In the fallout of President Trump decision to essentially abandon our Kurdish allies in Syria, one seemingly unlikely country offered the Kurds support: Israel.
Days after President Trump’s tweet of U.S. withdrawal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel was prepared to give humanitarian assistance to the “gallant Kurdish people.”
At first glance, the likelihood of Israel being somewhat allied with the Kurds seems bleak. Kurds are citizens of three countries that are openly hostile to Israel, namely Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and one country, Turkey, who’s relations with Israel is lukewarm at best.
But in reality, the Kurds are natural allies of Israel and have been so for the past six decades. The ties between the two groups are historical, political, and economical.
More than 200,000 to 300,000 Jews of Kurdish origin exist today and mostly reside in Israel. Many Kurdish Jews were among the first Jews to make the return to Israel in the 1890s.
There are even ancient Jewish-Kurdish legends that claim the Kurds are descendants of the Jews from the time of King Solomon. The story claims Solomon sent his servants to retrieve 500 beautiful women from Europe, but when the servants returned, Solomon had passed. His servants are said to have reproduced with the women who gave birth to the Kurdish nation. Recent research has also found that Jews and Kurds share more genetic connections than Jews and Arabs.
Ties between Israel and the Kurds first started in the 1960s when the Kurds helped smuggle the remaining Jews out of Iraq after decades of rising anti-Semitism, which included Pogroms, public executions, and discriminatory laws. Kurdish leaders directly played a role in smuggling Jews out, according to Zvi Zamir, the former head of the Mossad. According to Yossi Alpher in his Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies, Zamir once recounted the story of a Jewish woman meeting Kurdish leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani on her journey out of the region. The woman attempted to give Barzani a necklace of appreciation to which he instead directed her to give it to the Prime Minister of Israel. In the same interaction, Barzani said, “[Israel] is the state of the Jews. There is no other country to which we Kurds owe so much.”
Meanwhile, the Kurds were receiving humanitarian assistance from Israel. After hearing of severe poverty the Kurdish people were facing, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, then Foreign Minister, allocated the Kurds $100,000 in 1963.
Soon after, the humanitarian aid expanded into military assistance for training, arms, and ammunition, and eventually anti-aircraft weaponry. In 1980, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin admitted that the Israelis assisted the Kurds during their uprising against the Iraqis between 1965-1975.
In 1968 and 1973, Barzani visited Israel to meet Israeli officials, including Levi Eshkol and Meir, the Prime Ministers in those years, respectively.
In 1975, the relationship came to a halt after Iraq and Iran signed the Algiers Agreement, which declared the two countries would work together to end a Kurdish rebellion and that Iran would close off Israel’s access to Iraqi Kurdistan. A few years later, relations resumed but were discreet.
In 2017, Israel was the only country to publicly announce its support for Kurdish independence after the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq announced its intentions to hold a referendum for independence. At Kurdish independence rallies, Israeli flags were waived, leading to the Iraqi Parliament unanimously voting to criminalize the flying of Israeli flags. Shafiq Keder, a man who has translated several books about Israelis into Kurdish claims his books became best-sellers because Kurds look to Israel as an example of how to build a state for their people.
Israel and the Iraqi Kurds have also enjoyed economic cooperation in recent years. Israel accepted a large Kurdish oil shipment in June of 2014, at the peak of the Kurdish struggle against ISIS. The purchase was a significant help to the Kurdish government at a time of economic crisis. In May and August of 2015, Israel imported 14 million barrels of Kurdish oil, encompassing 77% of the Israeli demand during that period. It is important to note that the Kurds were exporting oil to Israel against the wishes of the Iraqi federal government and were strongly condemned for doing so.
KRG Vice President Kasart Rasul visited Israel with a delegation in 2013 to learn about Israel’s agriculture techniques.
While the Kurds and the Israelis share common interests, many Jewish people are sympathetic to Kurds due to the two peoples’ similar histories of persecution.
Professor Ofra Bengio, the Head of the Kurdish Studies Program at Tel Aviv University claimed genocides against Kurds should be recognized because the Kurds are “a people that have also suffered the terrors of chemical weapons,” and “Israel cannot remain aloof when it comes to the Kurds who suffered the same fate.”
Before Netanyahu released the statement announcing humanitarian assistance, several high-ranking Israeli reservists delivered a petition to Netanyahu last week, calling on the government to provide humanitarian, intelligence, and military assistance to the Kurds. This petition was provoked by the recent Turkish aggression and also highlighted the moral obligation some Jews feel to helping the Kurds.
“We, as Israelis and Jews, must not stand by when we see another nation abandoned by its allies and left defenseless,” the petition started by Maj. (res.) Yair Fink reads. “We remember very well the blood of our people, what happens when the nations of the world abandon the fate of a people.”
Most of the history and relations between the Kurds and the Israelis described focus on the Iraqi Kurds. Although it is the Syrian Kurds that are actively being persecuted by Turkey, the Iraqi Kurds will still be harmed by Turkish aggression in regards to their economy, their security, and a resultant refugee crisis. Furthermore, while Kurds are split among various political parties and have their internal divisions, they still see themselves as one nation yearning for its own state and actively work to support each other.
Perhaps the popular Kurdish phrase “No friends but the mountains” should be amended to “No friends but the mountains… and Israel.”