The Kurds and the Jews: A History of Oppression and Unwelcoming Neighborhoods
A few weeks ago I published an article in the Jerusalem Post in support of the Kurds and their quest for independence. You can read that article here. And it remains the case that if you are generally supportive of states with democratic processes and cultures oriented toward mutually tolerant relationships, then you’re in support of the Kurds. Moreover, the Kurds have been good friends to Israel. Last week Prime Minister Netanyahu stated publicly his support for Kurdish independence and the referendum. The Kurds welcome Israel’s support but have remained quiet for fear of antagonizing the Arab world.
In Saturday’s edition of the New York Times there is a story on the relationship between the Kurds and Israel. It is a clear and well stated article explaining the relationship between the Jews and the Kurds, a relationship about which many people don’t understand or are unaware of. The Kurds and the Jews of Israel in particular share a history of oppression and both groups are minorities in an unwelcoming neighborhood. There are about 200,000 Kurdish Jews and a strong Kurdish presence in Israel. Most notably was the assistance from Kurds in helping Jews escape Baghdad in 1969 after a mass hanging of Jews.
Netanyahu’s support for the Kurds and the independence resolution was a gutsy move made in isolation, because most powers in the region including the United Nations and the United States either directly oppose or have reservations about the referendum. The Iraqis oppose it because they don’t want their nation to be broken up; the Americans oppose it for fear that it will interfere with the defeat of the Islamic State and complicate their mission in that area of the world; Iran and Turkey oppose the referendum for fear of stimulating separatist thinking and even potential violence.
But Israel is publicly supportive of the Kurds because Israel needs friends. The Kurds are potentially very useful friends and would be a valuable resource in the region. And to the joy of just about everybody, the Kurds don’t care about the Palestinians. They assume it is Israel’s problem and are willing to be helpful if possible but otherwise just stand aside.
The Kurdish Independence Referendum
On September 25th Kurds will hold a referendum that will not be legally binding but is a vote on whether or not the Kurds should be an independent political entity. The referendum is a payoff for the consolidation of external military successes and help with the fight against the Islamic State. The Kurdish efforts to defeat ISIS have won the Kurdish leadership considerable praise and resources. But a cynical interpretation is that the Kurds are at the peak of their popularity and the time to declare independence is now. There have also been numerous reactions to the idea of a referendum. Some see it as a genuine deserving reward for the Kurds, others see it as a move by the old guard to cling to power.
In the end, a strong independent Kurdish state will certainly require help from the United States but also Kurdish attention to their own institutions and political trajectory. The Kurds have much work to do with respect to economic development and ensuring that institutions are a platform for democratic processes. There must also be a shared sense of Kurdish nationhood that unites the young and the old, the different localities, and final discussions about borders.
The referendum is generally a good idea and while it will interfere with the political maneuvers of some states the Kurds have to think about their own political future more than that of others.