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September 29, 2017 1:19 pm

US Jewish Leaders Express Support, Empathy for Kurds in Wake of Independence Vote

avatar by Ben Cohen

An Israeli flag in a sea of Kurdish flags at an independence rally in Erbil. Photo: Adam Mirani via Twitter.

Several American Jewish leaders and organizations have expressed their affinity with Kurdish aspirations following Monday’s independence referendum in the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq, in which 93 percent of ballots were cast in favor of an independent state of Kurdistan.

“Obviously, we have great sympathy for the Kurds,” Malcolm Hoenlein — the executive vice chairman and CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (CoP) — told The Algemeiner on Thursday.

The close ties between Israel and the Kurdish national movement, and the role played by many Kurds in assisting Iraqi Jews escaping from the former Ba’athist regime, were all highlighted in the Jewish responses to this week’s vote.

“Israel, over the years, has helped the Kurds in various ways, and so have Jews from America and Europe,” Hoenlein remarked. “And the Kurds openly proclaim their pro-Israel position. You see Israeli flags at their demonstrations, which is great.”

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Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, compared the Kurdish struggle for independence with that of Israel during its critical early years, noting that like the builders of the Jewish state, the predominantly Muslim Kurds – a nation of more than 25 million currently split between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria – have been frequently left in the lurch by the international community.

“We know what a great struggle Israel endured, so we empathize with the Kurds,” Rabbi Hier told The Algemeiner.  “We had the same game played on us that’s now being played on them.”

Morton Klein — president of the Zionist Organization of America — noted, “The Kurds have been one of the very few positive and rational forces in the Mideast, who have suffered greatly at the hands of radical Muslims.”

“The ZOA supports independence for this deserving and embattled people,” Klein told The Algemeiner.

While President Donald Trump’s administration followed the rest of the international community — with the sole exception of Israel — in objecting to both the referendum and its outcome, a number of senior US legislators have openly supported the creation of an independent Kurdistan. On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) hailed what he called a “historic vote,” declaring: “I believe the Kurds should have an independent state as soon as possible and that the position of the United States government should be to support a political process that addresses the aspirations of the Kurds for an independent state.”

Josh Block, CEO of The Israel Project, urged American Jews to line up behind Schumer’s call. “Sen. Schumer expressed what many of us feel as American Jews,” Block said. “There’s a natural warmth toward the Kurds, because they’ve been true friends of Israel, as well as of the Jews and the other minorities living under Arab or Islamic domination.”

Block added: “That comes on top of the fact that America has seldom had an ally like the Kurds, who have sacrificed so much, and still they are denied the right we take for granted — to live as independent, free people in a democracy that respects and protects those who are different, instead of trying to destroy them.”

Hier urged the international community to recognize an independent Kurdistan, describing it as an “outpost for freedom and democracy in an area that’s basically been taken over by the Iranians.”

“It’s a smart move for Israel to recognize the independence of the Kurds, because we need nations with an ideology that’s directly opposed to the Iranian dictatorship, and their sponsorship of terror in the Middle East and the world,” Hier commented.

Block similarly underlined that an independent Kurdish state would be a bulwark against Iran. “The Kurds don’t want to live under Sunni Arab or Shia Iranian domination,” he said. “Instead of handing Iraq to our enemies in Tehran, we should be boosting an ally of America and Israel that can help keep the Shia corridor from Tehran to Beirut in check.”

Hoenlein stressed that the US Jewish community had not adopted a uniform position on the question of the referendum and its aftermath.

“Of course, we are concerned that a hot conflict could emerge that would have an impact on the situation in Iraq and Syria, with Turkey getting involved,” Hoenlein said, noting that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had spoken “very strongly” against the referendum during a recent meeting with the CoP leadership.

“We don’t want to give Iran, or Turkey, any excuse to be able to further expand influence or take advantage of a conflict, so we hope that they can get to the point of negotiating now,” Hoenlein said. “I think that everyone wants to avoid an open conflict, so maybe there are ways to recognize Kurdish aspirations without full independence.”

Hier asserted that that there were few choices left at this point other than independence. “It’s a big deal for a country on the very border of Iran to declare independence,” he said. “What would we rather have? A country that is not aligned with us and taken over by the Iranians?”

Meanwhile, the Trump administration doubled down on its opposition to Kurdish independence on Friday. “We’re friends with the Kurds, we are friends with the central government of Iraq,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told Kurdish journalist Namo Abdulla at a press briefing.

“We have fought — our American forces have fought side by side with your folks, okay? We want to have a stable, unified Iraq,” Nauert continued, arguing that any conflict that might arise from the Kurdish independence vote “will take the focus off the fight against ISIS.”

“We want ISIS out of Iraq,” Nauert said. “We want to see them decimated and to never wreak terror on your communities again.”

An informal tripartite coalition of Turkey, Iran and the Tehran-backed government in Iraq has declared its intent to blockade the Kurdish areas of Iraq, hinting darkly at possible military action as well.

“The Kurdish referendum has no legitimacy,” President Erdogan stated on Thursday, following face-to-face talks in Ankara with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“No one has the right to throw our region in the fire,” Erdogan — whose armed forces have targeted Kurdish towns and villages in Syria and Turkey during the last year — exclaimed angrily. “In this delicate period after the referendum, we have to prevent the Kurdish Regional Government from making bigger mistakes.”

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