Dmitri Shufutinsky

What Modern Kurdistan Can Learn from Pre-State Israel

Kurdistan has faced a very tough past few months. In northern Iraq, the tide turned from jubilation over the successful independence referendum to dismay, as Iranian-backed Shiite militias helped the Iraqi military seize a number of Kurdish towns and villages from the peshmerga. Over the border in Rojava (northern Syria), Turkey and its jihadist allies have slaughtered fighters from the YPG (People’s Protection Units) and YPJ (Women’s Protection Units), as well as civilians, during their successful operation to occupy Afrin. The Kurds have been left out to dry by much of the world. Even the country it sees as its friend–Israel–sadly did little more than announce verbal support for Kurdish independence, although there are rumors that it is providing the Kurds with secret military training and arms. The Kurds are surrounded with too many enemies and rely too much on untrustworthy (mainly Western) partners. While much of the world commends them for fighting against ISIS and other Sunni terrorists, too many forget that Turkey, Iran, and the Iraqi & Syrian regimes, remain enemies as well. The United States has little appetite for engaging directly in Syria or elsewhere in the region, and would rather outsource the job of fighting terrorists to Israel and “moderate” states in the Arab World. The European Union is too interested in business deals with Iran and Turkey to ever truly stand up for Kurdish independence aspirations. Russia and China neglect human rights in general and will never renege on their interests in Ankara or Tehran to save the Kurds. Furthermore, there are too many political divisions among Kurds that further weaken their positions.

Once, Jews in Mandatory Palestine found themselves in a similar situation. Despite being promised a state of their own in 1917 by the United Kingdom, the British continued to occupy Palestine for decades longer than planned. They continued chipping away at the amount of land originally allocated towards a Jewish national home, and appeased the local Arab population by restricting the amount of Jews able to return, despite the rise of the Nazis in Europe. The local Arab population, much like the Arab countries surrounding Palestine, were pledged towards attacking local Jewish communities and destroying the nascent Israeli state. The Jews formed 3 paramilitaries to take on this challenge, as well as force out the British: the Haganah, and the two more radical groups, Lehi and the Irgun. Despite their differences in politics, aims, and campaigns, these groups ultimately came together during the 1948 War of Independence, and eventually merged into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). And despite initially being internationally isolated and betrayed, particularly around the time of the rise of fascism, the Jews of Mandatory Palestine still built institutions and eventually a thriving state that attracted alliances and investments from foreigners.

The Kurds are in a situation that is similar in many ways. While they do have some institutions, their political goals and aims in different regions are rather different. In Rojava, the goal is to achieve autonomy while remaining part of Syria. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the goal is outright independence. This was once also the goal in Turkey, although autonomy or civil rights has become a more recent aim. In Iran, goals have ranged from anywhere between independence and autonomy & civil rights for all ethnic groups inside a democratic Iran. Even in these different regions, however, there are different political actors and militias. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Iraq, which was accused of betraying the Kurdish people in last year’s independence referendum, holds slightly differing political views from the more dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) also had a presence in Rojava & Iraqi Kurdistan, even fighting a war with the KRG peshmerga at one point.

The differing political aims of the militias and political parties all across Kurdistan are preventing any of them from achieving their aims or liberating their people. But if anything can be learned from the recent tragedy in the story of Kurdistan, in Afrin, it’s that perhaps settling for autonomy isn’t wise. The majority populations in the region — Arabs, Persians, Turks — will never be willing to share political power with any of the minorities or indigenous peoples. It is a lesson Israeli Jews have had to learn, and are still dealing with today. And yet, true independence is the only way for a secure future for most peoples around the world. Moreover, nobody in the international community is going to give Kurdistan its independence. While they may offer various levels of support — economic, political in some ways, even occasional military aid, it is ultimately going to be up to the Kurds to take their independence and sovereignty themselves from those who would otherwise destroy them. In order to stand up against jihadists — Sunni and Shiite alike — and the governments that support them, it is imperative for some kind of military and political union between the Kurdish regions. The best chance for this exists between Rojava and Iraqi Kurdistan. Both regions are already battling against the same enemies — ISIS and Iranian-backed Shiite terror organizations. Both countries are also enemies of neighboring Turkey, and do not get along, to put it lightly, with the central governments in Baghdad and Damascus. If there were some type of collaboration between the YPG/YPJ and peshmerga of the KRG, there would be a better chance of destroying terrorist organizations and halting the advancing Syrian, Iraqi, and Turkish armies as they seek to destroy the Kurds. Joint governance would also allow for the economic and political rehabilitation of Kurdish areas in Syria & Iraq, and provide a possible model for similar opportunities in Iranian-and-Turkish Kurdistan. Some may still believe the autonomy model, or pursuit of civil rights, is preferable. Others will argue that such a union is impossible, at least for the foreseeable future, due to deep-seated rivalries. But previous examples, including that of the Zionists in Mandatory Palestine, prove that union and independence can happen for Middle Eastern minorities — if only you want and fight for it badly enough.

About the Author
Dmitri Shufutinsky is a freelance reporter with the Jewish News Syndicate, and a Junior Research Fellow with ISGAP. He made aliyah to Kibbutz Erez through Garin Tzabar in 2019, and served as a Lone Soldier in the IDF. Dmitri is an ardent Zionist and a supporter of indigenous rights, autonomy, solidarity, and sovereignty. He currently lives in Hadera, and a graduate of Arcadia University's Masters program in International Peace & Conflict Resolution.
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