Today, Iraqi Kurds are going to the polls to decide whether to seek independence from Iraq.
So far, only one world leader has publicly backed the cause: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
There are concrete geopolitical reasons for Israel to support Kurdish independence. But a number of writers have suggested a deeper connection: They’ve highlighted ties between the Kurdish quest for independence and Israel’s own history. For supporters, the Kurds and the Jews are both “ancient Middle Eastern peoples” “targeted for genocide” by “exterminationist” neighbors. They are “embattled, once-stateless minorities,” “moderate” and “secular” “outcasts” in a sea of Arab extremism.
In the most enthusiastic accounts, the shared history of the Jews and the Kurds can be traced to Cyrus the Great and Saladin. More modestly, it goes back at least as far as the 1960s, when Israel supported Mustafa Barzani in his fight against Saddam Hussein. His son Masoud now leads the Kurdistan Regional Government.
But political metaphors can be fickle. Many in the region see the similarities between the Kurds and Israel in a decidedly more sinister light. After Netanyahu expressed his support for Kurdish independence, former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki announced that Baghdad would not allow the creation of a “second Israel” in northern Iraq. Meanwhile, in Turkey, opponents of Kurdish independence doubled down on long-standing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that the Kurds are Zionist puppets — if not secretly Jews themselves. The Turkish media has long speculated about the Jewish ancestry of Masoud Barzani and shared maps purporting to show Kurdistan’s place in the increasingly grandiose geography of “greater Israel.”
Nick Danforth writes about Middle Eastern history and politics. He is a senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center.