Terra Incognita: Syria’s Kurds, Jewish suffering - history of powerless

Kurds have been hammered into the same stark choices, betrayed both by empires and by the social movements they adopted.

KURDISH AND ARAB protesters chant slogans against Turkish President Tayip Erdogan in Qamishli, Syria, Wednesday. (photo credit: MOHAMMAD HAMED / REUTERS)
KURDISH AND ARAB protesters chant slogans against Turkish President Tayip Erdogan in Qamishli, Syria, Wednesday.
(photo credit: MOHAMMAD HAMED / REUTERS)
The stark choices that greeted Kurds in eastern Syria in the opening days of the Syrian civil war have now ended with bombings and massacres at the hands of America’s “NATO ally” Turkey and the far-Right religious extremist proxies it is using in Syria. The tragedy by which a peaceful area of Syria recovering from the ISIS war, where people had believed working with the US would help them gain security, is one that echoes Jewish history. 
Like Kurds, Jews were historically a stateless minority with large populations across the Middle East and in Central and Eastern Europe. Not long ago, cities and towns across Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Poland had sizable Jewish minorities, and in some cases, majorities. They lived unstable lives at the whim of whichever great power ruled over them – from the Russian Empire to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. From time to time, they received news of new rights being granted to Jews in other parts of Europe, such as in revolutionary France. 
However, they knew that with every revolution comes uncertainty and a stark choice. New rights of citizenship might be offered but at the expense of no longer being a community. On the other hand, powers like the Russian Empire sought to eradicate Jewish tradition by drafting men for decades of army service. In the absence of empire and order, pogroms and attacks by extremists flourished.  
Shoehorned into this impossible situation, the Jewish community made different choices. Some embraced new radical social movements, becoming secular and communist or socialist. Some booked passage for America, as some of my ancestors did in the early part of the 19th century; others chose Zionism and the desire for a state of their own. 
Kurds have been hammered into the same stark choices, betrayed both by empires and by the social movements they adopted. The European powers that colonized Iraq and Syria sought to sideline Kurds in favor of Arab leaders. This eventually gave way to the even more oppressive and genocidal Arab nationalism of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party and the Ba’ath Party in Syria that denied many Kurds citizenship. Other countries were happy to use Kurds when it might help them against neighboring enemies, much as Iran used Kurds in its fight against Iraq, or Syria hosted members of the PKK to antagonize Turkey.  
Much like Jews were told that if they wanted equal rights and freedom they should not be a nation apart, Kurds were told by nationalist Turkey that they were not even Kurds but “Mountain Turks.” At each juncture there were attempts to dilute their identity, erase their villages or Arabize their lands in places like Iraq. It’s no surprise that some of these authoritarian ethno-fascist regimes borrowed heavily from fascism and Nazism in Europe.
And much like Kurds are accused of being “successionists” or “sectarian,” or that they are seeking to undermine the states they live in if they emphasize their identity, so too were Jews called traitors and accused of not being nationalist enough, wherever they lived.  
As such, it is no surprise that Jews eventually chose either radical movements or immigration to Western countries which offered them rights. In much the same way, some Kurds chose the PKK as their answer. Being accused of “terrorism” as Kurds have been is not foreign to Jews, many of whom joined the Communist Party in various countries. They were “terrorists” if they helped Nelson Mandela, or terrorists if they opposed the czar and his Cossacks.  
THE KURDS of eastern Syria were forced into a similar choice in 2013 as the Syrian civil war devolved into a series of chaotic smaller wars, giving birth to the most violent far-Right jihadist movements the world has ever seen. As ISIS rose and threatened the Kurds, accusing them of being “kuffar” or “infidels,” is it any surprise that so many flocked to join the YPG, the one armed group that was successfully resisting? That was in 2013-2014, when there was still a ceasefire across the border in Turkey between the PKK and the government. Today, we are told by Turkey that it is fighting “PKK terrorists” in eastern Syria. But there is no evidence that anyone from eastern Syria has terrorized Turkey. It is the opposite: it is Turkish-backed far-Right Syrian rebel groups, which have systematically ethnically cleansed Kurds and looted their homes in places like Afrin.  
Kurds find themselves in the same position in eastern Syria that Jews were forced to be in by the fascist and communist movements of 20th-century Europe. Whichever side they join, they will be attacked and sidelined. In eastern Syria, the Kurds saw the coming of the Americans in 2014 as a way they might finally enjoy some support and security from a large power. They trusted in that. Even though eastern Syria is a poor area, Kurds tried to rebuild their lives. Then the US decided to leave part of eastern Syria, the area with the highest Kurdish concentration, and open the area to bombings and attacks by Turkey. 
Jews have seen this before. They’ve been called “Bolsheviks” and “atheists” when the Nazis came knocking. By the time Stalin’s Red Army had liberated Auschwitz, and the Americans had finally landed at Normandy, it was too late for six million Jews. Like Yazidis, They were butchered, massacred, shot down into mass graves, and cleansed from their lands. Herded into train cars, they were gassed and killed in every conceivable way that Germany – and its collaborators in places like Croatia – could think of. In those years, most European countries abandoned the Jews, much as they have always abandoned the Kurds.  
It was only by force of will and a bit of luck in timing that some Jews decided it was necessary to build a state of their own. Like the American role in eastern Syria, the British, in what was then “Mandate Palestine,” played a Janus-faced role. On the one hand they enabled Jewish institutions to flourish, and there were Jewish police.
But the British also sought to appease Arab nationalists and far-Right extremists, like the Mufti of Jerusalem, who sought to ally with fascism against the Jewish community. During the Second World War, Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion went to the US seeking support. Not so different were the civilian components of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the group armed and trained by the US in eastern Syria, which sent representatives to Washington.  
By 1947, the UK had decided to rid itself of its experiment in British Palestine, dumping the area onto the UN. Here the Zionist movement, building and arming itself quietly for years, made a choice that determined its future. It understood that no help would be forthcoming in the war to come. It would be attacked by neighboring Arab states, many of them armed by the British. Under the guise of being given independence, the European powers would shepherd the nascent Jewish state to destruction.
UNDERSTANDING THAT, and amid a wave of terrorism directed at the British by Jewish resistance groups, the Zionist leadership sought out weapons wherever they could find them. They had no air force, no tanks, and little else besides rifles. Some American officials, much like today with eastern Syria, saw the forthcoming Jewish state as a potential burden. US diplomats warned that the nascent state would alienate Arab allies that the US wanted to cultivate. It would require US support, assistance and protection.  
The Jewish leadership under Ben-Gurion understood that they could not count on the Americans. They also had contacts in Russia. When war came, they understood that they would have to fight to the last in every border community, that every inch of land would have to be defended, and that the British would escort their enemies to the gates and provide cover for infiltration against them. So the Jews stockpiled arms and prepared for such a scenario.
When the storm broke, the Jewish community sacrificed thousands of men and women, including Holocaust survivors sent in wave after wave of attacks to drive the Arab armies back. They welded metal to trucks to make armored vehicles. They used bombs and home-made mortars. They collected reams of intelligence to stop their enemies. At key moments, the enemy advance was blunted. Jihadists who came from North Africa hoping to rape and murder were shot down on their way through Gaza and southern Palestine. Jews in 1947-1948 suffered massacres and losses, such as the Old City of Jerusalem, the holy site of Jewish faith, and they were massacred in Gush Etzion.  
When the UN sought to give away parts of Israel, which the partition plan had promised to the Jewish state, Jewish assassins shot to death UN representative Count Bernadotte as he made his way through the lush Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem. Today, a sign marks where he was killed. His murder was a message. This community, which had suffered the Holocaust, would not have its fate dictated to it again by Europeans. These Jewish men and women who had come out of the vise-grip of Eastern Europe – from Yemen, Morocco and even from the Kurdish mountains of Iraq – fought in 1948 to preserve a sliver of sovereignty.  
TODAY, KURDS in eastern Syria are suffering the betrayal that the West had in store for Jews in 1948. They have had jihadists unleashed on them, and powerful European-equipped armies sent to destroy them. They have learned the lesson that Jews learned before the Holocaust: None of these countries can be trusted. All the talk of human rights is meaningless when strong countries are willing to try to crush the weak. Many of those countries’ armies which marched into Palestine from Syria, Jordan and Egypt in 1948 thought they would find the weak. Instead they found the iron resolve of people who spent years preparing for the coming genocide.
Some countries still do not want Israel to exist. They even abuse the Kurds by saying the Kurds are a “second Israel,” attacking these poor people as if they were a proxy for what they would like to do to Israel. That is the tragic pain that cries out from eastern Syria: the pain of a vulnerable and almost defenseless people who were sold out by Western lies and given false hopes.
The same powers watched it happen in Israel in 1948. When they woke up in 1949 to see that short man with his odd hair, David Ben-Gurion, still standing at the head of the Knesset in Jerusalem – the same Jerusalem they sought to “internationalize” – they understood that they had lost.