Published in the Canadian Jewish News
There is much irony in the international community’s uniformly negative response to the Kurds’ yearning for independence.
Now 30-million-strong, the Kurds, a non-Arab, mainly Sunni Muslim people, had been promised their own state, Kurdistan, following the First World War.
It was not to be. They were denied independence as Britain and France divided vast territories of the former Ottoman empire between themselves.
A highly accomplished people with historic positive ties with Israel (there is a small number of Jewish Kurds living in the Jewish state), Kurds are today dispersed through Iran, northern Iraq, northern Syria, and eastern Turkey.
Since their early-20th-century dream of independence was denied, they’ve experienced a consistent, tragic record of living as an oppressed minority in all these states, especially Turkey where even their aspiration for autonomy, not full independence, has been met mainly with ruthless repression.
Only in Iraq – following the demise of Saddam Hussein who both gassed them by the thousands and laid waste to hundreds of their villages – have Kurds managed to establish a highly functioning, near-democratic, autonomous region in the north. The Kurds of Iraq provide a regional model of enlightened self-rule.
Unfortunately, their determination late last month to hold a referendum in Iraq for independence was met in the West with denunciation. Only Israel supported their bid for statehood, an aspiration of Kurds in the other regions as well.
Liberal, progressive voices who, in principle, support a people’s right to sovereignty, have been among the most vocal critics of the Kurds’ bid for independence. In its lead editorial in late August, the New York Times, for instance, warned that five million Iraqi Kurds establishing a state would be a “mistake” as it would threaten Iraq’s “territorial integrity,” thereby risking “increased turmoil.”
The Times ignored that Iran has already gnawed its way into Shia-dominant Iraq’s already tenuous territorial integrity. It’s a territorial integrity even more seriously challenged next door in Syria where Iran also has a major hold on the country and where the Kurds in the north have been battered by Turkey’s president Recep Erdogan who fears their alignment with the 13 million Kurds resident in his own country.
The region’s dictators are determined to thwart the Kurdish bid for independence and, in that, in the name of territorial integrity and stability, the despots are supported by Western liberals.
In a Globe and Mail op-ed, “We owe the Kurds justice,” French philosopher and activist Bernard-Henri Levy wrote, “The timidity of the international community in the face of the Sept. 25 referendum on an independent Kurdistan is a trifecta of indignity, absurdity and historic miscalculation.”
From time to time over the years, this column (which concludes with this piece) has focused on the long-standing betrayal of the Kurds as an illustration of the hypocrisy and double standards rampant in the region and in the “international community.”
Those who are most vociferous in support of Palestinian independence – a noble goal supported, if Jewish sovereignty is also acknowledged, by most Israelis – have remained mute about the arguably greater claim for Kurdish independence.
An editorial from the late 1980s in the liberal New Republic captured this hypocrisy – the irony mentioned above. It remains as relevant today as then in having argued that the “Curse of the Kurds” was that they did not happen to have the Jews as their enemy (just the opposite). Had that been the case, the world would not only have supported the Kurds’ bid for independence, they would have thrust it to the top of the international agenda.
Recently in these pages, Mordechai Ben-Dat wrote, with profound, poetic pith that “truth is its own entirety.” Part of that truth is that, with only Israel supporting their continuing struggle for national independence, the Kurds’ goal will likely remain as elusive as it has been for more than a century.