Jews are an ethnoreligious group, a tribe, and a nation originating in the Land of Israel, descended from the ancient Hebrews and Israelites. An ethnoreligious group is an ethnic group unified by a common religion. Much like other Indigenous tribes worldwide, Jewish peoplehood, tribal identity, and religion/spirituality (Judaism) are inextricable from each other.
Our history dates back some 4000 years, and, as such, we were one of the oldest tribes in the world. In fact, the word “tribe,” which comes from “tribus” in Latin, was first used to refer to the twelve Israelite tribes.
It’s worth noting that the term “Jews” and “Judaism” do not come from a faith but rather, from a place: specifically, the Kingdom of Judah (930 BCE-587 BCE), one of the two Israelite kingdoms after the split of the United Monarchy of the Kingdom of Israel in 930 BCE. The term Judaism — “Yahadut” in Hebrew — could be translated as “Jew-hood,” as in “the state of being Jewish.”
The fact that modern-day Jews descend from the ancient Israelites should not be up for debate (unfortunately, because of deep-seeded antisemitism and propaganda surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, it is). Archeological evidence, a plethora of genetic studies (“Jewish” DNA is among the most studied in the world), historical record, and the continuity of Jewish culture all conclusively tie the origins — and very identity — of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel.
Judaism is an ethnic, rather than universalizing, religion. Ethnic religions are religions that are specific to a particular ethnic group. Universalizing religions are religions that transcend ethnic, tribal, cultural, and national affiliation.
Jews don’t proselytize. The only reason you can find Jews in nearly every corner of the globe is that foreign empires displaced an Indigenous population. This displacement(s) is something that Jews have in common with other Indigenous Peoples. By contrast, you can find Christianity and Islam across the globe because the *faith* spread (via colonialism and imperialism), rather than the *people.*
Kurds are an ethnic group Indigenous to West Asia, who traditionally inhabited what is known as Kurdistan, a mountainous region comprising of parts of modern-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. With a population of about 30-45 million, Kurds are considered the world’s largest stateless ethnic group. Kurds speak various dialects of Kurdish. Though today most are Sunni Muslim, the Kurds fiercely resisted the Arab Muslim invasions of the seventh century, ultimately they were defeated. Even so, Kurds today do not identify as Arabs and have thus maintained their pre-colonial identity as Kurds.
Like Jews, Kurds have a long history of persecution and have been victims of forced resettlement (i.e. ethnic cleansing) and genocide multiple times throughout their history.
For centuries, Kurds have continued fighting for their self-determination in their ancestral homeland in the face of cruel cultural repression, persecution, discrimination, ethnic cleansing, and even genocide.
Kurdish Jews are Jews whose ancestors lived in Kurdistan following their displacement from the Land of Israel. In addition to Hebrew and Aramaic, traditionally, Kurdish Jews spoke Kurdish dialects, particularly Kurmanji. Many Kurdish Jewish communities also speak Aramaic to this day.
Jews have lived in the region of Kurdistan for over two millennia. Though few written records exist from antiquity, there are records of Jews residing among the Kurdish people dating back to the twelfth century. In their travel memoirs, Benjamin of Tudela and Petachiah ben Yakov attested to the existence of some 100 Jewish settlements in Kurdistan. Many wealthy Jews resided in Mosul, which was the spiritual and commercial center of Kurdistan. Jews enjoyed a great degree of autonomy as well. When the Kurds rebelled against the Persian Sultan Muktafi in the twelfth century, a Jew, David Alroi, was their leader. Alroi intended to lead the Jews of Kurdistan back to Jerusalem, though he was unsuccessful, and he and his followers were eventually killed.
During the Ottoman period (1500s-1917), many Kurdish Jews ended up moving toward Turkey. In the sixteenth century, many were successful in their attempt to return to the Land of Israel, with most settling in Tzfat (Safed). Those who remained in Kurdistan lived at peace with and were treated well by their Armenian and Kurdish neighbors, which was rare in a region (West Asia/the Middle East) where Jews were subjected to harsh second-class citizenship laws (dhimmi status). The first female rabbi — dating all the way back to the seventeenth century — was a Kurdish Jewish woman named Asenath Barzani.
Unlike Jews in Europe or elsewhere in West Asia and North Africa, Jews in Kurdistan faced little persecution and only a small number of sporadic pogroms. Jewish-Kurdish relations were so good that even intermarriage was allowed.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Iraq expelled the majority of its Jewish population, prompting most Jews to flee to Israel. Kurds assisted Jews greatly in their escape (see following slides). Today, some 200,000-half a million Kurdish Jews live in Israel.
Kurdish support for the Jewish People long predates the establishment of the State of Israel and even modern political Zionism. The “father of modernist Kurdish poetry,” Hecî Qadirê Koyî, wrote about the common Jewish-Kurdish plight in the 19th century: “Three nations live in exile, expelled from their place of honor: the Kurds, the [Roma], and Jews have gone astray.”
Following the outbreak of the 1947-1949 Arab-Israeli War, Iraq severely cracked down on the millennia-old Jewish community of Iraq. For instance, in May 1947, a Jew was lynched by an angry mob in Baghdad for supposedly “poisoning” candy to hand out to Arab children. In 1948, Iraq made “Zionism” a capital offense; a Jew only needed to be accused of Zionism by two Muslims for the punishment to be carried out. Increasingly antisemitic policies were carried out as the war progressed, with thousands of Jews arrested and tortured. For instance, one Jew was sentenced to five years of hard labor for possessing a phrase in Biblical Hebrew. When the wealthiest, openly non-Zionist Jew in Iraq was executed, the Jewish community reacted with shock, finally convinced that no matter what they did, they would be persecuted anyway. Though Jewish emigration was banned, Kurds heavily assisted their Jewish neighbors in secret operations to flee Iraq.
Only some five thousand Jews remained in Kurdistan following the events of the 1948 war. Those who remained were forced to flee during the Six Day War, and once again, they were assisted by their Kurdish neighbors.
ASSISTANCE & ALLYSHIP
Israel first made contact with Kurdish leadership in the early 1950s, when Israel’s strategy of “peripheral alliance” — that is, making allies with non-Arab groups in the region — was first enacted. Both Kurds and Israelis operated on the premise that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend;” additionally, both Jews and Kurds felt a sense of kinship given their small numbers and long-persecuted status.
In the 1960s and well into the mid 1970s, Israel provided humanitarian aid, military and medical training, media assistance, schoolbooks, and even small amounts of arms in support of the Kurdish revolt against the Iraqi regime. In return, Kurds provided Israel with intelligence, both in regard to Jews fleeing Iraq as well as other geopolitical matters.
Beyond the strategic allegiance, Israeli leadership expressed a genuine sense of allyship and shared history and experience. For example, when asked, former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin stated that Israel supported the Kurds “because we are Jews.” In 1988, when Saddam Hussein gassed Kurdish civilians with chemical weapons, the sense of kinship increased, given the Jewish experience of the Holocaust. In response to the Kurdish genocide, Israel enacted a massive relief operation. During and in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, both Israeli and Jewish organizations from elsewhere in the world provided Kurds with significant humanitarian assistance.
In the aftermath of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, Israel once again resumed its support of the Kurdish leadership, providing training, intelligence, military and defensive equipment, and more. While the alliance between Israel and Syrian Kurds has long been unknown, in recent decades, cooperation has highly increased. Since 2014, Israel has purchased significant amounts of oil from Iraqi Kurds. Today, former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir’s book is a bestseller in Iraqi-occupied Kurdistan.
Given Israel’s longstanding relationship with the Kurds — particularly in Iraqi-occupied Kurdistan — many geopolitical analysts have long suspected that Israel will be one of the first countries — if not the first country — to recognize a sovereign Kurdish state.
In 2014, former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “[Iraqi Kurds are a] fighting people who have proven political commitment and political moderation, and they are worthy of their own political independence.” Several months later, he added: “[Israel] supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state.”
In 2017, a referendum was held in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, in which 93% voted in favor of Kurdish independence from Iraq. In a rare move, Israel was the only country to officially support the result of the referendum; while Israel-Kurdistan relations have existed for nearly a century now, most of it has happened in discreet capacities for a number of reasons (see next slide). Many Jewish organizations echoed Netanyahu’s sentiments; for example, the American Jewish Committee wrote that establishing an independent Kurdish state “would be morally right, reversing a long-lasting historical wrong.” By contrast, the United States, Israel’s most significant ally, claimed that the results of the Kurdish referendum “lacked legitimacy.”
Iraq responded to the referendum by invading the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and retaking a large portion of its territory. In light of that, Netanyahu stated that Israelis have a “deep natural longstanding sympathy” for Kurds.
It’s unfortunately not uncommon for the Arab, Persian, and/or Turkish majority to smear non-Jewish Indigenous sovereignty movements in West Asia and North Africa as “Zionist” plots. For instance, this baseless accusation has long been placed on both Kabyle (North Africa) and Kurdish nationalism as a means of delegitimization. It’s not hard to see why: 74% of the region holds predominantly antisemitic views, and only six Arab countries (Egypt, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco) even recognize the State of Israel, though the peace between Israel and most of these nations can be described as “cold” at best.
In 1966, Iraqi defense minister Abd al-Aziz al-Uqayli claimed that Kurds aimed to establish a “second Israel” in the Middle East, and that, should they be successful, the Arab world would face “a second Nakba.” To this day, the Arab media compares Kurdistan to “Yahudistan” (“Yahud” meaning “Jew” in Arabic), positioning Israel as the ultimate evil in the region.
Despite the decades of relations between Israel and the Kurdish leadership, particularly in Iraq, both Israel and the Kurds have been weary to openly admit to any such alliance. The first public admission came in the early 1980s, but even today, little of this is said publicly or in official capacities. Kurds fear that any public admission of cooperation will result in severe repercussions at the hands of the Iraqi, Syrian, and Iranian governments. Israel, on the other hand, is “cautious not to embarrass them [Kurds]” or to give the impression that it is inciting Kurds against the Iraqi government. To complicate matters, Israel is particularly afraid of antagonizing the Turkish government, despite Turkey’s open support of Hamas, the Islamist paramilitary (terrorist) antisemitic group that governs the Gaza Strip. Additionally, Israel fears antagonizing the United States, which has been committed to a “unified” Iraq (i.e. as opposed to an independent Kurdish state).
For a full bibliography of my sources, please head over to my Patreon.