As Iraqi Kurds voted on Monday in a nonbinding referendum widely expected to yield widespread support for independence, their Jewish compatriots who immigrated decades ago to Israel showed equal enthusiasm for the prospect of a Kurdish state.
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Many of the hundreds of thousands of Kurdish Jews and their descendants who live in Israel hope that the envisioned new nation would have warm ties with the Jewish state, allowing them to visit childhood friends, explore their family roots and take advantage of business opportunities.
“We fully support them, even though we are Jewish we feel part of the Kurdish people, we are an inseparable part of them and we hope they will quickly gain independence,” said Herzel Levi, the head of an umbrella group that represents Kurdish Jews in Israel.
Levi said hundreds of people rallied on Sunday in Jerusalem’s Independence Park, outside the U.S. Consulate, in support of Kurdish national aspirations and to call on the United States to back the referendum, which it has so far opposed.
While many communities of Middle Eastern Jews suffered persecution, pogroms and expulsions before and after the establishment of the State of Israel, Jews from northern Iraq and other neighboring regions inhabited by ethnic Kurds stand apart with their overwhelmingly fond memories of their childhood hometowns.
“The Kurds always loved us, always supported us,” recalled Mordechai Yona, who moved to Israel with his family at age 12, in 1950. “We had strong commercial ties; we helped each other during harvest season; during our holidays, they would visit us and we would visit them on their holidays.”
Yona, who has written several books on the history and language of Kurdish Jews, says that today there are around 400,000 Israeli Jews with Kurdish roots, living mainly in or near Jerusalem. Other experts put the figure at about half that number. Most came during operation Ezra and Nehemiah, in 1951 and 1952, when Israel airlifted more than 130,000 Jews from Iraq after Baghdad briefly reversed its ban on Jewish emigration. More Jews moved to Israel during the following decades from other Kurdish areas in Iran, Turkey and Syria, Yona said.
“Our quality of life was very low,” he said recalling his childhood in his hometown of Zakho, on the Iraqi-Turkish border. “We moved in part due to economic reasons but mainly because we were Zionists and would not pass on an opportunity to move to Jerusalem, toward which we prayed every day.”
For the ancient community of Iraq, life in the country’s heartland was more difficult. Throughout the 1940s there were periodic anti-Jewish riots, including the 1941 Nazi-backed pogrom in Baghdad, during which some 180 Jews were murdered.
“There was a huge difference between the two areas,” recalled Pini Beno, a gas technician from the central Israeli community of Tel Mond whose father came from what today is the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil. His mother hailed from Baghdad.
“My mother felt that she was running away from enemies, while my father was being separated from friends,” he said. Beno said his father, Saleh, who died in 2003, was a security guard for Mustafa Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, whose son Masoud is now the president of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, which spearheaded Monday’s referendum.
“This makes us big supporters of Barzani, but everybody should back Kurdish independence,” Beno said, recalling the major role Kurdish militias have played in the fight against the Islamic State group.
While Iraq, Turkey and Iran have strongly opposed the referendum, even threatening military action, “it was very convenient for these countries to have the Kurds win the war with Islamic State for them, and now they are trying to take away the fruits of their sacrifice,” he said.
Many Israelis see the widely secular Muslim Kurds as kindred spirits and natural allies against hostile Middle eastern neighbors and the rising tide of Islamist extremism in the region.
“We have similar histories of oppression, we are both surrounded by enemies,” said Yona. “The Kurds see our independence and survival as an example, and we definitely need more friends in the region.”
Israel has had quiet military, political and economic ties with Kurdistan for decades, and ahead of the referendum Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the only major Western leader to openly back Kurdish independence.
Levi, the head of the Organization of Kurdistan Jews in Israel, said he would like to see these ties become official and to be able to visit the region openly.
“In the 1970s my uncle traveled there clandestinely through Turkey, riding 400 kilometers on a horse, just to see his village,” said Levi, who was born in Israel but whose family also hailed from the Kurdish border town of Zakho. “We always kept the connection alive and kept in touch with friends.”
Levi told Haaretz he has written to Israel’s Foreign Ministry and to the Prime Minister’s Office, urging them to open an official Kurdish representative office in Israel to foster business ties.
“There are already some Israeli businessmen who work with Kurdistan, but they do it through Europe, because there are no diplomatic ties with Iraq,” Levi said. “I would like to see something official, because there is a lot we can do to help them develop their country.”