No one except Gillian Rosenberg knows her true motivations for allegedly traveling from her adopted home in Israel to join the Kurdish Women's Protection Units (YPJ) in Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava).
In an Israel Radio interview, she said she had flown to the Jordanian capital of Amman and then to Erbil in the Kurdistan Region, before joining people she had been in contact with over social media and making her way to a training camp in Syria.
Speaking in the interview in fluent Hebrew a few days ago, she claimed she was a mere “3,000 meters from Da'esh,” referring to the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists who have inflicted fear and unbridled violence upon their victims in Syria and Iraq alike.
Several former American and European soldiers -- and even bikers -- have joined the Syrian Kurdish fighters in Rojava or Peshmerga forces in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. But if Rosenberg’s claim of joining the YPJ is true, this is the first time a foreign-born non-Kurdish woman has joined either of the two forces.
What makes this unfolding story additionally unique is that she is a Canadian, and a self-identifying Orthodox Israeli Jew who served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), trained in search and rescue missions. As Israel does not maintain diplomatic relations with Syria or Iraq, upon her assumed return it is expected she will be arrested for entering two states technically at war with the Jewish state. If that happens, it would not be Rosenberg’s first brush with the law: she was arrested in 2009 and extradited to the United States, where she was reportedly jailed over a phone scam.
For most people there is no logical leap between serving in the IDF and then joining the Syrian-Kurdish force, known for its avowed stance supporting secular ideals and gender equality, in addition to being recognized as a bulwark against ISIS.
In recent days the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political wing of the YPJ and its male counterpart the People’s Protection Units (YPG), outlawed polygamy and mandated that women need to be 18 years old in order to marry within the three cantons it controls in Syria. That is a far cry from their ISIS and Islamist-allied enemies, who have sold enslaved women and used them as sexual objects.
Though these platforms may be appealing to many, it still does not explain what would possess an Israeli to physically put her own life in danger and fight alongside Kurds. Yet, there are several aspects that would appeal to Americans, Canadians, or Israelis who support Kurdish objectives in both Syria ad Iraq.
There is a long, shared history between both oppressed and persecuted peoples. Ms. Rosenberg herself is quoted as saying: “Kurds are our brothers. They are good people. They love life, a lot like us, really.”
Perhaps she learned that those same individuals and states that seek the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people also seek the destruction of Kurdistan and the Kurdish people. Both historically oppressed minorities have struggled for survival for centuries and closely share the same cultural values, which strongly emphasize family, community and education. As these groups became assimilated and exposed to the outside world, these values became inclusive of secularism and progressive ideals.
While some are content with the premise that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” there are deeper and longer-lasting ties between Jews and Kurds that should not be neglected. Both peoples are known as perpetual victims; however, in response to such far-reaching persecution, both have taken the position that they will defend themselves against their (often mutual) enemies.
It should also be remembered that in the 1950s many Kurds helped Jewish families -- perhaps even their neighbors -- escape to Israel from Iraq through the mountains. It is also recalled that the Mossad assisted Kurds in Iraq as the Peshmerga fought against Baghdad in order to secure greater rights.
While the majority of Kurds are Muslims, they are not nearly as prone to extremism, as “Kurdayati” or Kurdish national consciousness is of paramount importance and supersedes religious affiliation. Jews and Kurds share a sentiment that they only have one homeland. As it is often expressed in Israel, “En Li Eretz Aheret” -- I have no other country.
Ey Reqib, the Kurdish national anthem, echoes the same sentiment: “Kurdistan is my religion, our creed.”
Rosenberg's actions send a powerful message across the Middle East that the fight against ISIS transcends race, religion, ideology and creed.