Why do Kurds wave the Israeli flag in the Kurdistan Region?

Kurds waving the Israeli flag in the Kurdistan Region. Photo credit: the author.

After moving to Erbil in 2014, it shocked me how many Kurds staunchly support the State of Israel. Across all sectors of society — taxi drivers, laborers, businessmen, shop owners, politicians, and their families — there were often Kurds who would show me the photos and videos about Israel on their phones and social media. Some Kurds even had glowing stories of relatives and neighbors who had visited Israel, lived in Israel, or welcomed Israeli visitors, including the exiled Kurdish Jews.

In Erbil, a Kurdish friend and I went to take photos celebrating the Israeli and Kurdish flags. Photo credit: the author.

Three particularly memorable experiences stand out. At one point, a hotel in Duhok gave me a truly Maccabean welcome by showing off a gigantic Israeli flag at the front desk when I arrived. At another point, a family of Syrian Kurds in Erbil had a playlist of Israeli music prepared for my visit, thinking it would make me feel more at home when visiting them.

However, the most memorable experience was seeing the Israeli flags at rallies for the Kurdistan Region’s referendum on independence. It was a display that was by Kurds and for Kurds, and would have happened whether I was there or not. The Israeli flag symbolized emancipation from Arab supremacism. It fit perfectly into the language of the Kurdish quest for self-determination.

Rally in support of Kurdish independence in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region. Photo credit: the author.

At the governmental level, there are neither official ties nor official animosities between Israel and the Kurdistan Region

Between the State of Israel and the Kurdistan Region, there are no offices, no officials, and no agreements. On the other hand, there is no animosity, either. Most significantly, the Kurdish Jewish leadership in Israel is consulted about Jewish heritage in the Kurdistan Region.

Flying the Israeli and Kurdistan Region flags at the ancient Citadel of Erbil. Photo credit: the author.

There is no red line between the two governments. People visit back and forth, mostly with dual nationality, if they have a second passport which is eligible for a visa on arrival. However, some Israelis and some Kurds apply for visas on their Israeli or Iraqi passports, and they are approved with no particular problem.

Exports from Israel can make their way through international markets to the Kurdistan Region, and vice-versa. Most commonly, there are Israeli dates sold in Kurdistani shops, and Kurdistani petroleum bought by Israeli companies.

A photo at the Kotel. For me, wearing my Kurdish hats fulfills the obligation to cover my head, while also keeping the Kurdistan Region, which is my adopted home, literally “on my mind” even when I am away. Photo credit: the author.

Israeli support for the Peshmerga is a bygone yet durable memory, and mutual solidarity remains

Nonetheless, the situation between Israel and the Kurdistan Region falls short of many people’s expectations. Historically, the links between the two were much livelier. Israeli security provided substantial support to the Kurdish resistance in Iraq during the 1970s in particular.

Also, the Kurdish Jewish community grew quickly in Israel, and reached several hundred thousand over several decades. Sadly, none of these Jews remained in the Kurdistan Region, but they reopened their synagogues in Eretz Israel.

At the Citadel of Erbil, a Kurdish friend presents Israel’s flag and the Kurdistan Region’s flag while she wears her Jili Kurdi, which means “Kurdish clothes” in English. Photo credit: the author.

By the 1990s, the relationship between the Israeli and Kurdistani establishments dwindled to zero when Israel faced growing pressure to stop sponsoring Kurds. However, a sense of mutual admiration was in place which has lasted durably for decades. Prime Minister Netanyahu was the only head of state to declare support for the Kurdistan Region’s referendum about independence.

Even the fairly comatose relationship between the Israel and Kurdistan Region today, in the 2020s, is distinctly good news when compared to the nearby countries whose leaders promote shrill hate against Jews and Israelis.

The Kurdistan Region’s flag consists of red, white, and green bands with a sun in the center. Photo credit: the author.

Why do so many Kurds choose Zionism and not Palestinianism?

I have heard many people wonder why the Kurdish people convey more support for Zionism than for Palestinianism.

The answer is simple: there is far more common ground between Kurds and Jews, than there is between Kurds and Arabs. It is just as irrelevant to look at even narrower cross-sections of Arabs who happen to be from Jerusalem, Nablus, or Jericho — i.e., the Palestinian Arabs — as it is Arabs from Mosul, Basrah, or other towns and provinces that also have their own local dialects.

Kurdish Jews including Hadassah Yeshurun, above, express cultural pride as well as strong support for the Kurdistan Region, at home in Israel. Photo credit: the author.

Kurds and Jews face the end of the road

There is not a single country in the Middle East and North Africa with an Arab population that has declined in numbers, been banned from studying in Arabic, been banned from speaking in Arabic, or been banned for being Muslim.

There has never been a state anywhere, ever, at any point in history with a policy of forcing Arabs, Arabic, or Arabness into extinction. The quest to add a 22nd state for a regional Arab subpopulation, or to treat Iraqi unity as a moral absolute, is not about Arabs clinging to survival. It is about wiping out any non-Arab states, and providing — obviously — an Arab replacement. It is about dominance.

On the other hand, the State of Israel and the Kurdistan Region represent the end of the road for Jews and Kurds. When minorities establish statehood in a hostile realm, they are obeying the power dynamics in order to survive. That kind of threat to survival has never even been a remote possibility for Arabs.

An Orthodox Jewish family in Israel joined a rally in support of Kurdish people, considering it an essential moral cause. Photo credit: the author.

Arab supremacist power dynamics seek to obliterate both Jewish nationalism and Kurdish nationalism

Some arguments have been made that there should be an affinity between Kurds and Palestinian Arabs, because both seek to establish a state. However, their national aspirations are more dissimilar than similar.

Only a tiny percentage of Arabs live in a non-Arab state. On the other hand, all Kurds everywhere live in non-Kurdish states. Considering this status quo, it is understandable that everyday Kurds consider the extraction of a single state for Kurds to be a totally different moral consideration than the extraction of a 22nd state for Arabs.

Israeli Jews, even non-Kurdish Jews, admire the Kurdistan Region and are glad to wave the flag in solidarity, much like Kurdish people in the Kurdistan Region do for Israel. Photo credit: the author.

Arabs are, overall, an extremely large majority and there is a deeply established power dynamic of Arab supremacism.

This power dynamic means that in areas where Arabs are a majority, we see that Arabs are the gatekeepers, Arabs make the rules of peace or war, and Arabs decide whether apathy, virulence, or enthusiasm becomes systematized.

This is not a criticism of Arabs. It is a criticism of supremacism. Arab supremacism operates the same way as white supremacism, eurocentrism, Han supremacism, or any other supremacism held by large numbers of people around the world.

More than twenty times, countries devoted to Arab self-determination have been established. This means that the same number of times, countries have not been established in recognition of the minorities in their midst. This is nothing other than Arab supremacism.

On the streets of Tel Aviv. Photo credit: the author.

Arab supremacists seek to control an uncompromising totality of the Arabsphere. This means that Jews, Kurds, and other minorities in their midst can only attain countryhood through forcing seemingly impossible concessions from Arab states. And even decades later, new Arab states — like the Palestinian Authority — will be established to make a competing Arab claim in the biased court of Arab opinion, appearing as heartbroken Davids up against supposed Goliaths.

A Palestinian Arab representative at the United Nations would be the 22nd envoy of the Arab world. A Kurdish seat at the United Nations would be the first envoy from the Kurdish world.

If non-Arabs have the right to self-determination, then the emancipation has to happen somewhere on actual, physical land. At some point, the Arab states have to agree to control less than 100% of West Asia and North Africa.

In Tel Aviv, a Kurdish Jew whose family was from Duhok waves the Kurdistan Region’s flag. Photo credit: the author.

There has to be a percentage — as it stands, just a few municipalities, which altogether add up to less than one percent — where Jews and Kurds can practice self-determination.

Israel controls just a 700th of the area that the Arab states control, yet it is home to almost all the Jewish refugees from the other 699ths.

When we are talking about land that amounts to fractions of a single percent point even by the largest estimates, it is clear that the Kurdish and Jewish struggle is for survival, not supremacism, revenge, or totality, as is often claimed.

It shocked me that in Israel, like in the Kurdistan Region, the Arab families were minorities yet were freer and happier than in Iraq and other Arab states. Some were committed Zionists, though most considered themselves little more than taxpayers. Photo credit: the author.

On the other hand, the Palestinian Arab agenda to apply Arab sovereignty to 100% of West Asia and North Africa is an impulse for supremacism, not equality.

The Palestinian Authority implements supremacist policies about racial purity, and considers Jewish people and Judaism to be illegal. Claiming that the Kurdistan Region has common ground with regimes like the Palestinian Authority would be a damning indictment.

Kurds rally in support of the Kurdistan Region. Photo credit: the author.

In practice, not just in principle, Kurdish nationalism resembles Jewish nationalism

The Constitution of the Kurdistan Region pleads for nothing more than the modest right to “practice the right of self-determination similar to other nations and peoples of the world” — and it explicitly recognizes non-Kurds such as Assyrians and Arabs.

Similarly, the Nation State Law of Israel, the one declaration of Jewish emancipation in the entire world, specifically acknowledges non-Jews and, in particular, Arabs as well.

Neither the State of Israel and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region are perfect. However, the goals they choose to prioritize are admirable. 

Jerusalem is a thriving city where Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, and other groups coexist. Photo credit: the author.

On the other hand, the Constitution of the Palestinian Authority goes the opposite direction towards death and annihilation. They prioritize ethnic cleansing. The Constitution of the Palestinian Authority states that only people who are an “integral part of the Arab nation” can be Palestinian. It ruthlessly enforces this through total ethnic cleansing of all Jews in areas it controls.

At a rally in support of the Kurdistan Region’s referendum on independence. Photo credit: the author.

As Jews and Kurds show, being Arab must not be the only basis for countryhood

We see that in every campaign against Jewish nationalism or Kurdish nationalism, the inevitable outcome is a status quo where being Arab is the only basis for countryhood. Because the State of Israel and the Kurdistan Region defy that logic, they face questions about whether they should even exist.

However, that is immoral. It means that the worst Arab state is given every benefit that gets withheld from the best non-Arab state. Communally, this harms non-Arabs existentially, but it also provides the mechanism that many Arab states use to terrorize Arabs as well: repeatedly, dictators claim they are defending their people from the State of Israel, or the Kurdistan Region, or some other bogeyman, while bombing their own citizens.

In other words, a single power dynamic is behind the fact that the Kurdistan Region struggles every year to receive its legally allotted share of the Iraqi budget, and the Palestinian Authority uses as much as half of foreign aid to pay salaries to convicted terrorists and their families. In addition, that power dynamic harms everyday Arabs.

Yoni is a Kurdish Jew whose grandparents are all from Berash village near Duhok. He is proud to live in his homeland, the State of Israel, but yearns for the day his descendants might be able to visit their heritage in the Kurdistan Region. Photo credit: the author.

Because that power dynamic of Arab supremacism is the default, it is seldom interrogated. However, it impacts every aspect of life in the Middle East and North Africa, and it is why we see the Israeli flag waving in the Kurdistan Region.

Until such fanatical Arab supremacism and imperialism lessens somewhat, the only peace that non-Arabs can hope for is the absence of fighting.

Kurdish Jews in Maale Adumim. Photo credit: the author.
About the Author
Levi Clancy lives in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan Region in Iraq, and is the founder of Foundation of Ours, which supports Jewish expression in the Kurdistan Region, and provides platforms for reconciliation and coexistence between all communities. He was born in Venice, California and moved to the KRI in 2014, after which he became involved in cultural, social, and religious affairs in addition to his work as a software developer, photographer, and videographer.
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