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January 1, 2019 9:29 am

Is There a Biblical — and Genetic — Reason Why Jews Support the Kurds?

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Kurdish security forces ride in a military vehicle near the governorate building in Erbil, Iraq July 23, 2018. Photo: REUTERS/Azad Lashkari.

The Kurds have been treated horribly. Like Jews, they are a religious and secular ethnic group that stands outside the official Christian and Muslim world. They are neither Sunni nor Shia. They are sandwiched between Turkey and Iran, who cannot abide the fiercely independent Kurds. And like the Israelis, they are divided, fractious, and argumentative.

Ever since the British created the artificial state of Iraq, the Kurds have been forced to live under Arab domination. They too have always dreamed of a state of their own — and when they volunteered to fight against ISIS, they had every expectation that their sacrifices would be rewarded. Instead, no one supported them when they overwhelmingly voted in a referendum for an independent state in 2017. Once again, the politics of convenience won.

And now the US government has thrown them under the bus, withdrawing from Syria, and leaving them exposed and at the mercy of the Turkish megalomaniac Erdogan, who has been killing, torturing, and oppressing the Kurds simply because they want recognition of their separate identity. I was also disappointed that Israel hasn’t done more to help them.

Get out of Afghanistan I say. No one wants the US to be there, except for a few corrupt Afghani politicians. Pakistan is constantly undermining the US, which has treated them with kid gloves. They haven’t even released the doctor they imprisoned for daring to help the US find Osama Bin Laden. Far better to arm and support the Kurds as a buffer and an ally.

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Why is it that Jews (and Israel) seem to have a special affinity with the Kurds? Is it because we inevitably side with the underdog — with a people surrounded by enemies, who are trying to preserve their different identity, just as we do? Or is it because we do actually have a historical affinity with the Kurds?

The area that we now call Kurdistan was actually the core of the old Assyrian Empire — the one that carried off the Ten Tribes from the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Some say the Ten Tribes were completely assimilated into Assyrian society, and that the Kurds are descended from them. There is some literature to support this theory. The Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela, for example, visited them. He thought that if the Byzantine Christians had not forcibly converted one half of them and the Muslims the other, they would still be Jewish. He detected several customs that they all adhered to that could only have come from the Jewish people.

Assyria looms large in the Bible. After the Assyrians conquered the Arameans of Damascus, they turned their attention to the Kingdom of Israel. First, they bullied King Jehu into submission, and finally they conquered Israel in 722 BCE. They then turned their attention to the southern Kingdom of Judea, and besieged King Hezekiah. The Bible tells us that the Assyrians withdrew, but Hezekiah was forced to pay tribute nevertheless. The Assyrians finally fell afoul of the Babylonians. As the Tanach tells us, Nebuchadnezzar exiled the aristocracy of Judah to Babylon in two waves — Jehoachin first and then the rest after Zedekiah rebelled in 586 BCE. Unlike the Assyrians, they encouraged the Judeans to create their own community.

The Babylonians, in turn, capitulated to the Persians, whose king Cyrus let some Jews return to Jerusalem. But they ran into trouble with the Samaritans who said that this was their land.  But we persevered! Ezra and Nehemiah came, rebuilt the Temple, and reestablished a vibrant Jewish community in which tribal differences were less important. All the Israelites came to be known as Judeans, or Jews. And we hung in there until the Romans decided otherwise.

There’s an important lesson we learn from the Assyrians that we repeat every Yom Kippur. Jonah was told to go to Nineveh to get them to repent their evil ways. He didn’t want to go, because he knew that if they did repent, they would be used as a tool to destroy his country, Israel. That was why he fled to Tarshish, a well-known port to the North that was in the hands of the Kittim — the enemies of the Assyrians. And Jonah did end up in Nineveh, where he started preaching. Whereas no one in the Jewish kingdom took him seriously, the Assyrian king listened. Hence the well known phrase: “There’s no prophet in his own country.”

God must have thought reasonably well of the Assyrians in order to save them. Perhaps they were not brutal, greedy conquerors, but in fact, had a higher standard of morality than the Northern Kingdom. I have often wondered if one of the reasons the Book of Jonah tells us that the Almighty did not want to destroy Nineveh was because that was where the exiled Ten Tribes were living, or would in the future. Or maybe the reason that the whole city listened to Jonah and repented was because so many of them were moral Israelites who had fled from their own corrupt kingdom. Who knows?

What is certain is that much of the Assyrian population ended up with a lot of Israelite blood, and somewhere in our genes, you and I may have a physical reason for wanting to see the Kurds survive. Still, Israel should learn from their lessons, and not rely on others. The only people we can really count on are ourselves.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He also studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Cambridge University, and went on to earn his PhD in philosophy. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than forty years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.

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