Israel and the broader Jewish communities’ on-again, off-again interest in Kurdistan has recently become significantly more vocal with respect to professed support for Kurdistan’s right to self-determination.
Most recently, public statements by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, former president Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have propelled many supporters from Jerusalem to Washington to write seemingly authoritative op-eds and pro-Israel white papers about the presumed notion that Kurdistan could be Israel’s “best friend” in the Middle East.
These often fair-weather cheerleaders must recognize, and furthermore internalize, that Israel-Kurdistan relations must be mutually beneficial, respectful and genuine. These relations should not exist simply due to the fact that both sides “fight Islamic extremism” or because some Middle East regimes are chauvinist and do not accept Kurdish or Jewish influences in “their” region. Genuine support must transcend strategic objectives; support for Kurdistan should exist because supporting it is the right thing to do.
While these above examples are clearly important on their own merits, and without debating the distinct nuances of these respective conflicts, these aforementioned reasons are ultimately not enough to sustain either side in the long term.
An Israeli-Kurdish alliance must not be ephemeral and built around short-term objectives; it must be long-lasting and meaningful as well as strategic. In other words, both sides must seek to secure together a form of the “special relationship” that Israel maintains with the United States, and that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) desires with the United States. In other words, they should seek a special relationship with each other.
Israeli pronouncements supporting Kurdish independence, while still largely symbolic, may also end up being merely cheap rhetoric if continuous action is not forthcoming.
The onus here is on Israel for several reasons: it is a de jure state that maintains good relations with the United States and the European Union; is in an enviable position economically, politically and militarily; and lastly, has a proven track record of economic, political and social stability.
While Israel can largely escape the implications of such bold statements pertaining to Kurdish statehood, in actuality it is the Kurds – in this case the KRG in particular – that have more to lose: they are surrounded by Iran and the chaos in Iraq and Syria. These neighboring countries as well as Turkey adamantly oppose a future Kurdish state and claim it would become a “second Israel.” Presumably hostile to Arabs, Turkey and Iran, Kurdistan would be perceived as a bastion of Western values and imperial designs ostensibly established to diminish these countries’ influence and regional power, which likewise have historically been used to deny and oppress Kurdish national aspirations.
Legitimate Kurdish fears are that Iran or other countries would seek to destabilize the KRG (alternatively Iraqi Kurdistan) and would continuously try to discredit its legitimacy in the region since it has allegedly sought the assistance of the “Zionist entity” for support. In other words, Kurdistan would be faced with similar existential threats as Israel.
Indeed, acknowledging dealings with Israel is a double-edged sword for the KRG. On one hand this shows the (primarily non-Muslim) world that they are open, tolerant and willing to do business and maintain diplomatic relations with any country. On the other hand their immediate neighbors are not so keen to (openly) do business with and extend diplomatic overtures to a country many in the region regard as a regional destabilizer and an oppressor of Palestinians, Arabs, and denigrative of Islam.
Despite all of this, the KRG and Israel should “come out of the closet” as one colleague recently suggested.
All the regional players are aware of this “forbidden” relationship, and the mutual attractions only increase.
Kurds and Jews have lived among each other for thousands of years – many place the introduction in the 700s BCE, when the Assyrian Empire took over the Northern Kingdom of Israel and took 26,000 Jews captive.
According to Jewish and Assyrian sources they were taken to the “cities of the Medes”; that is, the predecessors of the Kurds. These cities were in and around Nusaybin, the Gozan and Khabur Rivers, and the city of Zakho to name three sites. All of these locations are in Kurdistan, though colonial borders drawn up during World War One physically separated Kurdistan into four separate entities that remain largely unrecognized by Kurds. As another colleague recently declared, “We don’t recognize these borders, especially since we have relatives on the other sides.”
Jews established important and influential communities as well as yeshivot throughout Kurdistan and even for a brief time during the Roman occupation of Judea, a Jewish kingdom based out of the capital city of Arbela (modern-day Arbil, the regional capital of the KRG) sent food and even soldiers to support their fellow coreligionists and allies. After Rome succeeded in conquering Judea, they turned their attention to the Kingdom of Adiabene (Hadyab) and the Jewish monarchy fled to safety in Hamadan, in modern-day Iranian Kurdistan, where one may still visit the shrine of Esther and Mordechai and where a once thriving Jewish community existed.
It was even a Kurd, the famed Salah ad-Din (Saladin) who granted Jews and Christians the right to pray and return to their homes in Jerusalem after he and his army defeated the Crusaders. Saladin’s personal physician was none other than Maimonides, one of Judaism’s most learned and well-respected Jewish teachers.
In the early days of Israeli statehood, as part of their “alliance of the periphery,” the fledgling country sought to make strategic alliances with non-Arabs in Muslim-majority Middle East countries in order to cause instability and deflect from Israel-Arab tensions. For nearly a decade (1966-1975) Iraqi Kurds were one of the main recipients of support via Mossad interlocutors who armed, funded and trained peshmerga fighters fighting against Baghdad.
This relationship was partially developed by Mossad agents, but also due to long-lasting family friendships of Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani and members of the Jewish Khawaja Khinno family that came from the ancient mountain town of Akre.
Israel’s assistance abruptly came to a grinding halt when Baghdad and Tehran surreptitiously signed the Algiers Agreement, immediately ending the US-allied Shah’s implicit support for the peshmerga, effectively ending crucial US and Israeli involvement as well. As a result, thousands of Kurds were slaughtered by Iraqi forces and many more fled to Iran. More recently, it is alleged that Israel helped train KRG security forces after the 2003 Iraq War and have been able to maintain indirect contacts through to the present.
Though Israel and Iraqi Kurds clearly have been able to forge more lasting bonds, the relationship between Israel and Turkey’s Kurds (20 percent of Turkey’s population) has been more challenging.
In 1991 Israel began directly negotiating with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), previously considered the most threatening terrorist organization to the State of Israel. In the 1980s, at the height of the Lebanese Civil War, the PLO helped train the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the Beqaa Valley. The leftist PKK – designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union and the United States – was at that time beginning its fight against Turkey, which played itself out into a protracted war that has lasted through the present and caused over 45,000 dead. In the 1980s, Israel-Turkey relations were still strong, as Israel sold millions of dollars of military equipment to Ankara during this period. These weapons were and are largely used against the PKK.
In terms of Israeli regional influence, perhaps the most significant event related to Israel-Kurdistan relations occurred in 1999, when the Mossad became implicated in helping Turkey capture the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, affectionately called “Apo” by supporters.
Regardless of the fact that Turkish, US, British, Greek and Kenyan intelligence all had a role in securing the capture of Turkey’s “Public Enemy Number One” in Nairobi, Kenya, Kurds in Berlin, Germany stormed the Israeli consulate and briefly took a woman hostage. Three Kurds died in this attack.
Though Ocalan has written fairly extensively on the Jewish historical presence in the Middle East as well as the enormous tragic repercussions of the Holocaust, his criticisms against Israel must be seen through the context of his anti-capitalist/ imperialist socio-political worldview and the need to delicately balance the already precarious regional situation of Kurds in Turkey as well as his many supporters in Syria.
Largely considered an attempt to appease current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regarding Turkish-PKK rapprochement, earlier this year Ocalan lashed out at the Armenian, Greek and Israel lobbies in the US, accusing them of attempting to sabotage PKK-Turkey peace process. Perhaps in another attempt at appeasement, in an extraordinarily outrageous and offensive statement, Ocalan recently declared via his lawyer that Islamic State (IS) is a creation of Israel.
Though many of his supporters quickly distanced themselves from such a preposterous declaration it is important to mention that in 2010 Israeli journalist Itai Anghel interviewed another leading PKK figure, Murat Karayilan, who invoked the Holocaust and asserted that it was a mystery why Israel would not help Kurds more since the enemies of Kurds – who were also the “enemies” of Israel – were seeking to annihilate Kurds as Nazis sought to do to Jews.
Karayilan admitted that he understood the necessity for Turkish-Israeli relations in general but in an uncharacteristically emotional manner asked, “...Is business everything? Everything?” As the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane enters its first month of being besieged by IS terrorists more Kurds are asking “where is Israel if they support us so much?!” Aside from the primary issue that Kobane (‘Ayn al-’Arab) is still in Syrian territory, only seconded by the fact Israel risks affecting its relationship with Turkey more, another major factor lies in the fact that the Kurdish organization that has defended the city, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units and Women’s Protection Unit (YPG/J) are, for all intents and purposes, the Syrian Kurdish branch of the PKK.
While there is an obvious humanitarian component to this issue, from an Israeli political perspective, the incentives are not that great.
Since Israel’s public declaration in support of Iraqi Kurdish political aspirations this summer, hundreds if not thousands of Kurds have been shown on social media with Israeli flags or voicing support for the Jewish state in other ways. In Israel, protests arose in support of Kurdistan defending itself against IS, and particularly after the IS-led massacre of the Yezidi ethno-religious minority on Mount Sinjar. This grassroots, organic support even reached Europe. In Malmö, Sweden, a man named Ismail Aryan Babak, an Iraqi Kurd, showed his solidarity by placing an Israeli flag outside of his apartment window. People broke the window and then beat him up as he ran outside.
This summer in Berlin, organizers arranged a Kurdish-Israeli festival/ demonstration and Kurds, Jews and Israelis could be seen dancing and singing together. Moreover, there is no shortage of online groups supporting Jewish/Israeli-Kurdish friendship. However, this affinity has at times also been based on prejudice.
In an attempt to show their “similarities” many Israelis, Jews and Kurds have castigated Palestinians, Arabs, and even Islam. This extreme manifestation of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is crude, racist and inexcusable. Many pro-Israel Kurds cite the facts that Saddam Hussein gave money to families of Palestinian terrorists during the second intifada and that late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat supported and congratulated Saddam on his al-Anfal campaign offensive that ultimately left over 182,000 Iraqi Kurds dead and 4,500 of their villages leveled.
Though this may be accurate, Jews and Kurds should rise above this baseness and concentrate on formative and constructive means to forge lasting alliances based on mutual understanding, tolerance, shared histories and socio-cultural values in order that economic relations and even long-term political objectives may be preserved.
Both Jews and Kurds have survived discrimination, persecution and horrific genocides. In many respects they share values, goals, and seek to live in a peaceful world, and certainly, a peaceful neighborhood. This past summer it was widely reported that one of the first purchasers of Kurdish oil was Israel, via Turkey.
Regardless of whether this is true, sustained economic relations could be a major current foundation for improved as well as deeper engagement.
It is said by many Kurdish leaders that while Kurds lost out in the 20th century due to broken colonial promises, the 21st century is the century of the Kurds. Let it be the century for stronger Kurdish and Jewish bonds, and they should be genuine and unbreakable.The author is a US-based researcher, writer and public-speaker who most recently lived in Iraqi Kurdistan. He has been studying the Middle East and Kurdistan in particular for over 15 years and holds master’s degrees in International Studies and Political Science. He is currently involved in several projects relating to Kurdish culture, history and political rights.