My Word: Protecting the Kurds and refusing to be silent

More than 500,000 people have been killed in Syria since the start of the civil war there in 2011 and millions displaced.

People of all types and ages gathered in Jerusalem on October 12 in a rally for the Kurds  (photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)
People of all types and ages gathered in Jerusalem on October 12 in a rally for the Kurds
(photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)
As a teenager growing up in London of the 1970s, I spent most Sunday afternoons participating in rallies and demonstrations for Soviet Jewry and Jews in Arab lands. Forty years on, I tend to carry out my protests via Facebook from the comfort of my living room. It’s convenient to be able to hit “like” and “share” and feel you’re doing something, even if you’re stretched out on the sofa wearing pajamas. But there comes a time when it’s not enough. This month was that time.
On Saturday night, October 12, I fought the instinct to relax into the post-Yom Kippur, pre-Sukkot Jewish holiday season by doing nothing much at all outside of the virtual world. I got dressed to prevent a killing and took the bus with my son to join a small protest rally in Jerusalem’s Paris Square.
I have never seen such an eclectic bunch of people at a demonstration. Religious and secular, Jews, Christians and Muslims, Left and Right and an age range from toddlers in strollers to the elderly sitting on the stone steps surrounding the attractive fountain.
The placards proclaimed various slogans but they all had one message: Never again. It was a plea to the world to stop the massacre of Kurds and Christians following US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull forces out of northeastern Syria, perceived by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the go-ahead to carry out a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
More than 500,000 people have been killed in Syria since the start of the civil war there in 2011 and millions displaced. Now the Kurds – along with Christians and other minorities – in northeastern Syria are under a new direct threat.
The speakers included Orthodox rabbis Michael Melchior and Yaacov Medan (the head of the Har Etzion Yeshiva) as well as the Masorti Movement’s Tamar Elad-Appelbaum along with Christian leaders, a former ISIS prisoner, an American Jew who lives in Kurdistan and others. The event was livestreamed via a spotty Internet connection to besieged Kurds who sent back a desperate plea for help.
I think it was the white-bearded Medan who first mentioned “The 11th Commandment: Do not remain silent.” It was the motto that brought us together from our various backgrounds, beliefs and politics.
The demonstration was organized (mainly via Facebook and WhatsApp) by a Jerusalemite rabbi and social worker, Roni Lesser, who said that as a Jew he “couldn’t see what was happening and remain quiet.”
When Christians in the Old City learned of Lesser’s campaign they contacted him and the rally took on an interfaith nature. The speeches were met by polite applause as well as shouts of “Erdogan, terrorist” and “Biji Rojava!,” in support of the Kurdish region in Syria.
Speakers called on the government to take concrete steps of protest, including sending Turkey’s ambassador back to Ankara, ending arms sales to Turkey and establishing a “no-fly zone.” The general public can help by applying pressure on the government to take these active measures and other acts, such as offering humanitarian relief to the Kurdish refugees the same way Israel extended medical and humanitarian aid to Syrian wounded in Operation Good Neighbor.
In between the addresses, the participants sang Hebrew and Israeli songs, including Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s “The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to be scared.”
The colorful Kurdish flag – with its sun emblem – was raised high. As was Israel’s blue-and-white Star of David. And before participants dispersed, they sang the Israeli national anthem.
There were several other rallies and demonstrations in Israel over the holiday season with a similar simple message, including one by IDF reservists who gathered outside the Turkish Embassy in Tel Aviv.
Residents from my Jerusalem neighborhood, which I jokingly refer to as the Kurdish enclave, held a combined festive gathering and rally during the annual Saharaneh, Kurdish-Jewish celebration, in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park. The majority of my neighbors in the Katamonim are Kurdish and Iraqi Jews who started life in the young Jewish state in a temporary camp in nearby Talpiot, a reminder that the Jews of the Middle East are the overlooked refugees. Fiercely proud of their Kurdish heritage, they nonetheless poke fun at their differences – the local synagogues are divided on clan-like lines among Jews from Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.
It is symbolic of a real problem that exists beyond the Jewish world. As Jerusalem Post columnist Amotz Asa-El has noted, the disunity among the 40 million Kurds spread out over four countries is a major obstacle to their dreams of independence or even full autonomy. So too is their lack of an agreed-on leader – and no less important: a leader who has renounced and denounced terrorism.
While the rest of the world for some inexplicable reason remains obsessed with the Palestinians, I have long felt sympathy for the Kurds, who overwhelmingly voted for self-determination two years ago but did not receive the necessary international backing. There was no outcry when Iraq immediately closed the airports in the Kurdistan Regional Government and Iran and Turkey threatened to retaliate for their having gone to the polls. Trump’s move this month sent a message to both Iran and Turkey that the red light was about to change to green.
The Kurds have a better case for independence than the Palestinians, and – as long as they reject terrorism – I would be more than happy to see a Muslim Kurdish state. They have their own language and culture and have already proved their ability to rule themselves. It is the height of political cynicism to let the Kurds risk their lives to beat back ISIS, but not allow them to live according to their own traditions.
AMONG THE placards at the Jerusalem rally were several that read “Israel with the Kurds.” They were written in the fonts and colors of the once ubiquitous banners stating “The people with the Golan,” when prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was actively seeking ways to reach a peace agreement with Syria’s Hafez Assad, even though it would have required giving up the strategic plateau.
Even as I criticize Trump for his actions regarding the Kurds, I am grateful that this year he recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, but aware that he could change his mind. As Iran tries to establish a hold over the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, Israel can’t forget how from their position above the Sea of Galilee pre-June 1967 Syrian soldiers took potshots at Israeli fishermen and farmers.
The greater picture is not great. There’s widespread rioting in Lebanon, albeit ostensibly an economic rebellion, dubbed the “WhatsApp Revolt” over a hastily dropped plan to tax use of the social media. It is unclear whether the demonstrations will die out or the government will fall. Israel is keeping a wide-open eye on the developments and possible ramifications for those of us living south of the border.
Israel and Jordan are this week marking 25 years since the signing of the peace treaty between them. It has not lived up to the dreams, but it has prevented a nightmare. Better a cool peace than a conflict hot spot. As a sign of its dissatisfaction, Jordan announced last year that it was not automatically renewing the agreement to allow Israelis access to Naharayim in the North and the fields of Tzofar in the South. Nonetheless, King Abdullah knows that his Hashemite Kingdom is not threatened by Israel. The dangers to Jordan come from over the borders with Iraq and Syria – and also from Palestinians within the kingdom and without.
Israel has no way of knowing exactly how the situation will play out. When a vacuum is created in the Middle East it’s hard to predict who’s going to be sucked in; which countries will be pulled together and who will move apart.
The major message of the American abandonment of the Kurds and the fickleness of the peace agreement with Jordan is that ultimately Israel can trust and rely only on itself when it comes to protecting its interests and people. No international force will ever defend Israel’s borders the way IDF soldiers will protect their homes and families.
Israelis of all types came together to take a side against genocide, because they know the price of silence is too high. “Never again” has no meaning when whispered, only when proclaimed out loud.
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