The aftermath of World War I had left the world’s 30-45 million Kurds split between four countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. Since then, they have been clamoring for independence amidst oppression, marginalization and violent persecution at the hands of these four countries.
The collapses of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and Bashar al-Asad’s in Syria have reinvigorated the Kurdish national movement. Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish regional governments have become self-governing and shown impressive administrative and military capability in the face of civil war, regional turmoil, and hostile neighbors. The Kurds have demonstrated particular prowess in their fight against the Islamic State, which has taken over large portions of Iraq and Syria, but has failed in subduing the Kurds. Equally encouraging are the Kurds’ advances toward liberal democracy and promotion of equality within their society even under such stressful conditions.
On September 27, Iraqi Kurds voted in a referendum overwhelmingly (93%) in favor of independence for Kurdistan. Kurds in Iraq and Iran were celebrating in solidarity while Syrian Kurds were going forward with plans to increase their own autonomy. Needless to say, this was a watershed for the Kurds and a victory for liberalism.
Yet reactions to this historic moment have been less than enthusiastic. Those who do not stay silent seem to view the Kurdish national cause as noble in spirit, but are spending most of their words on pointing out the drawbacks of Kurdish independence and questioning the viability of a Kurdish state. Some say the Kurds’ potential economic reliance on hostile neighbors dooms its sustainability. Others claim Kurdish independence would only fan the flames of more radical and militant Kurdish nationalism in Iran and Turkey and destabilize an already volatile region. Still others question the legality of Kurdish independence based on the Iraqi constitution and charge Kurdish leaders with corruption.
This deeply frustrates me as a liberal and as an American of Israeli Jewish descent. We liberals who despise dictatorship, shun oppression, and promote freedom and democracy have before us a golden opportunity to support an oppressed people in its quest for self-determination. Nonetheless, we give this people a meager pat on the back and then go on to criticize its efforts. We seem more concerned with slamming the tweets of President Donald Trump than fostering a just cause that embodies our values. We should spend more time advocating support for this cause rather than contenting ourselves with calling our opponents names.
As for my heritage, I cannot help but see the similarity between the Kurdish struggle for independence and Zionism. After World War Two, Zionists had to work hard to get international support, and even when obtaining it in the UN, found it precarious and ultimately short-lived. The U.S. in particular was obdurate in its belief that “prudence” and “larger interests” precluded support for the Zionist cause. President Harry Truman’s personal affinity for Zionism fortunately kept the U.S. supportive enough. Hence, despite the protests of many American and other Western strategists and leaders, Israel declared its independence and fought virtually alone against hostile neighbors determined to destroy it.
Today, the Kurdish national movement is in a position similar to that of Zionism in the late 1940s, surrounded by enemies and internationally rejected (though I am proud that Israel is the only country to have officially recognized the Kurdish referendum). It seems that the Kurds, too, will have to carry on their struggle alone.
This is a disgrace. The Kurds, an oppressed people striving against crushing odds and the highest stakes, now finally have an opportunity for freedom and are beseeching the world for a well-deserved chance at establishing a new democracy. They need our help to secure it. It is time for us to end our complacency with inveighing against our opponents and take up a truly righteous cause based in our core values of freedom and self-determination. We should start by trying to get the West, the U.S. in particular, to start supporting the Kurds, both verbally and physically.