When I first visited Israel as a teenager, we were given the option of going to various kinds of synagogues for Shabbat services. One week I chose a Kurdish synagogue in Jerusalem where I felt both at home and an outsider. I could kind of follow the prayers, which were in Hebrew but in tunes unfamiliar to me. At one point a kid ran up to me and started yelling at me. I had no idea what he was saying, but after a bit of back and forth I realized he wanted me to stop crossing my legs, because when I did so I exposed the sole of my shoe, which is considered disrespectful.
That experience was my first introduction to the Kurds, who I learned are a diverse ethnic group. Jews, Christians and Muslims have lived in Kurdistan for millennia, mostly in relative peace. Today most Kurdish Jews, like virtually all the Jewish communities in the Middle East, live in Israel, having fled there after the creation of the Jewish state.
It is not just a history and culture that unites Jews and Kurds, however. It is also geopolitics. After the United States withdrew its small force from northwest Syria to allow an invasion by Turkey, Prime Minister Netanyahu responded with full support for the Kurds and a condemnation of the invasion.
Israel and the Kurds are close even if their relationship is mostly kept under wraps, born of the principle “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Both have had to fight Arab nationalism in the region and have benefited from each other’s aid, but the bond is also centered on shared values. The Kurds have built autonomous regions based on democracy and secular principles, including equality for women.
There is also a connection between the two people as minorities who have fought for freedom and self-determination. After the First World War, Zionism, through the Balfour Declaration establishing a Jewish Home, was officially incorporated into the Mandate for Palestine. At the same time, the great powers also conceived of an independent Kurdistan along the lines of President Woodrow Wilson’s plan to break up large empires, but events, including the creation of modern Turkey, conspired to prevent it.
As Yossi Alpher, a former Mossad official has written, “For anyone who has entertained doubts about the need for a state for the Jewish people, the Kurds represent a tragic reminder. They are consistently being abandoned to an ugly fate because they don’t have a country.” As Israel does its best to defend its friends the Kurds, we would do well to remember that there, but for the success of Zionism, go the Jewish people.