Kurdistan: the "Second Israel"

Cliff May

5/27/2010 11:04:41 AM - Cliff May

Halabja, Iraq - Twenty-two years ago, in this dusty town hard up against the mountainous border with Iran, Saddam Hussein's military used chemical weapons to murder 5,000 Kurdish men, women and children.

The Halabja massacre was only the most infamous atrocity of Operation Anfal, a name Sadam took from a sura of the Koran that details permissible conduct against enemies of Islam. Of course, most Kurds are Muslims. But they are not Arabs. Kurds have had their own distinctive culture and language since long before armies from Arabia embarked on the first jihads -- wars of Islamic conquest -- in the 7th century.

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The goal of Operation Anfal was genocide. At least 150,000 Kurds were slaughtered, many having first been herded into concentration camps where mass executions were conducted. More than a million Kurds were driven from their homes.

Kurds have not forgotten that, in 1991, Americans established a "no-fly zone" over Iraq's Switzerland-sized Kurdish region, to provide them some protection from Saddam's predations. They regard America's 2003 military intervention in Iraq as their liberation. Iraqi Kurds now enjoy substantial self-rule. Kurds living as minorities in Syria, Iran and Turkey do not.

Six months after the collapse of Saddam's regime, the Kurds erected a memorial on the edge of Halabja. It includes haunting photos; those of mothers clutching babies to their breasts as they died in the streets are perhaps the most heart-wrenching. A sign, in fractured English, gets its point across nonetheless: "Live and victory for all nations. Death for all kinds of racism."

One result of this experience: Kurds see Americans as their allies and friends. "We appreciate the sacrifices Americans have made to liberate Iraq and bring the possibility of freedom," Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government, tells me and other members of a delegation of journalists and think tank analysts.

Many Kurds also have empathy for -- and even feel an affinity with -- Israelis and Jews. Unusual as this is within the "Muslim world," it makes sense when you think about it: Like Kurds, Jews are an ancient Middle Eastern people. Like Kurds, Jews have been targeted for genocide. Like Kurds, Israelis face an uncertain future among neighbors who range from merely hostile to openly exterminationist.

At a university in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, students meeting with our delegation express admiration for Israelis' courage - somewhat to the chagrin of their American professor.

A Kurdish driver, discovering that he and I both speak Russian, launches into a lively conversation that begins with praise for America. He soon tells me there is one other country he'd like to visit: Israel. Why? Because Israelis, like Kurds, have been persecuted yet have managed to survive, achieve and prosper.

A Kurdish journalist says that Iran's Islamist rulers cannot be trusted, noting that they recently executed 5 Kurds "because they were Kurds." He adds that Iran "supports Hezbollah. And we know what Hezbollah does to Israel."

Publicly, Kurdish officials state that Iraq ought to have peaceful relations with all its neighbors - without exception. Some go further: "We have no problems with Israel," explains Falah Mustafa Bakir, Head of the Kurdistan Regional Government's Department of Foreign Relations. "They have not harmed us. We can't be hating them because Arabs hate them. We think it is in the interest of Iraq to have relations with Israel. And the day after the Israelis open an embassy in Baghdad, we will invite them to open a consulate here."

He notes that Israel is one of the few functioning democracies in the region and that Kurds, too, are attempting to build durable democratic institutions both in their homeland and in the rest of Iraq. Kurdistan, Bakir adds, is sometimes called "the second Israel."

Historically, Jews are not strangers in this land. They settled here as early as the eighth century B.C. In pre-Islamic times, some Kurdish royalty is believed to have converted to Judaism. Even today, such prominent families as the Barzanis have Jewish members.

Of course, Jews once lived throughout the broader Middle East, from Morocco to Afghanistan. However, after World War II and the founding of the state of Israel, Arab governments turned on their Jewish minorities. As recently as the 1940s, Jews constituted as much as a third of Baghdad's population. By the early 1950s, almost all had been expelled, their properties confiscated. The Iraqi government forced Kurdish Jews into exile as well. Many went to Israel where they harbored an understandable resentment toward Iraqi Arabs - but not toward Iraqi Kurds. In the 1960s and 70s, Israelis provided assistance to Kurdish rebels.

Kurds today appear to grasp this equation: If there is no place for Jews in the Middle East, there is not likely to be a place for Kurds either. The ongoing religious and ethnic cleansing of the "Muslim world" may be the biggest story journalists are not telling, political leaders are not highlighting and human right activists are not protesting.

Ancient Middle Eastern Christian communities - e.g. Copts, Maronites, Chaldeans -- are under assault, virtually powerless, their numbers shrinking in Egypt, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Pakistan and elsewhere. Somewhat more attention - though little meaningful action - has focused on the plight of the Darfurians of Sudan and the Baha'i of Iran.

Kurds say that, in their land, they are committed to tolerance - and they use the word not in the literal sense of abiding those who are distasteful, but in the American sense of respecting minority rights and valuing diversity.

This is not a common perspective in the modern "Muslim world." But Kurdistan is unique in many ways. Here it is recalled that Saddam Hussein not only had Weapons of Mass Destruction -- he used them. Here the arrival of Americans troops did cause people to dance in the streets. Here, it is possible to imagine Middle Eastern Muslims, Jews and Christians living in peace, improbable as that has come to seem.