The Kurdish-Israeli relationship

James Kirchick writes that Kurds and Israelis have had a fairly good relationship since Israel’s statehood, and has some interesting explanations for it:

The existence or extent of Israel’s intelligence relationship with Kurdistan is officially denied by both parties. When I asked a senior Kurdish intelligence official if the KRG cooperated with the Israelis, he demurred. In line with most Muslim states, Iraq doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Israel, and moves by the KRG to formulate a foreign policy independent of the central government irritate Baghdad. But official relations between an independent or autonomous Kurdistan and Israel could one day prove to be a decisive factor in the chessboard that is Middle Eastern politics, and whatever their present scope, such relations make a great deal of sense. That’s because Kurdistan and Israel, as well as Kurds and Jews as people, share strategic interests and historic commonalities.***

The relationship between Kurds and Jews goes back to ancient times. Jews lived in Kurdistan since the exile of the 10 Tribes in the 8th century BCE. At the community’s height, Kurdish Jews numbered around 50,000, spread between Iran, Turkey, and northern Iraq. Many of them fled for Israel when the Jewish state declared its independence in 1948, and that trickle turned into a flood in the 1950s as life for Jews in Iraq became more and more difficult.

Political relations began in 1965, when David Kimche, one of the founding fathers of the Mossad, visited Kurdistan to meet with Mullah Mustafa Barzani, Massoud Barzani’s father and then-leader of the Kurds. The meeting came at the behest of the senior Barzani, who was seeking outside support for his people’s fight against the military regime that ruled the country. Kimche returned to Jerusalem urging Israeli support for the Kurds as part of the Jewish state’s outreach to non-Arab states like Iran and Turkey. With the United States, Israel covertly trained the Kurdish paramilitary, or peshmerga, and provided the Kurds with agricultural and technological know-how….

[Kirchick then describes some of the diplomatic reasons that Israelis have stopped supporting the Kurds.]

Beyond the strategic rationale for the Israeli-Kurdish relationship, there exists a deeper, values-based relationship. Both Jews and Kurds are embattled, once-stateless minorities in a region afflicted by obscurantist religious and ethnic movements that seek to sublimate, if not eliminate, religious and ethnic diversity. On one side of this divide lies a version of Sunni Wahabbist extremism and Shia radicalism pledging to rid the Middle East not only of Jews, but of anyone deemed insufficiently Islamic.

Another commonality is that both peoples have prevailed against attempts at extermination. In 1986, Saddam Hussein launched his Anfal campaign against the Kurds, eventually killing more than 200,000. In Halabja, the town about 10 miles from the Iranian border where, in 1988, the Iraqi military deployed poison gas to murder at least 5,000 people, a museum and monument stand to commemorate the dead. The museum’s inner sanctum, a round room with the names of the victims of the attack etched on the walls, evokes Yad Vashem. The city’s cemetery features a sign, “BA’ATH MEMBERS NOT ALLOWED TO ENTER.” Yasser Arafat’s support for Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War didn’t endear Palestinians to the Kurds, and general Kurdish indifference to the plight of the Palestinians argues against the trendy theory of “linkage,” which argues that resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a prerequisite to solving a host of other problems in the Muslim world.

The Kurds have proudly defied the anti-Israel theatrics of their Muslim brethren. Speaking with a variety of KRG officials, I heard that they would be more than happy to establish official diplomatic relations with Israel were such a decision within their power. “We have no problems with Israel,” says Falah Mustafa Bakir, head of the KRG Department of Foreign Relations. “They have not harmed us. We can’t be hating them because Arabs hate them.” In a 2007 television interview, Barzani said, “If an Israeli embassy were opened in Baghdad, we would no doubt open an Israeli consulate in Erbil.” That same year, then-Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni sat next to Jalal Talabani’s wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed Talabani, at an international women’s conference in Vienna. The two discussed the peace process and the plight of citizens in Sderot, the rocket-plagued Israeli city on the Gaza border. At the 2008 Socialist International, Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s president and the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan political party, shook Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s hand.

“We’ve been called ‘the second Israel,’ ” Bakir says. “We cite Israel as a democracy in the Middle East.” The regional forces arrayed against an independent Kurdistan are the same sorts of theocratic and authoritarian ones that tried to destroy the nascent Jewish state in 1948 and that have been arrayed against it ever since. “This island of democracy,” he says of Israel, “was seen as a germ,” yet Kurds take heart in its success as an independent nation. In light of their experience as a stateless people continually subjected to discrimination and genocide by the regimes under which they have lived, the Kurds have woefully adopted a saying that they have “no friends but the mountains.” They also have the Jews.

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9 thoughts on “The Kurdish-Israeli relationship

  1. Thanks for sharing!

    It’s fascinating that Saddam inadvertently helped turn the Kurds against identifying with the Palestinians as the oppressed people, which is otherwise so prevalent. I wonder what they made of Saddam’s own identification with Saladin who was Kurdish.

    1. Hi Kevin,
      My son Driss just laughs at Saladin. He is too good-natured to spit in the face of anyone. All the Kurds that we know deplore the success of Saladin the traitor. Saddam Hussein was half Kurd – hurrah, hurrah. Bastards come in all shapes and colours.
      My adopted son is from one of the four Kurd Emirs (Jirgash; Badini), he doesn’t know English but can speak Swedish and speak through me about all Kurdish matters. He was the favourite of his princely grandfather Abdulrahman Pir, and can speak with authority of many Kurdish matters.
      Hope we can be of service to you! A man who has his family since a thousand years in the Jewish cemetary at Jirgash (Girgash) might just perhaps have things to tell.
      Most kindly,
      Hassan

      1. Hi Hassan,

        I don’t know the history that well, so it’s interesting that they consider Saladin a traitor. Why is that?

        It would be neat to find Driss’s ancestors, but alas, Scott doesn’t have that ability. I don’t even find mention of Girgash in Israel besides the ancient Girgashites from the Bible, and if the family line branches off that far back, I fear there are few records. But if his grandfather was Jewish, Driss might even be granted citizenship in Israel under the Law of Return. I’d imagine you know all of this, though.

        Your last sentence is intriguing as you intended it regarding the things you have to tell. Maybe you can start a blog to record it for posterity — plus you never know who might come upon it and connect with you! 🙂

        Best wishes in your quest, Hassan.

        Kevin

      2. Hi Kevin,
        Thanks so much for your mail.
        Salahadin didn’t do a thing for the Kurds, he just favoured the Muslims. Very sad. In the former Mesopotamia the Kurds were either Jezedi, or followers of the Kurdish (not Persian) philosopher Zarathustra, or Jews or Christians. Some are still there today, living in peace with the majority Muslims who are becoming increasingly modern and democratic.
        I don’t know in which country you guys are? Maybe America? I thought you’d be in Jerusalem with your office in the middle of some café where Kurdish Jews like to assemble and chat about old times. The name Jirgash would be known to them since Driss’ family had a lot of close relations who emigrated to Israel in the early ’50s into the early ’60s even. Obviously people had no means of communicating in those days except by ordinary mail and I think both Israel and Iraq had major problems in that area.
        Girgash or Jirgash is the family’s private property. It’s where Abdurahman Pir had his house, a bit like some English Lord with his manor in the country with subordinate villages, while the man himself will go to some city for his job, whether in the administration or what. So the grandfather worked in Amediya being judge and doing whetever princes do (and Driss’ eldest brother has inherited the job).
        Driss and his siblings spent their younger years with the grandfather. He had a big extremely valuable library. Lots of antique handwritten volumes in Hebrew, for examples. Plus he had a smaller library at Amediya. Saddam Hussein bombed everything to mud and dust. Driss’ daddy stashed some of the books away, but they were too dangerous to keep. The decaying Jewish burial place at Jirgash has maybe a hundred stones still standing, most of them of the family. There’s also a smaller Jewish burial place at Amediya. Most of them with blood ties to a number of cousins in Israel, and their kids, possibly a few in America too.
        Edris is a Swedish citizen since four years, and his little daughter too. He enters Kurdistan freely on his Swedish passport (as well as most other countries in the world). It would please him very much if he could be some sort of honorary Israeli some day and travel there at times to visit family and know the country.
        We know that Israel is a rather crowded place etc., so Driss dreams about having his relatives visiting Kurdistan and seeing what a nice and democratic country it has become. He feels Jews of all levels could have valuable things to contribute to Kurdistan, or just live happy lives and breathe the wonderful air and enjoy themselves. There’s enough land for a few thousand Jews to settle in Jirgash – and a number of them would be our lost family.
        If you’ve got the Mossad, my goodness, it shouldn’t be too difficult for you to find some of the Badini Jews! We count on you people to achieve almost anything!! It should be great also for Kurdish Jews to be able to reconnect with their family. before everyone forgets their Badini language. Maybe starting with building some nice holiday homes for themselves, maybe starting some business. Lots of business opportunities for people with some know-how. (I myself am retired and the only business I know is painting in oils, hahah. So I would be a useless entrepreneur. I have some property in Dahok, so I’m okay).
        Oh please, do whatever you can!! Maybe someone reading these lines will come up with something. My adopted son Edris is very excited about this. He was born in 1973 and never met any of the family members who left for Israel (possibly even America). His elder siblings have some memories but can’t remember any names. That’s why the name Jirgash or Girgash might trigger some memory in some Jews Interested in their Kurdish ancestry. Or he name Amediya, or the great gentleman Abdulrahman Pir!
        Driss sends you his best, and so do I!
        Hassan

  2. Great question. Somehow, Saladin became a figure for Arab nationalists. From what I understand, the Crusades were not nearly as important to Muslims at the time as they became in the 19th and 20th century with the rise of Arab nationalism. I think that is why Arafat and Saddam used Saladin in their symbolism.

  3. All of these Israeli-Kurdish sites seem to be hopeless, there’s no way to contact any of them. My name is Hassan (a more elegant version of the Swedish name Hasse) Björnström, Växjö, Sweden. My adopted son Driss -Edris Hassan Abdulrahman – is from Deraluk, third in line to the title of Pir, or Emir, or Marquis. His grandfather Abdulrahman Pir was the second of Jews forcibly converted, and married to a widowed Barzani woman, and creator of the present President’s family. Driss’ highest dream is to find his relatives in Israel. He must have a lot of cousins there. He wants to visit them (which is possible since he is a Swedish citizen). He wants to invite them to Kurdistan. We own a house in Dahok. No problems. The family has title to the lands of the former principality of Jirgash (Girgash). Saddam the bastard bombed everything to pieces and now only beautiful ruins remain of the mansion, and there’s nothing left of the 35 villages or so which Abdulrahman Pir ruled over as a most enligtened and liberal prince.
    Driss’ highest dream is to be in contact with his Israeli relatives. Any Jew today who hears the name of Jirgash, or Girgash, will remember a wonderful tract with tears in their eyes. I myself have only seen it on video. It’s where I want my ashes to be strewn, it’s the only place where people will remember me for a few decades until my memory turns into Kurdish legend. Lots of Jews in Israel will have strong memories of Abdulrahman Pir, and of Driss’ Kurdhish father Hassan Pir.
    It’s a place of lovely nature and glorious mountains. All of the infrastructure was bombed to shreds by Saddam. There’s a lot of forest, wild game, gypsum and marble and – most possibly – oil. Driss’ eldest brother is a military, the seond one is a donkey who only makes children, and Driss is the third in line. The donkey’s eldest son is the fourth, a great and charming boy who was badly injured by an exploding gas tube in the bakery where he worked.
    If there is anyone who could develop this area, it’s the Jews. That’s what Driss dreams about. At least they could come and build some summer cottages. The family has full legal papers, and they are related to President Barzani, which he knows and acknowledges. (Driss complains that everyone stands up when he enters a room and even address him as they did his grandfather, “You are my God, I am your slave”. I can smile at that. I am certain that our respective grandfathers were instrumental in making us meet. My grandfather the colonel grew up in a home where their father the archdeacon requred his children to converse in Hebrew, Classical Greek and Latin at dinners.)
    I don’t think that anone in Israel will notice or take notice of this letter. At most we may get a slight comment by June or so…
    Driss speaks and writes fluent Badinani/Kurmanchi, and Swedish. I speak English, Swedish, Spanish and French. If there’s anyone out there who can help us or send a copy of this letter to somebody who’ll know what to do with it, we shall deeply appreciate that!
    Best wishes,
    Hassan
    hassony3@yahoo.se

  4. Hassan, I don’t know anyone that could help. I would suggest going to an Israeli embassy or consulate if there is one accessible.

    1. Dear Scott,
      The most common joke among Arabs here is that nothing works in Arab Iraq because it’s all American satellites and shit, while Kurdistan has electricity and stuff all the time because it’s all Israeli quality stuff. Everybody knows that, you don’t have to ask any “specialists” about that!
      We had some contact with the Israeli Embassy in Stockholm years ago, but they couldn’t help. The princely area of Badini which is mentioned on this site is exactly my son Driss’ grandfather’s principality. Any Kurd who escaped Saddam’s bombings and went to Israel (or other cities in Kurdistan) will know the name of Abdulrahman Pir of Jirgash, the Emir or Marquis of Jirgash, and they probably told their children about the old country, so there must be thousands of Israelis alive today who know the situation. Those are the people we hope will read our letter and contact us!
      Driss tells me that so many generations of his family are buried at the Jewish cemetary, hundreds of years, and his grandfather had a very important book which some collector wanted to buy for $50.000 some years ago (the only copy left may be in the National Library of Tehran). This, my good and well-intentioned Scott, is no Embassy business. It is strictly for a few of the thousands and thousands of Kurds in Jerusalem, who will contact us with tears in their eyes and so much emotion in their souls.
      So, please Scott, put some more effort into connecting us with the proper channels!
      If you ave any questions about Iraq and Israel, my son Driss, whose Kurdish father was the cousin of Barzani, can speak off the record and probably tell you things that you couldn’t get from official sources!
      All my best,
      Hassan

  5. Hi Hassan,

    Thanks for the explanation!

    Hehe, yes, we are Americans. We just have some common interests in history, religion, and world events, and enjoy discussing them together.

    I’m glad you joined in! I’ll keep you and Driss in mind. You never know how things will connect in the future.

    Best regards,

    Kevin

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