish areas have come under the control of the YPG, a left-leaning movement that has been the main force fighting ISIS. The Kurdish area of Syria has suffered greatly, with cities like Kobani in ruins and although it wants an autonomous, federal structure after the war, no one is supporting its desires.
This means the one area that Kurdish- Jewish relations can bloom is with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. In October of last year, the local government appointed Sherzad Omar Mamsani as a Jewish representative in the Ministry of Religion. Since then Mamsani has been doing outreach to discuss Jewish affairs in Kurdistan. He traveled to Israel to attend a conference on the persecution of Yazidis, and Washington to meet with organizations in March. Zach Huff, an adviser to Mamsani noted that Kurdistan’s outreach is “great progress” and described a meeting with 28 MKs who have offered words of support for Kurdistan. Deputy Minister of Regional Cooperation Ayub Kara said Israel should “support the Kurdistan aspirations for independence.”
In Iraq one Kurdish official named Ali Awni from the Kurdish Democratic Party said in remarks that the Kurdish people do not have any problems with Israel.
“We do not have a common border and Israel does not occupy our land and did not participate in a battle against the Kurds. There is an active Kurdish community in Israel.”
The existence of a Kurdish community in Israel is often highlighted in Kurdish media to illustrate these connections.
In a 2013 article in the Rudaw online news site, Kurdish-Israeli singer Hadassa Yeshurun was interviewed and the media highlighted her commitment to “protecting Kurdish culture” in the Jewish state.
“They want to keep the language and culture alive in Israel.”
In a February article, Judit Neurink wrote about Jews visiting Iraqi Kurdistan and the “3,000 years of Jewish life in Kurdistan.”
This mutual interest between Israel and Kurdistan is unique in the region.
In many countries, such as Morocco or Egypt, even depicting Jewish history in the country is seen as controversial.
There is mass Holocaust denial and refusal to accept the existence of Jews as a mosaic in the region in many countries.
In contrast, in Erbil you can buy books in Kurdish about Golda Meir and about the history of Kurdish Jews.
There are other areas of kinship between Jews and Kurds. Daniel Libeskind, designer of the Berlin Jewish Museum, is the architect behind a new Kurdistan Museum in Erbil. Envisioned as a 14,000-square-meter edifice with sharp angles, the project will have four distinct parts related to the fact that Kurds are divided between four countries.
In the Kurdish regions of Iraq, much of the talk today is about a referendum and eventual independence. The war with Islamic State is grinding on and Kurds have successfully pushed back the extremists and gained key allies, not only among Western powers, but also in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, countries usually hostile to Kurdish interests.
Israel, which has had a close clandestine relationship with Kurdish groups that dates to the 1960s, has generally been supportive of Kurdish rights. In January, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked expressed support for Kurdish independence.
In a 2014 speech to the Institute for National Security Studies Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Kurdistan was “worthy of statehood.” All of these developments in the last years point to an enduring bond between two Middle Eastern peoples that is growing and can be cultivated.