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columnBoycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS)

A Kurdish campaign to boycott Turkey

All that the Kurds have in common with the Palestinians in this regard is their method. Their moral foundations are radically different.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.

It is a story that strikes a chord with anyone familiar with the struggle for civil rights in the American South. Jwnaid Murad, a businessman in Iraqi Kurdistan, has decided that he will no longer sell Turkish products in his supermarket in the town of New Erbil in response to growing calls among Iraqi Kurds for a boycott of Turkey because of Ankara’s onslaught against fellow Kurds in Syria.

Even though goods from Turkey make up 60 percent of the inventory in his supermarket, Murad gathered his employees to pack up the remaining Turkish stock on his shelves over the weekend. In an interview with the American journalist Lindsey Snell, he said that some of the stock would be returned to the original vendors, while the rest, including dozens of boxes of baby formula, would be distributed in refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. “Of course, this will affect my business. But after watching Turkey commit the war crimes they have in Rojava [the Kurdish region of Syria], I don’t care,” said Murad. “If I had to choose between starving to death and eating food produced by Turkey, I would starve.”

Fouad Kurdistani, a shopper interviewed at Murad’s “Las Market” outlet, made it clear that some Kurds would rather fork out more money if that meant avoiding transactions with Turkish companies. “I went to Europe last week, and paid twice as much for my ticket to avoid going through Turkey,” he said. “They’re monsters, killing our children. We cannot give them our money.” Another interviewee in the same piece, a university professor named Kamaran Mentk, spoke of his conviction that the Kurdish boycott would actually hurt the Turkish economy, which exports $8 billion worth of goods annually to Iraqi Kurdistan. “This is nothing new for Kurdistan, we had a boycott of Iranian goods in 2009, for example,” said Dr. Mentk. “But I believe this to be the biggest. Our people are united against Turkey by refusing to buy their products.”

After enduring a century of betrayal on the part of Western leaders—among whom U.S. President Donald Trump is the latest, but probably not the last, example—the Kurds are justifiably wary of placing too much hope in international solidarity. Media coverage of their boycott of Turkey has focused on what the Kurds themselves plan to do in their own region, where they exercise significant economic power. There does not seem to be an expectation that the rest of the world will follow suit.

It is true that calls for a boycott of Turkey are growing on social media, particularly among left-wing activists who admire the blend of anarchism and Marxism adopted by the Kurdish YPG in Syria. One web site even helpfully lists those Turkish companies—about half of them in the arms industry—that Western consumers might wish to think twice about. But this nascent campaign has nothing like the profile of a certain other boycott movement that comes readily to mind.

This raises the question of whether the Kurds should be concerned by the failure of their cause to animate Western progressives in the manner that the BDS campaign against Israel has done. Certainly, there is an enormous slice of hypocrisy visible here. At its annual conference in September, to cite one example, the British Labour Party adopted a pro-BDS platform as delegates chanted “Free Palestine!” No similar call has been heard in the name of Kurdistan. Or, to cite another example, at a campaign stop this week, Democratic Party presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts happily indulged a questioner who asked her about U.S. support for “genocide” in “Palestine and Yemen” with a Trumpian response about the need to end “endless wars” and withdraw all U.S. combat troops from foreign operations. Even the spectacle of Trump, her bête noire, kowtowing to the Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was not enough to bring Warren to the utter the word “Kurds.”

Yet as distasteful as these double standards are, perhaps more relevant is the failure of the BDS campaign to deliver a meaningful blow against Israel in the nearly 20 years of its existence. Of course, the BDS campaign has made life miserable for Jewish students on campuses around the world; it has defamed Zionism—the national liberation movement of the Jewish people—through an association with racism; and it has provided a convenient platform for tyrannical states like Iran and Turkey to claim the mantle of human-rights advocacy. But it has not dented Israel’s national security; nor has it immiserated the Israeli people into surrendering their independence. Most importantly, the BDS movement hasn’t delivered a single tangible benefit to the Palestinians themselves—not a hospital, nor a university, nor a sustainable water supply, nor anything that is actually needed.

So the Kurds might well be better off without this kind of solidarity, within which, like the Palestinians, they would be regarded as mere victims with little or no independent agency. More fundamentally, though, the Kurdish attitude towards Turkey is the polar opposite of the majority Palestinian stance towards Israel.

The Kurds don’t challenge Turkey’s right to exist as a sovereign state, only the oppressive and discriminatory policies imposed on the Kurdish minority in Turkey and now over the border in Syria. The Kurds don’t promote generic hatred towards the Turkish people who live in Turkey, nor do they seek to punish the large Turkish diaspora communities who live outside. Critically, the Kurds don’t believe that depriving their current adversaries of their freedom and independence is a necessary condition for their own liberation.

I am not, therefore, going to argue here that Jews in America, Israel and elsewhere should internationalize the Kurdish boycott of Turkey as a riposte to the BDS movement. All that the two have in common is their method; their moral foundations are radically different, and the danger of bracketing them together is that we lose sight of that basic fact.

Sure, as a community, we can flex our consumer muscle by not purchasing Turkish products or flying on Turkish airlines when alternatives are available. But far more meaningful is our political muscle; specifically, telling our legislators to ramp up the pressure on Erdoğan’s regime politically, diplomatically and financially.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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