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.”
What makes the current rhetorical alignment between Israel and the Kurds even more striking, though, is that in previous decades, the Kurds were more commonly cast as Palestinians. Both the Palestinian and the Kurdish independence movements, along with their respective Soviet-supported insurgent groups, emerged from the Cold War as popular left-wing causes whose violent tactics received consistent condemnation from the right. When Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani called the contested city of Kirkuk “the Kurds' Jerusalem,” for example, he intended the metaphor to be read from the Palestinian perspective.
The Kurdish-Palestinian alignment manifested itself in the cooperation between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which trained and even fought together in Lebanon during the 1980s. This helped solidify a rival alliance between U.S.-allied governments in Turkey and Israel. If PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan later claimed that “the Turks made an agreement with Israel to kill Kurds,” in Turkey it was Ocalan’s alignment with the PLO that helped legitimize Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. As long as Ankara and Jerusalem believed they were facing a common terrorist threat, each side could identify with the other’s willingness to prioritize security concerns over human rights.
Now, with the breakdown of Turkish-Israeli relations, similarities between the plight of the Palestinians and the Kurds no longer serve as a source of solidarity. Instead, they offer an opportunity for both sides to trade accusations of hypocrisy. Earlier in the summer, for example, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized Israel’s response to Palestinian protests at the al-Aqsa Mosque, Israeli officials countered by mentioning glass houses and asking what Erdogan would say to the Kurds. And indeed, while Erdogan has found plenty to say in support of the Palestinian cause, he won’t even use the word “Kurdistan” in discussing the upcoming referendum.
The malleability of political metaphors, not to mention the political divisions between different Kurdish leaders, makes it possible for everyone from Netanyahu to Erdogan to Barzani to parse their comparisons in keeping with their interests. If nothing else, the Kurds’ contrasting comparisons with the Jews and the Palestinians speak to the stakes of the independence referendum: Will the Kurdish political narrative be that of a stateless people who remained stateless or of a stateless people who got their state?