Alleged Kurdish-Jewish Links Stir Turkish Conspiracy Theories
The war in Iraq has ended, and the Kurds in the country’s north emerge as one of the war’s great victors, liberating themselves from Saddam Hussein’s oppressive rule and declaring an independent state.
To the world’s surprise, it turns out that one of the Kurds’ top leaders is actually Jewish and that, as a result, the nascent Kurdish country will forge a close alliance with Israel, giving the Jewish state another toehold in the Middle East and access to the oil riches of the Iraqi north.
It reads like a conspiracy theory lifted from a fringe antisemitic Web site. But during the last few weeks, a similar scenario has been discussed in various articles in the mainstream press in Turkey, a country watching developments in northern Iraq with great concern.
The recent flurry of articles stems from a February report in the respected daily newspaper Hurriyet claiming that Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party, one of two political factions that control the autonomous Kurdish area of northern Iraq, is Jewish and comes from a long line of Kurdish rabbis.
The article was based on information taken from “The Folk Literature of the Kurdistani Jews,” a 1982 anthology that discusses a Kurdish rabbinic family named Barzani, and from work done by a Turkish researcher who found Ottoman documents that refer to a 19th-century Kurdish rabbi also named Barzani.
In the article, the researcher — a history instructor named Ahmet Ucar — said Barzani’s “Jewish roots” should lead to a different understanding of the region and its history, since the Hebrew Bible states that the Jewish “Promised Land” stretches from the Nile to the Euphrates, an area that would include Kurdish territory in northern Iraq.
A series of articles and columns in the Haber Turk newspaper, printed after the Hurriyet story ran, took things even further.
“Brothers, we should quit the stories of Mosul and Kirkuk belonging to us,” said one column, referring to two oil-rich northern Iraqi cities that some Turks believe were unfairly taken from Turkey when the Ottoman Empire was divided up after World War I. “The real owners have started to come out. I am sure you understand who they are.
“Turkey, don’t be asleep!” the column warned.
Yona Sabar, a Kurdish Jewish professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of “The Folk Literature of the Kurdistani Jews,” said the articles are based on an inaccurate reading of Kurdish Jewish history.
According to Sabar, a 16th-century Kurdish rabbi named Shamuel Adoni also was given the name “Barzani” to signify that he came from the town of Barzan. He was followed by a string of well-known rabbis with the Barzani name, including Asenath Barzani, a woman who was ordained as a rabbi during the 17th century.
But Sabar said it is unlikely that Massoud Barzani is connected to that family.
“Barzan is a very well-known Kurdish tribe, and the Jews who lived in that area were very few,” he said.
The Kurdish Jewish population in Iraq, Iran and Turkey reached an estimated 25,000 at its peak, though almost the entire community left for the Jewish state soon after Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. There is no discernible Jewish community left in the area today.
Rifat Bali, a Jewish historian in Istanbul, said the Barzani story is part of a larger theory that has circulated during the last few years that has particularly strong popular support in Turkey’s conservative nationalist and Islamist circles.
“Islamists here always say that Israel has a Kurdish card it wants to play — that it has good relations with the Kurds and it wants to create a Jewish state from the Nile to the Euphrates, and that includes the Kurdish area,” Bali said.
“It’s fueled, first of all, by the obsession that Jews are behind everything, and that they use in front of them a crypto-Jew,” Bali said. “There is also a Turkish fear that the world is looking from the outside and trying to divide Turkey up.”
Indeed, a book titled “Israel’s Kurdish Card,’’ which describes the possibility of Israel expanding its borders through an alliance with the Kurds, has been sold in Turkey during the last few years.