A tale of two lonely nations: Israel and Kurdistan

In Iraq’s Kurdistan, authorities of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) allowed masses to rally as they were holding the Israeli flag.

KURDISH PEOPLE attend a rally to show their support for the upcoming September 25th independence referendum in Duhuk, Iraq. (photo credit: REUTERS)
KURDISH PEOPLE attend a rally to show their support for the upcoming September 25th independence referendum in Duhuk, Iraq.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Demonstrations for the independence of Kurdistan worldwide, attended by Kurds from all four parts of historical Kurdistan, witnessed an unprecedented number of Israeli flags flying alongside the flags of Kurdistan. From the world capitals of Washington, Brussels, Stockholm and Cologne to Iraqi Kurdistan’s Dohuk, Akre, Zakho and the capital of Erbil, nationalist Kurds waved the bluewhite flags as they chanted nationalistic songs praising independence.
In Iraq’s Kurdistan, authorities of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) allowed masses to rally as they were holding the Israeli flag, even at the largest rally in Dohuk last week where the region’s president, Massoud Barzani, delivered a speech before a crowd of over 200,000 people. One should note that none of the Israeli flags flying at these rallies was homemade. They were seemingly imported, presumably from Israel, and some people were actually awaiting the right moment to display an extraordinarily interesting form of non-Jewish Zionism.
As a Kurd who has lived in Israel for over six years and probably met every single unofficial Kurdish delegation that visited this country, I should admit that there are no solid relations between Israel and the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. With that being said, many from both sides invest efforts on a daily basis to help relations evolve from a platonic love affair of the Middle East’s two lonely nations to a real cooperation, be it under the radar or otherwise. None has succeeded so far though.
For Iraqi Kurds, open relations with Israel will bring the wrath of its hostile neighbors in the region, while for Israel, Kurdish concerns are understandable and respected. But, in fact, neither of the two governments has ever forced their citizens to avoid displaying the deep-rooted sympathy to each other. Iraqi Kurdistan, where the Kurdish language is the official language of instruction at schools, is the sole Middle Eastern entity that has zero antisemitic sentiment in its curriculum. In Israel, academic institutions and museums refer to northern Iraq as Kurdistan, a name that the Kurds sacrificed lives numbering more than the populations of many countries to get officially recognized.
Interpretations of such sympathy by individuals on both sides make up a much more interesting story. A Kurd residing in Syria had once told me that he considered the Kurds’ affinity for Israel resembling the romantic feelings of a boy who hesitates to knock on his sweetheart’s door, fearing that her father would catch him. Another Kurdish friend, with some official position, recalled his encounter with a senior Israeli official in an international convention in a Western capital: “I silently approached him, stood next to him for a while as if I was listening to others. Then I whispered to his ear without the other noticing, ‘we love you.’ After an awkwardly quiet moment he whispered back, ‘we love you too.’ None of the other invitees knew what we had just exchanged with him. We did not even smile so others would not suspect.”
In 2013, as I was flying from Erbil to Tel Aviv via Amman, a charming security officer lady at Erbil’s international airport told me with a smile after staring at my boarding pass, “tell them we will be free too, just like them.”
“I will” I said, “I will tell this story in Israel many times.”
In Israel, where the entirety of the population learned Kurdistan’s name courtesy of Kurdish Jews long before others around the world had ever heard of it, similar stories do exist. In November 2010, a few days after I arrived in Beersheva, I asked an old man at the supermarket which one of the white packages contained yogurt, the national food of the Kurds. As we had a short conversation he learned that I was from Kurdistan. He grabbed my arm, and immediately turned to the other people standing around and told them “look at him, he is a Kurd. We had Kurds with us fighting in the war. These guys are strong, look he is not even cold and wearing a short-sleeve shirt!” Again in Beersheva, sometime around 2012, a bartender asked my Israeli friend why were we speaking English. He responded that I was a Kurd. After several minutes, the bartender distributed free shots to everybody sitting at the bar (including himself), raised his glass and shouted “free Kurdistan!” All of the men and women who were served free drinks repeated it after him, though none of them knew that an actual Kurd was sitting with them.
Indeed, a lot can be said about the potential of a strong Jewish-Kurdish alliance, and how it could help Kurds easily transfer Israel’s rich experience in various fields extending from agriculture to education to their country. Kurdistan, in return, could serve as the sole Jewish- friendly nation in the Middle East, and with its booming cashbased economy open to Israelis to invest and export, it could make a close economic ally. With a true, solid, declared and functioning friendship with Israel, Kurdistan could also further strengthen its secular democracy.
Kurdish students and professionals enrolling at Israeli institutions could constitute cultural bridges between Israel and Kurdistan, where ages-old Jewish history is still waiting to be uncovered and told. I am pretty sure many Kurds reading this piece are more interested in Israel’s F-16s than agriculture. And yes, Israel could help you learn how to fly F-16s too.
Jewish-Kurdish relations still require a lot of work to become a functional and proud cooperation between the two nations. Yesterday, Iraq’s notoriously violent former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed that Kurdistan’s independence was actually the establishment of the second Israel, and that Arabs would do anything to prevent it from materializing. In fact, these remarks were made in the absence of any real relations between Jerusalem and Erbil. The question is though, if you are already called the second Israel even though you are not, why not to be called such while your pilots receive training on F-16s in the first Israel?
The author is the coordinator of the Kurdish Studies Program at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies (MDC) in Tel Aviv.