Why was an Israeli flag flying at a rally for Kurdish independence in northern Iraq in late September?
On Sept. 25, the people of Kurdistan, in a national referendum, voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence. On Sept. 13, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broke with other Middle Eastern leaders, the European Union and the United States by releasing a statement expressing support for the “legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to attain a state of its own.”
This is not a new policy. Israel has supported the Kurds, in varying stripes, for decades. So why does Israel care — and, more broadly, why should Jews?
The reasons are both moral and practical.
The moral reasons are clear. The Kurds’ generations-long struggle for independence is one deeply deserving of recognition.
Any supporter of Israel, across the full span of the political divide, should find ready and ample cause for sympathy in the Kurdish plight. A long-persecuted people with their own language, the Kurds are often called the world’s largest ethnic minority without a homeland.
The Kurds are notably egalitarian by global terms in religion, ethnicity and gender — and remarkably so by regional terms. Women not only have the right to vote in Kurdistan, but also serve in combat roles in the armed forces, with no official cap on rank.
After the regime of Saddam Hussein attempted to ethnically cleanse Iraq, gassing the Kurdish population, the Kurds fought hard for independence, finally gaining recognition in the form of an autonomous zone encompassing the northern third of Iraq after the 2003 American invasion.
The Kurds have been steadfast allies of the United States for 30 years and of Israel for 60. Kurdistan, with its leading socialist-agrarian philosophy, exists now in state not unlike the Yishuv, pre-state Israel.
While the morality of supporting Kurdish independence is both clear and important, the practical political considerations deserve greater depth in analysis.
Israel’s formation is a topic of controversy still today. The case for Israel is often made in terms of Wilsonian self-determination, whereas the case against Israel’s existence is dressed in the language of European colonialism, wielding terms such as “imperialism,” “occupation” and “apartheid” as blunt weapons against consciences.
Those critics of Israel see it in terms similar to those articulated by former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser: an imperialist tool to divide and weaken the Arab people and an unnatural growth grafted onto the Middle East to subjugate Arabs, conceived as a parting shot of spite from the geriatric empires as they exited the region.
Thus, a thorny question among those seeking to make a peaceful case for Israel’s belonging amid the Arab community of nations is how to make the case that Israel and Jews in general belong in the Middle East?
Further vexing is proving that Jews deserve such an existence within an autonomous state that protects their values and integrity. The answer posited here is Kurdistan.
What better way to show the Arabs that Israel believes in their right to self-determination and was never a colonial stooge than to support the tearing-down of the vestiges of Sykes-Picot?
Israel has long worn the blemish of its association with Britain and France in their attempt to oust Nasser from power in the 1956 Sinai-Suez war. This was the mortal wound to European colonialism in the Middle East, and although Israel fared well, it backed the wrong horse and wound up on the wrong side of history.
In the years to follow, a wave of military coups would topple the European-sanctioned leadership of the Middle East, something Israel was seen to be wary of, pitting the Israelis against the Arab people. While trying to maintain ties to “reliable” leaders throughout the region, the Jewish state was thought to be against popular Arab self-determination.
This, in part, is what so galvanized the Arab states in the wars of 1967 and 1973: a fear that Israel was a window through which imperial aspirants, either old or new, could enact their whims upon the region, thus turning Israel’s existence into a destabilizing factor for nascent Arab dictatorships trying to establish and coalesce their authority.
This is a chance to right that wrong.
The region is now in the wake of the Arab Spring, another series of popular Arab uprisings during which Israel decided to play its cards close to its vest. Few of these uprisings, save Tunisia, could be regarded as successes, even by the most generous definition.
But those uprisings created the fertile ground on which Kurdish independence seeks to grow.
The revolt of Syrian civilians and the brutal response of the Assad regime created a vacuum in which the Islamic State formed. Islamic State’s rampage into Iraq threw the Iraqi government’s legitimacy, to the extent it had any, into question as the nation’s territorial integrity and military melted away.
In the midst of Baghdad’s delegitimization, becoming a failed state in the eyes of most — a government is only as strong as its ability to protect its own people, and it failed — Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, saw its own legitimacy grow. Its Peshmerga forces — literally, “those who face death” — proved to be the only regional force potent enough to stand up to the Islamic State on its own.
With American aid and air support, the Kurds turned back the tide of black flags and began reclaiming a vast swath of territory spanning from Iraq across the northern third of Syria. It is Kurdish forces who are poised to retake the Islamic State’s self-declared capital, Raqqa.
The one major sticking point is Turkey.
Turkey, with its own significant Kurdish minority concentrated in the country’s south, feels threatened by Kurdish independence. The Turkish government has waged a war with a Kurdish guerrilla group, the PKK, for decades. Turkey, like the United States, Israel and most European countries, regards the PKK as a terrorist group.
The government of Turkey has taken its accusation one step further, lumping the Peshmerga and the government in Erbil, as well as any Kurdish fighting force, with the PKK. It’s guilt by ethnic association.
Turkey has gone so far as to launch a military incursion into northern Syria, amounting to an invasion by most definitions, with no clearly articulated intention to relinquish its holdings, so it can smother Kurdish aspirations for territorial continuity along its southern border.
Turkey also voiced extreme displeasure at the Kurdish referendum, after which Netanyahu went curiously silent on the issue. Some Israeli officials within the prime minister’s Likud party have suggested there may be a gag order within the ruling coalition.
However, kowtowing to the regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would be a dreadful historical blunder. Erdogan is barreling down the road toward tyranny and authoritarianism, with little regard for his Western partners, using the geopolitical relevance of his country (and especially its air bases) to keep his nominal international allies mum.
Meanwhile, the Kurds are seeking to move in the opposite direction, using internationally monitored, egalitarian, democratic processes to go about gaining legitimization for the founding of a democratic state.
While angering the Turks is not beneficial, Israel stands to lose far less than the United States by backing the Kurds. Erdogan’s populist, ostensibly Islamist party, the AKP, has gradually pushed away from the Jewish state for years. This is an excellent opportunity for Israel to seize the initiative and pivot toward the region’s future.
Israel has tacitly supported the Kurds for over 50 years, funneling arms and aid to their myriad incarnations for political calculations varying in savoriness. It is high time to bring that support out of the back room and out from under hushed breath.
It would certainly be a gamble to bet on the Kurds, especially against the powerhouse Turks; however, even if the Kurdish experiment is unsuccessful, the windfall of good will the Israeli government will achieve is immeasurable.
For years Israel has won small victories among Arab governments in the form of treaties and varying stages of recognition, but it has been losing horrendously in the Arab street and in the West.
Vocal support and publicized aid of a sovereign Kurdistan might not be popular to a few Middle Eastern regimes but would mark a dramatic change in the argument for Israel’s legitimacy in the hearts and minds of not only Arabs, but also young Jews the world over, with the added benefit of securing a potential ally for decades to come.
Elijah Harrison is a native Atlantan and student of the Middle East.