Stereotypes against Israeli Kurds through Subhumanization of non-Jewish Kurds

The author took this image during a performance of the Kurdish dance group of Gonenim at Mahane Yehuda
The author took this image during a performance of the Kurdish dance group of Gonenim at Mahane Yehuda

As soon as Israel was founded in 1948 and its existence sealed, the homecoming of exiled Jews from all over the world kicked off. The Kurdish Jews were amongst the homecomers, though some of them had already arrived in the holy city of Jerusalem and its neighbouring outskirts in the 1920s and 1930s. The arduous and perilous journey from Kurdistan to Jerusalem often began on the backs of donkeys, traveling for many days under dreadful conditions of food shortages, freezing weather and bandit raids. Jerusalem was their final stop, a place which they never left until the end of their lives. According to my interviewees’ statements, their ancestors never left Jerusalem, not even for a short trip, staying in the city until they died as they claimed that “God” wanted them to stay there, as if they left they might never return to the holy city again (like their deported ancestors). However, as they started to participate in the cultural, economic and social life of the city, their lives in Jerusalem were not free from numerous tough and discriminatory challenges. They faced severe exploitation and discrimination on the labor market daily and suffered from poor housing conditions and a lack of security due to their settlement in Jerusalem’s neighbourhoods of conflict such as Nachlaot or Mamilla in 1960s and 1970s. Although this situation was omnipresent in Jerusalem and affected the majority of newcomers to differing extents, the Jewish Kurds specifically fell victim to extremely negative cultural and ethnic stereotypes, stigmatization and mischaracterization. They were designated as “unintellectual” and compared with certain animals. My elderly interviewees told me that the “heads” of the Kurds were described as “big” and compared with those of a “donkey”, that they were not trusted except with leading “goats in mountains” and described as otherwise ignorant. Many of my interviewees narrated their experiences of encountering these stereotypes and bigotries in 1960s and 70s Jerusalem. However, these stereotypes have not yet been consigned to the dustbin of history, as these stereotyping narratives are still ongoing. For example, I heard such stigma from a non-Kurdish Israeli from Morocco, who was present in the room while I was interviewing one of the Kurdish leaders in Jerusalem. During my interview, he joined the conversation and stated amusingly that the Jewish Kurds can only accompany goats in the mountains. The narratives of my interviewees and this statement by the non-Kurdish Israeli from Morocco aroused my interest in investigating the roots and origins of these stereotypes and bigotry.

I claim that this stereotyping and mischaracterization of the Jewish Kurds is not independent from the perception of the non-Jewish Kurds in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Many non-Jewish Kurds from Turkey, Iraq and Syria now living in Europe and elsewhere shared with me their experience of being mischaracterized in schools, workplaces and public life in their home countries, as well as in certain media, by individuals of Turkish and Arabic ethnicities. Many Kurds from Turkey indicated that they were constantly called “ulan Kürt” (little Kurd) or “Kuro” (uncivilized and primitive). Similarly, many Kurds from Iraq and Syria implied that they have been designated as “stupid” and “brothers of donkeys” by ethnic Arabs in Mosul and Baghdad in Iraq or Aleppo in Syria. To put it bluntly, I claim that this mischaracterization and association of Kurdish individuals in Turkey and Iraq with certain animals is a concept that has been strategically devised by Turkish and Arab nationalists who view the Kurdish population as unassimilable and subsequently as a threat to their national narratives.  Historically, they promoted these stereotypes, stigmas and bigotry against the Kurdish population in public and social environments. Kurds in Turkey were called “Kerkürt” meaning “donkey-Kurd” and those in Iraq, “donkey’s brothers”. Since the Jewish Kurds have lived in Kurdistan for hundreds of years and merged with the Kurdish population, culture, tradition and way of living, the negative attributes ascribed to them in the Arab world and Turkey have been transferred to Israel and are identical to those applied to them by their fellow Jews there. The stigma and mischaracterization of the Kurdish population are omnipresent in Turkey and Arab countries and it is impossible to escape these narratives when one lives in these countries for many years, since it is so integrated into the cultural and social structures of Turkish and Arab societies. It is therefore out of the question that these Jewish subjects were well integrated in Turkey and Arab countries, and they seem to have absorbed anti-Kurdish stereotypes and stigma too, which they then brought with them to their new homeland. Based on Kurdish refugees´ narratives, let me explain in detail how and why the Turkish and Arab nationalists misrepresent the Kurdish population in cultural, social and political spheres and how this has implications for the presentation of the Jewish Kurds in Israel.

The Kurdish refugees in Europe interviewed pointed out that the social, political, and institutional structures of the Turkish state perceive them as sub-human creatures, terrorists, “criminals” and “backward peasants” and equate them with animals inferior to ideal human beings. This equation exposes the Kurds to the subhumanization that is identified by metaphors of constructed mischaracteristics of specific creatures and animals that are described as “dangerous”, “dirty”, “criminal” and “dumb”. To reinforce the narratives of these Kurdish refugees, I examined the way in which the Kurdish population and culture have been overtly visualized with contempt and hostility in Turkish state media and movies. For example, the costumes of film actors and their spoken dialects, as well as the locations for the following movies, are from the Kurdish regions: Davaro, (Sheep), Keriz (Idiot), Salako (Simpleton), or Sefil Bilo (Wretched Bilo) etc. These films present the Kurds to the Turkish public as “bandits”, “dirty”, “silly”, or “terrorists” who behave in an “uncivilized” and “inappropriate” way. Consequently, this sort of imagination and visualization of the Kurdish population – constructed and boosted by the policy and institutions of Turkish state nationalism and embraced by the Turkish public – implies a view of the Kurds as subhuman. As a result, Kurdish individuals, culture and identity are subjected to contempt, xenophobia, hostility, mistreatment, criminalization, persecution and elimination. But what is the point of this policy?

In my opinion, and those of many others, many racial and ethnic groups cannot find their place within “civilized“society and their organic cultural and indigenous way of life is subjected to obliteration when these communities are reduced to being “below the status of ideal human beings” because of their cultural, racial, and social attributes, which are deemed to be unmodern or uncivilized according to the criteria of newly constructed nations like in the Turkish and Arab world. Subhumanity is applied to certain communities within the context of eugenic, colonial and racial theories that describe and construct ethnic and religious communities, and homeless and stateless groups including immigrants, shaping how they are treated. This description, construction and treatment appear in discourses and practices of political and social institutions that are adopted in various situations, such as civil conflicts, slavery, colonial policies, violence, and ethnic cleansing, to dehumanise culturally, ethnically and religiously diverse communities. These acts of classification, exclusion, and dehumanisation of oppressed groups are a feature of anti-modern regimes such as fascism, evident most obviously in the eugenic ideologies and efforts of the German Nazi regime. Consequently, the subhuman description of the Kurds aims to degrade them as dehumanized minorities: inferior and subordinate. Accordingly, this designation facilitates the legitimacy of mistreatment, discrimination, abuse, and racism against the Kurdish population.

These policies toward the Kurdish population did not historically take place in a vacuum. Kurdish leaders failed to create a sovereign Kurdish state to ensure the safety, dignity and development of the Kurdish population in an unconstrained way. In consequence, the Kurds have historically faced genocidal polices and acts at the hand of Turkish regimes, including the Dersim genocide and many other violent and genocide-like cases in the 1990s and 2000s; the Iranian regimes in the 1920s and under the Khomeini regime in the 1980s; the Baath regimes in Syria including the burning of 200 children in a cinema in Amude; and the Saddam regime in Iraq, with the well-known incidents of the gassing of Kurds in Halabja and the Anfal-campaign. The Kurdish populations in Turkey and Iran as well as in Arab continue, to different extents, to be subjected to both violent onslaughts from these countries’ authoritarian regimes and to racist and Kurdophobic treatment in their societies. These regimes stigmatize the Kurds, displace them and prevent their development in academic, cultural, economic and political spheres. Moreover, Jewish subjects from these countries have also absorbed the formal and informal discourses and narratives regarding the Kurdish population in these countries, which they also deploy against the Jewish Kurds in Israel. This constructed picture of the Kurds is undoubtedly a strategy used by the Turkish, Arab and Persian states, which aim to obliterate Kurdish claims to sovereign rights. Therefore, this stigma serves the ill-defined concept of these authoritarian regimes and its use to insult any communities in Israel or beyond is extremely disturbing.

However, the Jewish Kurds in Israel are spared the atrocities and hostilities of the aforementioned authoritarian regimes. Despite the discrimination and stigma they faced in the1960s and 1970s,  Jewish Kurds in Israel have succeeded in developing themselves and their status in Israel. Members of this community have obtained extremely high positions in the academic field (Professor Mordechai Zaken), in the cultural sphere (the singer Idan Amedi), and in the political and governmental arena (the former minister of defence Yitzhak Mordechai and current speaker of the Knesset Mickey Levy), among many other areas and personalities. Moreover, the Kurdish-Jewish community has contributed to enriching Israeli cuisine through their ethnic food (Kubbeh, Yeprax and Xamusta from Kurdistan), Israeli music, Israeli dance and Jewish melodies in synagogues. The cultural and social contributions of Israeli Kurds merit recognition, respect and promotion by diverse Jewish society and institutional structures of the state of Israel. What distinguishes – despite their heterogeneous faiths and intra-community social structures – the Jewish Kurds in Israel from their non-Jewish Kurdish brethren in the Turkish, Iranian and Arab states, and leads to the rejection of their mischaracterization (and consequent opportunities for success in a broader social context), is not the intelligence or tenacity of  Kurdish individuals but rather the chauvinist and hostile policies of the Turkish, Arab and Iranian states on the one hand, which contrast with the diverse, tolerant and democratic policy in Israel toward the Israeli Kurds on the other.




About the Author
The author is a research fellow at the Political Science Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, working on the governance structures of the Kurdish diaspora community in Berlin and the structures of the Kurdistani Jews in Jerusalem.
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