By Ben Cohen/JNS.org
It is difficult to look at the scandalous international response to the Kurdish independence referendum and not think, at the same time, of the betrayals endured by the Zionist movement in the decades after World War I.
In 1917, Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, promising a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. What people forget is that in 1939, Britain then issued a White Paper limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine—on the eve of the Holocaust—to a paltry 75,000 souls over five years. They forget, too, that as late as 1947, British troops at Haifa dock were locking Holocaust survivors who had escaped to Palestine in barbed-wire cages, and then shipping them back to displaced persons camps in Germany.
A similar sorry state prevails with the Kurds: a predominantly Muslim nation of 25 to 35 million currently divided between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, whose denizens in Iraq this week voted by a majority of 93 percent for independence.
Kurdistan should have come into existence a century ago, when Britain and France agreed that the Kurds—newly liberated from the Ottoman Empire—could hold a referendum on independence in about one-quarter of the territory on which they live. But even that arrangement was too much for the Turks, and the Western imperial powers caved in, paving the way for a hundred years of political and ethnic repression, military campaigns targeting Kurdish civilians, and even genocide.
Just as the Zionists were given false hope, so were the Kurds. Just as the Zionists had to fight for self-determination at a time when the world frowned on the idea of a Jewish state, so now are the Kurds.
At least, in 1948, when the entire Arab League tried to stomp on Israel at birth, the independence of the Jewish state was recognized by the great powers, the United States and the Soviet Union. To date, only Israel has publicly backed the independence referendum in Kurdistan. The rest of the world—including, with woeful hypocrisy, the Brits, fresh from their own “Brexit” referendum on leaving the European Union—has lined up behind the demand of Turkey, Iran and the Iranian-proxy regime in Baghdad that Kurdistan can never claim its right to be recognized on the map of the world.
Most shameful of all, though, has been the response of Washington—because, quite frankly, we are entitled to expect much better.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the progressive activists who flock to Palestinians act as if the Kurds don’t even exist, or that most Americans don’t know anything about the Kurds in the first place, or that Europe is continuing its noble foreign policy tradition of betraying the cause of freedom in the post-colonial world. But it should be surprising, at the very least, that the Trump administration—whose strategy of eliminating Islamic State involved the loss of thousands of brave Kurdish fighters—should address the independence referendum in a tone marked by profound ignorance and shocking ingratitude.
Take this nonsensical statement issued by the State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, on the day of the referendum. “The United States is deeply disappointed that the Kurdistan Regional Government decided to conduct today a unilateral referendum on independence,” she said. “The United States’ historic relationship with the people of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region will not change in light of today’s non-binding referendum, but we believe this step will increase instability and hardships for the Kurdistan region and its people.”
Nauert seems to be saying that while we have a “historic relationship” with the Kurds, we shouldn’t let that get in the way of making the right decision, which, in this case, means kowtowing to the Turkish-Iranian-Iraqi alliance. It means telling the Kurds that while some nations, including our very own, have the right to separate from other nations, they don’t. It means—unbelievably!—telling the Kurds they are better off remaining in the same unified Iraq that, in the late 1980s, engaged in a campaign of genocide known as the “Anfal,” in which thousands of Kurds were exterminated with Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons.
And it means pretending, à la Heather Nauert, that the failed state of Iraq is really on the way to becoming, in her words, “united, federal, democratic and prosperous.”
The Kurds should not have to put up with these kinds of insults, which demonstrate no sensitivity to their history and no love for the enormous sacrifices they have made on our behalf. I was proud that Israel took the lonely stance it did. By the same token, I was disappointed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu then issued an instruction to stop talking about the referendum, because it was the right thing to do. And because the Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the mullahs in Iran are correct that an independent Kurdistan will be a strategic Muslim ally of the Jewish state.
Who leaned on Netanyahu to call time on the outpouring of support in Israel for the Kurds, at the same time as Kurdish independence advocates waved Israeli flags alongside Kurdish ones? It is sensible to look in the direction of Washington, and also Ankara, which has in America an army of lobbyists and public-relations consultants (including not a few Jews who claim to be friends of Israel) eager to do its bidding. But no spin can mask the stench of betrayal over Kurdistan emanating from the White House and the State Department.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in “Commentary,” the “New York Post,” “Haaretz,” “The Wall Street Journal” and many other publications.