By Dr Simon Ross Valentine
‘Ribwar’ is a Jewish Kurd living in Tel Aviv, Israel. A friend of several years, we met recently at the Grand Istanbul Hotel in Erbil. As we sat in the hotel lobby, drinking glass after glass of hot sugary chai, we spoke of Kurdistan, the forthcoming referendum and independence.
“We Kurds,” he said sagaciously, “should be greatly encouraged by the Jews as we seek our freedom. Our histories and struggles are so similar. We must learn from Israel.”
The Jews, like the Kurds, have had a long history of struggle, suffering and persecution. But both peoples have emerged victorious from ignominious attempts of persecution and genocide.
Throughout their history the Jews have faced adversity, particularly so in the Holocaust in which the Nazis killed an estimated 6 million Jews. Similarly, more than 200,000 Kurds were killed by Saddam Hussein during Anfal in the 1980s when the Ba’athists carried out a merciless campaign of genocide against the Kurdish people. One thinks particularly of Halabja the town where, in 1988, the Iraqi military used chemical weapons to kill at least 5,000 people, many of whom were innocent women and children.
Kurds and Jews have shared a common struggle to be acknowledged as people, as victims of genocide. They are peoples leading similar life and death struggles to preserve their unique ethnic identities as non-Arabs.
Despite experiencing unimaginable suffering, the Jews, against overwhelming odds gained their independence and recognition as a nation-state. Out of adversity came achievement. Recent events in Kurdistan and Iraq seem to indicate that the same will soon be true for the Kurds.
The parallels between the Kurds and the Jews are striking. During the 1940s there were numerous Jewish guerrilla groups, mainly the Palmah and the Haganah, but also the lesser known units of Irgun and Lehi. These disparate partisan forces, similarly based on tribal loyalty like Peshmerga, were fighting for independence. They were skillfully merged (mainly under the supervision of David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel) to become the Israel Defence Force (IDF) and used successfully against the well-armed modern Arab armies sent against them.
On May 14, 1948, just as Britain was withdrawing from what was a British mandate (protected territory) Ben Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel. The next day, the new state was invaded by the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Although having little military equipment, much of which was basic, the IDF successfully used hit-and-run tactics against the modern, well-equipped Arab armies, gaining military successes and, most importantly, political freedom.
With hostile Arab neighbours on every side the Israelis survived, quite candidly, because they had to. They had their backs against the wall. The IDF had to be the best, and it was.
Later, the Israelis, possessing their own – mainly US funded army and air-force – dealt humiliating defeats on the Egyptians in the Sinai campaign in October 1956, the combined military might of Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the Six Day War of 1967, and Egypt and Syria in the Yom Kippur War 1973.
For the Arabs, Jewish military successes and the establishment of the Jewish State was nakba
[catastrophe], but for the Jews it was answered prayer, the fulfilment of nationalistic hopes and dreams.
Peshmerga, showing similar courage and tenacity, adopted similar guerrilla strategies against the Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein. Likewise it has been the most effective force in defeating Da’esh and in establishing Kurdistan as an autonomous state in its own right. By implementing the recent joint KRG-Coalition 35 proposals for military reform, the Peshmerga could soon become one of the best conventional armies in the Middle East.
Many other similarities between the Jews and the Kurds provide encouragement for the Kurds today. As Ribwar reminded me, “Like Kurds today, the Jews were regional outcasts, they stood alone.” The Jews, returning to their homeland, were ignored by many nations. Surrounded by hostile neighbours they were desperate for international help. The Jews were a stateless minority in a region dominated by political and religious movements that sought to suppress, if not eliminate them.
In the hatikvoh
(the Israeli national anthem), the Jews say, or usually
sing: “Our hope is not yet lost, the hope two thousand years old, to be a free nation in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” The Kurds have a similar hope, thousands of years old, to be a free nation in their own land, Kurdistan.
“Down through the centuries the Jews have said “Next year in Jerusalem.” It has been their shibboleth, their mantra of hope. Similarly, the Kurds have been driven by the hope of an independent free nation of their own, which, with continued determination, resolve and diplomatic acumen will soon be achieved.
Not only was Ben Gurion a strong political leader guiding the Jews in their fight for freedom, but he was also a tactful diplomat working tirelessly in the years before independence in 1948 gaining the support of western powers, both militarily and politically. Mainly by his diplomacy Israel gained the international recognition it needed as a fledgling state facing strong Arab opposition.
We see a parallel today between Ben Gurion and the invaluable diplomatic work of President Masoud Barzani and other members of the Kurdistan Regional Government (both KDP and PUK) in forming links with countries around the world. Today the Kurds have many more friends than just the mountains.
As with Israel in 1948 these links by Kurdistan with other countries are needed not only to gain military support, but also to obtain economic and financial resources, enabling Kurdistan to stand on its own two feet once independence is achieved. By such diplomacy Kurdistan is now rightly recognised internationally as an area of stability and tolerance in the Middle East.
Sadly, there has been fighting between Kurds in the past, with Kurds showing loyalty to their tribal groups rather than the nation. Qazi Muhammad, speaking to Mullah Mustafa Barzani in 1947 as the Mahabad Republic was coming to an end and he faced execution, said that one of the greatest weaknesses of the Kurds was their disunity. Regrettably this has been true on many other occasions in Kurdish history.
If, as hoped, the Kurds are to gain their independence and be strong as a unified political force, then the PUK and the KDP, like their earlier Jewish counterparts, must settle disagreements and, recognising common interests, unite as one coherent military and political group. Independence must not lead to internal strife and blood-shed.
Ben Gurion successfully united the rival tribal Jewish militias and as such the Jews were strong. Thankfully, due to the conciliatory efforts of the Barzanis, the Talabanis, and other groups making up the KRG there is a greater unity in Kurdistan and the Peshmerga are strong.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently spoke about the Holocaust and the shared suffering of Jews and Kurds as well as common values such as freedom and democracy (Jerusalem Post
, 16 August 2017).
Having common experience as persecuted people and having similar dreams of a homeland of their own (in the case of the Jews, a dream fulfilled with the establishment of Israel in 1948), the Kurds can learn much from the Jews and how Israel became a nation.
Rebbetzin Dena Weinberg, Jewish writer and activist, said: “There are no problems, only opportunities for growth." The problems that the Kurds face (and admittedly there are many) must be faced optimistically as opportunities to grow. As the Kurds face a referendum on September 25 and the possibility of independence, I believe we should listen to Ribwar’s advice and “Learn from Israel.”
Dr. S R Valentine is a freelance writer and lecturer spending much time in Kurdistan.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.