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Another Israel

Kurds and Jews share a similar history and a common enemy

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Israelis of Kurdish origin hold Kurdish and Israeli flags during a demonstration outside the Turkish embassy in wake of Israel’s deadly raid on the Mavi Mamara. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)
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Ariel Sabar searches for the Edenic past his father left behind in Kurdistan

When the Israeli navy raided the Gaza-bound Mavi Mamara on May 31, a chorus of cries was raised across the Muslim world. But one Muslim leader was noticeably absent from the collective protest: Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. Barzani’s reticence was all the more noticeable because, three days after the attack—which left nine people dead after the boat refused to observe an Israeli-enforced blockade against the Hamas-run territory—he was in Ankara to meet with the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was the first time in nine years that Barzani had met with a Turkish counterpart. But he didn’t join in criticizing Israel.

Turkish-Kurdish relations have been notoriously fractious and violent; Turkey’s brutal, 25-year war against Kurdish separatists has killed an estimated 45,000 people, and skirmishes between the Turkish security forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the PKK, which seeks to form an independent Kurdish state that would include parts of present-day Turkey, continue to this day. Last year, Erdogan forged a shaky truce with the Kurds, who comprise about a sixth of Turkey’s population and a fifth of Iraq’s, while continuing the fight against the violent separatist organization. This policy, referred to as the “Kurdish Opening,” has seen a warming of ties between Turkey and the broader Kurdish community, which is concentrated mostly in Syria, Iran, and northern Iraq. “I feel really among my brothers,” Barzani said, a sentiment that would have been unimaginable from the Kurdish leader just a few years ago. This past summer, Turkey opened a consulate in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG, and a Turkish diplomat recently told me that his country “sees the Kurds as our strategic partners.”

Prior to the meeting, Erdogan had been working himself into a lather over the flotilla incident. He immediately withdrew his country’s ambassador from Tel Aviv, demanded an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the matter, and called the raid “inhumane state terrorism,” all in a seeming bid to become spokesman for the Muslim world. He went so far as to compare the Israeli Defense Forces to the PKK, which is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, the United Nations, and the European Union. “They saw innocent babies as a threat,” Erdogan declared in the Turkish city of Konya, just a day after meeting Barzani. “They massacred those innocent babies in their mothers’ arms, like those terrorists here.”

With this rhetorical onslaught, Erdogan presented a challenge to Barzani, who as leader of the Kurds has tried to distance the KRG (which has achieved a substantial degree of autonomy in three provinces in northern Iraq) from the PKK and taken a delicate approach to the touchy subject of Kurdish independence. While refusing to rule out the prospect that Kurdistan might one day become a sovereign state, Barzani has made efforts to support Iraq’s nascent federal democracy. When I interviewed him in May, in the midst of fraught negotiations following the most recent Iraqi parliamentary elections, he stressed support for a “national unity government.” (My trip to Kurdistan was sponsored by the KRG.) But if Erdogan was trying to goad Barzani into bashing the Jewish state, his attempts proved unsuccessful. The most that Barzani offered was that he’s “very upset from the loss of civilian life.”

Compared with the outraged reactions from other global figures—particularly his brethren in the Islamic world—Barzani’s response was remarkably tepid. And that’s hardly surprising. For decades, Kurds and Israelis have enjoyed a mutual affinity, fostered by shared aversion to forces that oppressed Kurds and supported terrorism against Israel. The extent of this sympathy was fallaciously leant a duplicitous cast in 2003 when the FBI launched a probe into the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The resulting case hinged upon fabricated, “classified” documents, delivered by a Pentagon analyst (working for the FBI as a condition of a plea bargain) to an AIPAC staffer, purporting to show that the lives of Mossad agents working undercover in Kurdistan were in danger. Another AIPAC staffer relayed the information to the Israeli embassy. The case, spurious from the beginning—and predicated upon a rationale that was referred to at the time as “an unprecedented interpretation of the 89-year-old Espionage Act,” by the then-ombudsman of the First Amendment Center—was dropped due to the government’s failure to prove that the activities of the then-AIPAC staffers in any way compromised U.S. national security.

The existence or extent of Israel’s intelligence relationship with Kurdistan is officially denied by both parties. When I asked a senior Kurdish intelligence official if the KRG cooperated with the Israelis, he demurred. In line with most Muslim states, Iraq doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Israel, and moves by the KRG to formulate a foreign policy independent of the central government irritate Baghdad. But official relations between an independent or autonomous Kurdistan and Israel could one day prove to be a decisive factor in the chessboard that is Middle Eastern politics, and whatever their present scope, such relations make a great deal of sense. That’s because Kurdistan and Israel, as well as Kurds and Jews as people, share strategic interests and historic commonalities.


The relationship between Kurds and Jews goes back to ancient times. Jews lived in Kurdistan since the exile of the 10 Tribes in the 8th century BCE. At the community’s height, Kurdish Jews numbered around 50,000, spread between Iran, Turkey, and northern Iraq. Many of them fled for Israel when the Jewish state declared its independence in 1948, and that trickle turned into a flood in the 1950s as life for Jews in Iraq became more and more difficult.

Political relations began in 1965, when David Kimche, one of the founding fathers of the Mossad, visited Kurdistan to meet with Mullah Mustafa Barzani, Massoud Barzani’s father and then-leader of the Kurds. The meeting came at the behest of the senior Barzani, who was seeking outside support for his people’s fight against the military regime that ruled the country. Kimche returned to Jerusalem urging Israeli support for the Kurds as part of the Jewish state’s outreach to non-Arab states like Iran and Turkey. With the United States, Israel covertly trained the Kurdish paramilitary, or peshmerga, and provided the Kurds with agricultural and technological know-how.

But Israel was forced to break off its relations with the Kurds 10 years later when Iran, then under the control of Shah Reza Pahlavi, signed an agreement with Iraq under which it would withdraw its backing of the Kurdish militants bedeviling Iraq’s Ba’athist regime, in exchange for the resolution of a territorial dispute along the Iran-Iraq border. Iran and Israel both pulled their military advisers out of northern Iraq, to the great dismay of Kurdish leaders.

The relationship blossomed once again, however, after the first Gulf War, when the United States and Great Britain began to enforce a United Nations-sanctioned no-fly zone over northern and southern Iraq that protected the Kurds (and southern Shia) from Saddam Hussein’s aggression. And cooperation allegedly heightened in the aftermath of the second Iraq War, at least according to a 2004 New Yorker article by Seymour Hersh, which asserted that Israel was “establishing a significant presence on the ground” in Kurdistan in order to keep an eye on bordering Iran. “Israeli intelligence and military operatives are now quietly at work in Kurdistan,” Hersh reported, “providing training for Kurdish commando units and, most important in Israel’s view, running covert operations inside Kurdish areas of Iran and Syria.” Others dispute Hersh, who relies heavily on anonymous sources, and whose claims of Israeli involvement in Kurdistan have yet to be confirmed by any other media outlet. “The notion that there are hundreds of Israelis running around Iraqi Kurdistan is a fantasy and has been publicly ridiculed by Kurdish leaders,” says Andrew Apostolou, a senior program manager at Freedom House, an independent human-rights watchdog. “The main foreign political and economic presences in Iraqi Kurdistan are American, British, Turkish, and Iranian. Iraqi Kurdistan is also seeking to link itself economically to the Gulf.”

Those claiming that the decline in Israeli-Turkish relations is something sudden, the bitter fallout of the January 2009 Gaza War or this year’s flotilla incident, might look to this alleged move by Israel some six years ago as a contributing factor. And as early as 2007, Turkish security sources were allegedly complaining about Israeli recalcitrance in supplying them with promised weapons to fight Kurdish rebels. Potential Israeli cooperation with Kurds, even if initiated with the intent of undermining the despotic regimes in Syria and Iran, would bother Turkey regardless of the purpose. That’s because the Turks view the de facto independence of Iraqi Kurdistan as a threat to their control over their own Kurdish population.

The obvious alignment of interests between Israel and Kurdistan, and the concomitant decline in relations between Israel and Turkey, have let the Turkish press, never known for its responsibility or hesitancy to sink into sensationalism and anti-Semitism, run wild. Years-old rumors that Barzani is descended from a long line of Kurdish rabbis have been given new weight. Whether or not this aspect of Barzani’s lineage is actually true, it fits well into a conspiracy theory long peddled by Turkish nationalists, which paints Kurdish-Israeli ties as something more than just the result of empathy between two regional minorities that have endured discrimination, war, and genocide at the hands of others. Meanwhile, some enterprising Israelis coyly floated the idea of sending out “reverse flotillas” to aid Turkish Kurds.

Israel’s fraying relationship with Turkey will be to the Kurds’ benefit. One of the main factors that limited Israeli-Kurdish ties in the 1990s was Israel’s military and diplomatic alliance with Turkey, which for decades has been Israel’s most important ally in the Muslim world. That relationship at times led Israel to work against Kurdish aspirations, or at least give the appearance of doing so. In 1999, for example, hundreds of Kurds attacked the Israeli consulate in Berlin over accusations that Jerusalem had aided Ankara in apprehending PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in Kenya. Three Kurds were killed in the ensuing scuffle, and Israeli denial of the accusations did little to stem Kurdish anger. Thanks largely to the provocations of Erdogan’s Islamist government, however, the potential for a strengthened Israeli-Kurdish alliance has never looked better.


Beyond the strategic rationale for the Israeli-Kurdish relationship, there exists a deeper, values-based relationship. Both Jews and Kurds are embattled, once-stateless minorities in a region afflicted by obscurantist religious and ethnic movements that seek to sublimate, if not eliminate, religious and ethnic diversity. On one side of this divide lies a version of Sunni Wahabbist extremism and Shia radicalism pledging to rid the Middle East not only of Jews, but of anyone deemed insufficiently Islamic.

Another commonality is that both peoples have prevailed against attempts at extermination. In 1986, Saddam Hussein launched his Anfal campaign against the Kurds, eventually killing more than 200,000. In Halabja, the town about 10 miles from the Iranian border where, in 1988, the Iraqi military deployed poison gas to murder at least 5,000 people, a museum and monument stand to commemorate the dead. The museum’s inner sanctum, a round room with the names of the victims of the attack etched on the walls, evokes Yad Vashem. The city’s cemetery features a sign, “BA’ATH MEMBERS NOT ALLOWED TO ENTER.” Yasser Arafat’s support for Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War didn’t endear Palestinians to the Kurds, and general Kurdish indifference to the plight of the Palestinians argues against the trendy theory of “linkage,” which argues that resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a prerequisite to solving a host of other problems in the Muslim world.

The Kurds have proudly defied the anti-Israel theatrics of their Muslim brethren. Speaking with a variety of KRG officials, I heard that they would be more than happy to establish official diplomatic relations with Israel were such a decision within their power. “We have no problems with Israel,” says Falah Mustafa Bakir, head of the KRG Department of Foreign Relations. “They have not harmed us. We can’t be hating them because Arabs hate them.” In a 2007 television interview, Barzani said, “If an Israeli embassy were opened in Baghdad, we would no doubt open an Israeli consulate in Erbil.” That same year, then-Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni sat next to Jalal Talabani’s wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed Talabani, at an international women’s conference in Vienna. The two discussed the peace process and the plight of citizens in Sderot, the rocket-plagued Israeli city on the Gaza border. At the 2008 Socialist International, Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s president and the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan political party, shook Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s hand.

“We’ve been called ‘the second Israel,’ ” Bakir says. “We cite Israel as a democracy in the Middle East.” The regional forces arrayed against an independent Kurdistan are the same sorts of theocratic and authoritarian ones that tried to destroy the nascent Jewish state in 1948 and that have been arrayed against it ever since. “This island of democracy,” he says of Israel, “was seen as a germ,” yet Kurds take heart in its success as an independent nation. In light of their experience as a stateless people continually subjected to discrimination and genocide by the regimes under which they have lived, the Kurds have woefully adopted a saying that they have “no friends but the mountains.” They also have the Jews.

James Kirchick is writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and a contributing editor to The New Republic.

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In my opinion, the Kurds have a far stronger claim to be a separate people deserving of their own nation than do the Palestinians. It is puzzling that so many in the world criticize Israel for not facilitating the Palestinians quest for a separate nation (even though Israel IS trying to facilitate this quest) and yet they fail to criticize Turkey for not giving the Kurds their own nation. There should be a separate Kurdistan carved out of the parts of Turkey and Iraq that are the homes for the bulk of the Kurds.

Dani Levi says:

Thank you for writing this article. It is so important that people find out what Turkey has been doing to the Kurds over the past 25+years. I recall reading an article in a European broad sheet around 1993 which stated that Turkey had depopulated 900 ( nine hundred ) villages in Turkish Kurdistan. Up until very recently Kurdish was “illegal” in Turkey. What Turkey has done to a huge part of its population is cultural genocide. More articles on this topic are needed to put Turkey into a different perspective other than the “Muslim humanists” they wish to be.
A large part of Germanys “Turks”, 3 million, are actually Kurds who have fled Turkey. Many a EU parliamentary delegation has been barred from leaving Ankara or Istanbul when they wanted to travel to Kurdistan on a fact finding mission. There rape and torture and arbitrary arrests are happening on a daily bases, for decades. For some perverse reason the worlds press has other things to report.

Dani Levi says:

Here is a link to Susan Meiselas’s incredible Kurdistan project.

Klisman says:

- “The Kurds have been fighting for freedom, for a free land for the last 200 years; and they are paying the price… Syria, Iran, and Turkey are dominating over the Kurds with an iron hand… The states that dominate over the Kurds were always able to unite their political, ideological, diplomatic, and military powers against them. It is obvious that this common control does not create justice but is a constant violation of it. In these conditions, resistance against oppression is a legitimate right…” –Ismail Besikci:

(above quote is from a well-known Turkish writer and intellect, PEN-International member and a noble peace prize candidate Ismail Besikci. He has paid the price…..Turkey locked him for 17 years and he’s been charged again)

-Largest ethnic group on the planet without a homeland….some 35-40 million people.

-Kurds have lived in Kurdistan for 6,000 years. Well before Turks and Arabs swept the area during the islamic expansion.

-Been politically and culturally oppressed by Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq for hundreds of years.

-Idendity denied for the last century, even been labled “Mountain Turks” by the Turkish state.

Despite the increasingly grim diplomatic, political and military outlook for the Middle East in the near term, I believe that Mr. Kirchick has correctly identified one potential bright spot, namely the potential for greater cooperation between Israel and the Kurdish people. While I am inclined to agree with the notion that Jews/Israelis and Kurds do share common interests in the region, the fact remains that the Kurds themselves are in a very precarious position in the region. They face consistent security threats in the form of Turkish and Iranian military aggression, and politically they face serious challenges to their aspirations for sovereignty from various religious, ethnic and political factions operating within Iraq. While I am inclined to agree with the author’s suggestion that Kurdish and Israeli interests are well-aligned (especially vis-à-vis the threat Iran poses) it seems to me that the Kurds are likely to face significant challenges of their own as the American withdrawal from Iraq proceeds and a strong Kurdish state in the north is perceived as a threat by above mentioned groups within Iraq. I am personally hopeful that Israel and the Kurds will strengthen ties, but another factor to consider is how such a move will influence both Israeli-Turkish and Kurdish-Turkish relations, and whether any potential diplomatic fallout from such a strengthening would outweigh potential damage to these relationships. At present we are seeing a series of moves by regional actors which point toward a realignment of loyalties and perhaps even strategic alliances which will significantly alter the landscape of the region over the next decade. One of the challenges that Israel faces is how to position itself in a neighborhood in which Turkey is hostile, Iran is ascendant and the Palestinians are mulling over the idea of giving up on peace talks and declaring their own independent state. How the Kurds will fit into this equation remains to be seen.

Great article. Very informative. Say, where were the reporters when Turkey murdered 45,000 Kurds? They were busy using their Microscopes to blame Israel for something, that’s where!

A.L. Bell says:

@Steve: Amen.

I sincerely think that the only way for Jewish Israel to be happy, safe and free is for Israel to treat the Christians, Muslims, etc. in her borders, and the Palestinians in the Palestinian jurisdictions as well as they possibly can. No matter who started all the ill will, we people who are Jewish have an obligation to help end it.

But, it’s really striking that most Europeans, for example, who go on the warpath against Israel’s difficulties with the Palestinians hardly ever talk about Belgium giving Flanders to the Flemish, the Spanish giving Basque country to the Basques, the Spanish giving the whole country back to the Moors, etc. And I almost never see Americans who are bashing Israel say we ought to give Oklahoma or any other major part of the United States back to the Native Americans.

It is true that the cause of the Kurds is aligned philosophically with the Israeli cause, and with that of several other “medium size” ethnic minorities in the Middle East. Jews, Kurds, Lebanese Christians, some Druze, Armenians and a few other examples are all struggling (or have struggled) to survive and sometimes to build nation states in the larger Muslim milieu. But while it is nice to imagine that the Jews will be understood by other struggling small and medium size ethnic groups, and that we can somehow work with them to create a Middle East and Near East where “minor” ethno-nationalisms (such as ours, Zionism) can find legitimate political expression, autonomy or statehood…. I think that this is overly optimistic, and overly “philosophical.” I rather doubt that such abstractions can overcome the core and deep antisemitism/hatred of Jews, born of history and of the Palestinian / Israeli struggle and some good measure of irrational bloody mindedness.

The reality of Kurdistan is that it’s future is as a divided nation, partly in Turkey, partly in Iraq…. and as indicated by the responses to mere allegations of Israeli involvement, Israel is still treif, and will remain treif absent a comprehensive settlement. The abstract logic of shared Jewish Kurdish interests as sizable minorities probably has little real world significance.

It is however a beautiful thought, a pleasant political fantasy, in which many have indulged.


Since the boundaries of Iran, Iraq, Syria, etc were divided between the British and the French as determined by Sinclair Lewis and Sir Lawrence without regard to the ethnicities of the areas, redefining them should really be near the top of the world’s agenda.

Phillip Cohen says:

I started to take flight into wonderful fantasies of a Jewish-Kurdish political/cutural/security and economic alignment. Then I read Mike’s posting. It buggers me but…you are probably correct. Hopefully, in the long run something more can come of the Kurdish position and Israel.

Ware Talan says:

Eveything starts with a dream or a fantacy.They remain such when you don’t act upon them. Dreams always come true, when all the elements are real, and they are indeed real here, all you need to do is to work towrds your goals connect the dots then you will end up with tangible results even if they are long term ones but worth it.

Alan sydo says:

As a kurds we would like to have best relation with state of Isreal because we feel that we are really close to you and we have the same pain god bless kurdistan and Isreal

I am surprised that Kirchik did not mention Tutkey’s occupation of approximately half of the island of Cyprus.Turkey is the only country that recognizes that part of Cyprus as a country and it constitutes an “occupation”. Hmm..where have I heard that term before?

Empress Trudy says:

Israel is alone. Joining with the Kurds will only heap more abuse upon the Kurds and the Jews both. All Turkey need do is say the Jews are supporting the PKK which frankly, are pretty awful people.

Klisman says:

Empress Trudy:

You think the Turkish military are angles? the torture and brutality that took place in Diyarbakir Prison (like making Kurds eat their own feces among countless other tortures) is what created and fuelled the PKK insurgency in the first place.

The barbaric and cultural genocide of Kurds at the hand of Turks is why PKK exists. PKK is the product of brutual Turkish policies. The Turkish military kills its own soldiers and blames it on the PKK…these are the type of barbaric acts the Kurds are fighting against.

Israel will never join Kurdistan. Israel looks out for her own interests and allying herself with Turkey is more important. Israel uses the Kurdish struggle to steer away Iraqi and Iranian threats. Kurds don’t have any friends but the mountains but after hundres of years of persection, genocide, ethnic cleansing, language and cultural ban, they’re still there and their flag still flies. that my freind, is a true and a heartbreaking experience of the human tragedy.

we are our worst enemies.

Israel should stop supplying weapons to Turkey that most of it so far used agaianst Kurdish civilian population

סליחה !!!- אבל התמונה שמפורסמת בכתבה זאת לא תמונה שהייתה בגלל המשט הטורקי – ההפגנה הייתה בגלל שישראל מוכרת נשק לטורקים שנעשה בו שימוש נגד הכורדים
אני צילמתי את התמונות האלה ואני מופיעה בתמונה – אני דורשת לתקן את נושא התמונה
עם כול הכבוד לכתבה אני זה לא ניתן לערבב בין שני הנושאים
הפגנה בגלל המשט הייתה לחוד וההפגנה של הכורדים בישראל הייתה לחוד
לכן אני מבקשת ודורשת לתקן את נושא התמונה בדרך ידידותית
בברכה עמנואלה ברזאני מנהלת פורום כורדים בישראל

Sorry! – But a famous story that’s not a picture that was because the Turkish rally – the demonstration was due to the Turks that Israel sells weapons used against Kurds
I took these pictures and I appears in the picture – I demand to fix the image issue
With all due respect this article I can not mix the two issues
Demonstration because the rally was one thing and demonstration of the Kurds in Israel was one thing
Therefore I request and requires repair the friendly way to subject
Director Emanuele Barzani welcomes Kurdish Israel Forum

Herbert Kaine says:

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Dani Levi says:

A good short film by Grant Slater about media projects in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Dani Levi says:

An independent media project web site by The Tiziano Project on parts of Kurdistan

Kurdim Israel Kurds in Israel – 8.7.2010 Kurds in Israel – a demonstration for Kurdistan – a demonstration against the Turkish Embassy in Tel Aviv Israel

The demonstration was against Israel on arms sales to Turkey, killing used the Kurdish people

Kurds in Israel against selling arms to Turkey that uses killed Kurdish people – stopped the sale of weapons at the expense of Kurdish blood – FREEDOM KURDIM FREEDOM KURDISTAN

Israel and the jewish diaspora are the most hypocritical and honorless people i have ever seen. You should all remember, that it was israel, who supported turkey, it was israel, who killed together with turkey the kurds. It was Israel, who draw a parallel between Hamas and the kurds.

You are disgusting. Not to mention your abject denial of the Armenian Genocide.
Go to hell.

TurkishBoy says:

Kurds are treated as citizens of the Turkish Republic, and are an inseparable part of the Turkish nation – more Kurds live in Istanbul than in any other city in Turkey.
Palestinians in Israel on the other hand are being treated as foreigners on their own land, and Israel’s policy is that of gradual displacement of the indigenous population and take over of their land.
Turkey’s objectives in the middle east are quite clear. With the recent visa free travel arrangements between Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, Turkey is seeking to convert it into a European Union style economic block. But for that block to thrive it needs peace, and Israel is the biggest obstacle to peace. Either Israel needs to become a good neighbor, or risk becoming increasing isolated in the region.

emanuela barzani says:

All one can blame each other and not be over until tomorrow – but – Turkey can not be an engineer of peace so long as the nation did not release the Kurdish occupation – Turkey is the obstacle of the Middle East Peace and Israel took as a guarantee of her hands to gain power at the expense of Israel – Turkey and all the grades together, go fuck you’re after wars and destruction of cultures – no faith in any of a carcass of its prey – and we are in the hands of the political game

TURKonly says:

I can’t believe people are trying to compere the problem in Israel and the problem in Turkey u should all be ashamed.

kurds have all characteristics(own history, homeland,calture and language) to be a nation and they’ve paid all prices to have their state.
No one could deny kurd’s rights.

UntoldWar says:

What a great untoldwar. We will open up all the pages for it. Israel’s agenda with Kurds opened up the doors to take active action in the Middle East. We will see more data of that with wikileaks.

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Freedom lover says:

This is weird… I live in Kurdistan and most of the people here don’t even like jews.


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Another Israel

Kurds and Jews share a similar history and a common enemy

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