We must pay Kurds our debt of gratitude

Local residents applaud as a convoy of Turkish forces trucks transporting tanks is driven in Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, at the border with Syria, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019.  (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis via Jewish News)
Local residents applaud as a convoy of Turkish forces trucks transporting tanks is driven in Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, at the border with Syria, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis via Jewish News)

Last week, hundreds of Israelis gathered on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to protest against the attacks on the Kurdish community in northern Syria. One of the organisers, Major Yair Fink, said: “It’s our moral obligation as Jews to help them.” Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu expressed deep concern for the sudden and unfathomable decision by US President Donald Trump to withdraw American troops from northern Syria, giving Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the opportunity to massacre and to ethnically cleanse the Kurdish population.

Since the Turks launched their attack, hundreds have been killed and more than 160,000 have been forced to flee from their homes, including around 70,000 children.

The plight of any community forced to abandon their homes in fear of their lives deserves our sympathy. But for a large number of Jews and Israelis, it goes much deeper than that. Many of those demonstrating in Israel had personal reasons to be grateful to the Kurds.

As a nation, the Kurds are much overlooked – and one can say betrayed – by the international community. A proud and ancient people numbering between 35 and 40 million, the Kurds – like the Jews – were promised their own state at the conclusion of the First World War. Provision for a Kurdish state was made by the victorious allies in the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, but the Kurds did not achieve independence. Instead, they were cruelly divided into four countries not exactly known for their human rights and democratic values: Turkey Iran, Iraq and Syria. Their history since then has been a tale of rebellion, bloodshed and suppression.

Tradition holds that Israelites from the tribe of Benjamin first arrived in the area after the Assyrian conquest of the Kingdom of Israel during the 8th century BCE and lived harmoniously as an important component of the Kurdish society until the early 1950s.

Following the establishment of the state of Israel, and the displacement and departure
of the majority of Iraqi Jews to the young state, Kurdish Jews followed suit, not because they had been mistreated, but because they wanted to join their brothers from the four corners of the world.

Today there is a large community of
almost 200,000 in Israel who live mainly in Jerusalem and in agricultural Moshavim across the land. They proudly celebrate their traditions, reminiscing about the land in which their ancestors spent more than 2,600 years.  Some have ventured into sightseeing trips of the old country and meeting some of their distant relatives who stayed behind and did not join the big aliyah in 1951.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the persecuted Jewish community of Iraq was denied the right to leave the country and was in essence held hostage. The Ba’ath regime took power in 1968 and immediately launched a campaign of terror and murder against them, including public hangings, kidnappings and disappearance.

In their hour of peril, salvation came from the brave and noble Kurds in north Iraq, who facilitated the escape to freedom of 1,900 Jews, risking their own lives in the process. I know this well because I was one of those rescued.

As Jews, we cannot keep silent when a peaceful nation is threatened by genocide. When it comes to the Kurds, however, it is more than sympathy; it is hakarat hatov, paying back a debt of gratitude

About the Author
Edwin Shuker is the vice chair of the International division of the Board of deputies and the European Jewish Congress special envoy for refugees.
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