The Polish question of the Middle East

Persecutions and institutional violence had been a consistent aspect of the European Jewish experience.

November 6, 2019 22:10
3 minute read.
The Polish question of the Middle East

Kurds celebrate to show their support for the upcoming September 25th independence referendum in Erbil, Iraq September 22, 2017.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The press is busy eulogizing the Kurds. President Trump, in his infinite wisdom, is not the architect of their misery, but he has managed to bring it to the world’s attention.

In describing the tragedy that has befallen the Kurds and to underscore the catastrophe, pundits tend to look for historical parallels to present them, a people not very well known to a Western audience, in the dress of more familiar historical characters. And when one is searching for recent national cataclysms, one invariably comes up with the Jews.

There is an old Soviet Jewish joke about an aging Jewish grandmother going to the theater for the first time. Every time a new character appears on stage she pesters her family members, seated nearby, asking them if the character is Jewish. It is classical Russian play, so obviously, none of them are. Finally, when the nanny of the main character presents herself, the grandson prompted with the question and being in total desperation relents and answers in affirmation. The grandmother instantly springs up from her seat and shouts: “Bravo, nanny!”

This is not to say that modern history has no historical parallels to the tragedy of the Kurds. However, first we should compare the situation faced by the Jews of Europe prior to the Holocaust to the one witnessed by the Kurds. The Jews were a religious minority. Except for the Balkan and the Russian periphery, with their Moslem populations, their neighbors were Christians. The Kurds are a Muslim lake surrounded by the Muslim ocean. In no place the Jews resided did they constitute a regional majority. That is not the case for the Kurds, although not uniformly across all regions.

Socioeconomically, the Jews represented a very narrow spectrum of professions. The Kurds, on the other hand, occupy the entire plethora of all walks of life. Persecutions and institutional violence had been a consistent aspect of the European Jewish experience. The Kurds had not been a target of government oppression more than their neighbors. For more than half of the millennium, under the Ottoman rule, they were equal in their rights to many other Muslim co-religionists of the Empire. Thus, to claim some parallel between the suffering of the two nations is to display ignorance of the historical context.

But if one’s suffering cannot be compared to that of the Jews, does this mean it is imaginary? For some eager to see the Jewish connection everywhere, that could well be the case. Sadly, there are many other nations with equally tumultuous histories. One, that we love to forget, is Poland. It’s history, very inconvenient for almost everyone in the West, resembles the history of Kurds in its misery.

THE MODERN history of Poland is a story of a nation divided between three empires. A mighty state in the eastern corner of the continent, it was divided in 1772 and subsequently in 1793 and 1795 between the three “horsemen” of Europe: Russia, Prussia and Austria. For more than 200 years, the Poles, scattered across three empires, struggled and fought to regain their independence. That finally occurred at the end of the First World War as a result of the collapse of the three empires.

The majority of the Kurds are similarly divided – between Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. They are viewed with suspicion by the host nations and their nationalistic tendencies are kept in check and violently crashed. The Kurds of Iraq possess a very high degree of autonomy that might even be called a pseudo independence. That situation could be compared in some of its aspects to the conditions in the part of Poland under Russian rule, the Congress Poland.

During their struggle for independence, the Poles were betrayed by every power and in every possible way. The Kurds may rightfully claim the same dubious achievement. The Second World War began with the German and Soviet invasion of Poland and its betrayal by Britain and France. The war ended with another betrayal, as though Poland had not participated in the war effort. The Kurds, with their immense effort in defeating the ISIS, displayed similar courage and have suffered an almost identical fate in the hands of the superpowers.

Knowing that one does not have to be like the Jews to suffer, we may hope the Kurdish national dream will one day flourish, despite history’s tantrums. Until then, the words of the Polish anthem may be inspirational: “Jeszcze Polska nie zgineła” – Poland has not yet perished.

The writer lives and works in Silicon Valley, California. He is a founding member of San Francisco Voice for Israel.

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