Today the people of Iraqi Kurdistan will go to the polls to vote on whether to declare independence from Iraq. Last week, breaking ranks with the U.S., other Middle Eastern leaders, and much of the world, Benjamin Netanyahu publicly announced his support for such a move. In doing so, he not only expressed sympathy with the Kurds’ aspiration to create what their opponents have derisively termed a second Israel—a non-Arab, democratic oasis in the midst of the Middle East—but also affirmed the longstanding ties between Israel and Iraqi Kurds, not to mention a sense of kinship between the Jewish and Kurdish peoples. David Halbfinger writes:
A breakaway Kurdistan could prove valuable to Israel against Iran, which has oppressed its own Kurdish population. But given the interwoven history and shared emotion underlying [Netanyahu’s] statement, present-day geopolitics can seem almost beside the point. The Kurds and the Jews, it turns out, go way back. . . .
The first Jews in Kurdistan, tradition holds, were among the lost tribes of Israel, taken from their land in the 8th century BCE. They liked it there so much, [the local legend goes], that when Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered the Babylonians and let the Jews go back home, many chose instead to stick around. . . .
In the modern era, Kurdish Jews departed en masse for Israel when the Jewish state was created in 1948, leaving Kurdish civil society so bereft that some recall its leaders still lamenting the Jewish exodus decades later.
Ties between the two have only grown warmer and more vital since the 1960s, as Israel and the Kurds—both minorities in an inhospitable region and ever in need of international allies— have repeatedly come to each other’s aid. . . . And while Kurdish leaders have not publicly embraced Israel in the run-up to the referendum, for fear of antagonizing the Arab world, the Israeli flag can routinely be seen at Kurdish rallies in [the regional capital of] Erbil and across Europe.