This first-of-its-kind Knesset event was chaired by Ksenia Svetlova, the Chairperson of the Lobby for Strengthening the Relationship between the State of Israel and the Kurdish People.
When every nation turned away from Kurdish aspirations for independence, Israel alone stood with the Kurdish people, recalled President of the Kurdish European Society Kahraman Evsen at a Knesset conference Wednesday devoted to Kurdistan and Israel.
Speaking Tuesday to a room full of MKs and Kurdish and Jewish NGO heads and activists, Evsen said Kurds and Jews share the same values and principles.
This first-of-its-kind Knesset event was chaired by Ksenia Svetlova, the Chairperson of the Lobby for Strengthening the Relationship between the State of Israel and the Kurdish People.
Svetlova hosted the event with the International Legal Forum, a global legal coalition initiating and centralizing efforts for human rights in the international arena.
Titled “Kurdistan and Israel, together towards peace and stability in the Middle East,” the gathering included a long list of activists and intellectuals who have been active in recent years to encourage closer relations between Kurds and Jews as well as between the Kurdistan region and Israel.
Opening the meeting, flanked by Zionist Union’s Tzipi Livni and Yossi Yonah, Bayit Yehudi’s Eli Ben-Dahan and Yifa Segal of the International Legal Forum, Svetlova said that until Israel can celebrate the creation of a Kurdish State, it should focus on other aspects of cooperation.
“There are similarities in our destinies,” she said, speaking on November 29 and reminding listeners of the auspicious anniversary of the UN partition vote in 1947.
“It is not just another day, today we celebrate the recognition of the State of Israel by the United Nations,” she said.
“We understand we live in a world of challenges and there is an extremist religious ideology that is taking over with terrorist organizations and we as a state and you [Kurds] face the same nature of threat and it needs to be addressed by all of us,” said Livni.
“You should know, here you can find friends. I am in the opposition and we have a gap with what the ideology of the government coalition is, [but] when it comes to Kurdish people we all feel the same.”
Yossi Yonah, whose parents were born in what is now the Sunni Arab heartland of Iraq near Ramadi, also stressed the common characteristics that Jews and Kurds have historically in seeking a state of their own through self-determination.
“They have been suffering persecution in the various states they exist, so this enhances the justification of the demand for self-determination.”
Besides reminding those present that Jews and Kurds have a shared historical struggle for independence and share similar enemies, several of the speakers noted the fact that their relatives came from Iraq or Kurdish areas, or that family members had married Kurdish Jews.
The parents of Moshe Raz of Meretz, for instance, had come from near Mosul to British Palestine via Beirut in 1931, he said.
Deputy Minister for Public Diplomacy Michael Oren recalled serving alongside Jews of Kurdish origin in the army.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said that Israel’s relations with Kurds go back to the era of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and praised the “impressive democratic society” and booming economy of the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
“Clearly the Kurdish people are locked between forces and part of an international game that is extremely complex,” he said.
He expressed that the issues facing Kurds should be discussed in the Knesset and that Israel has something to contribute to this conversation.
Oren agreed that Kurds are deeply deserving of freedom.
“Someday the Kurdish people will receive the sovereignty which they so richly and historically deserve. Therefore we have to prepare the ground.”
Like several others, he said that cooperation could also include agricultural support and other economic issues.
For some of the Kurds present, the event was a welcomed sign. Zorav Darisiro from the Free Kurds NGO in Norway said that he was happy to see Kurdish Jewry was alive and well in Israel. He even found an elderly Kurdish man to speak Kurdish to who had come to the meeting.
Ceng Sagnic, the Coordinator of the Moshe Dayan Center’s Kurdish Studies Program, praised the professionalism of those present and said that Kurds could benefit from the experience Israel has after 69 years of independence.
Dr. Mordechai Zaken, an author and expert on Kurdish Jews, said that Israel’s relationship with Kurdistan goes back decades and that the group he founded called the Israeli-Kurdistan Friendship League had pioneered this connection in the 1990s.
Joel Rubinfeld, the President of the Jewish Coalition for Kurdistan, said that after a century of broken promises, “the time has come for the international community to set right injustices of the past by recognizing the independence of Kurdistan.” He also noted that the support of Kurdistan unites Knesset members across the political spectrum. Yifa Segal, whose International legal Forum helped organize the conference, said she relates to the Kurdish issue on numerous levels, as a Jew, Israeli and human rights lawyer. It was particularly relevant, “the similarities of our nations and the inspiring friendship,” she said, hoping that we could see this friendship as a bridge of peace and way to learn from each other.
For Svetlova, the historic meeting was a chance to build on the historic relations with Kurds and to continue down the path of a strategic alliance, which includes working together against common enemies in the region.
“The invitation is open [to continue working together],” she said in her concluding remarks.
Jewish activists for independent Kurdistan promote cause in NY, Jerusalem.
JTA – In Jerusalem and New York, Jewish activists for an independent Kurdistan hosted events promoting the cause with the participation of Israeli, French and British officials.
The New York event Tuesday was a first-of-it-kind screening before 700 people of a documentary by the French-Jewish philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy on the Peshmerga, Kurdish fighters combatting the Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria. The British and French missions to the United Nations organized the event at the organization’s headquarters.
At a separate event Wednesday in Jerusalem, Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan (Jewish Home) and a dozen other lawmakers hosted for the first time at the Knesset a delegation of Kurdish representatives from the European-Kurdish Society during an international conference titled “Kurdistan and Israel: Together Towards Peace and Stability in the Middle East.”
At the UN event, the French mission’s permanent representative, François Delattre, spoke of the “historic rights of the people of Kurdistan” — potentially signaling change in the official French foreign policy that mentions only “respect [for] the legitimate rights of the Kurds.”
Delattre also noted the “unequaled” fight, as he called it, by the Kurdish forces knows as Peshmerga – which is also the title of Levy’s film – in the fight against the Islamic State.
Levy said that the film, which he and a crew of four others began making in 2015, is an attempt to “demonstrate the courage, bravery, and selflessness of Kurdish fighters who have earned the world’s admiration.”
While a majority of voters in Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region of Iraq, supported independence in a referendum held in September, the Iraqi government said it does not recognize the referendum’s results and imposed sanctions, including a ban on all outgoing and incoming flights from the Kurdish autonomy.
Amid pressure from Baghdad, Kurdish militia soldiers last month ceded dozens of forward positions to Iraqi army troops. The United States, France, Britain and many other countries opposed Kurdish independence, declaring their support for an undivided Iraq.
Levy, who is one of France’s best-known authors and political commentators, condemned this policy during his speech ahead of the screening.
“The strongmen of the region, those who believe that man was born to obey, peoples to submit, and borders to be carved into the living flesh of humankind —they, alas, had the last word” in Kurdistan, he said.
The Knesset event, organized by Zionist Union lawmaker Ksenia Svetlova, was the first time that Israeli officials hosted an event favoring Kurdish independence.
Israel was among the first countries in the world to support the establishment of a Kurdish state following a statement on the issue by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Among the non-Israeli Jewish participants of the Knesset event, which was held on the 70th anniversary of the adoption by the United Nations of the Partition Plan for Palestine, was Joel Rubinfeld, a former leader of Jews in Belgium and a campaigner against anti-Semitism there.
Earlier this month, he launched the Jewish Coalition for Kurdistan – a group that cites Kurdish-Jewish affinities and whose honorary board includes Alan Dershowitz, Irwin Cotler, a former justice minister of Canada, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, and Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, two well-known hunters of Nazis from France.
(JTA) — Several prominent Jews in Europe and North America joined an organization fostering Jewish-Kurdish friendship and supporting independence for Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Jewish-American lawyer Alan Dershowitz joined the honorary board of the Brussels-based Jewish Coalition for Kurdistan last month, along with Irwin Cotler, a former justice minister of Canada, and Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, two well-known hunters of Nazis from Germany, the group’s founder and president, Joel Rubinfeld, told JTA Wednesday.
Also on the honorary board of the coalition are Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Charles Tannock, a British lawmaker at the European Parliament and foreign affairs and human rights spokesman for the UK Conservative delegation.
The unveiling Wednesday of Rubinfeld’s group is among several high-profile actions in support of Kurdish national aspirations by Jews following the September independence referendum in Kurdistan, the autonomous region in northern Iraq.
On Friday, Bernard-Henri Lévy, a French-Jewish philosopher and longtime supporter of Kurdish independence, will attend a screening at the United Nations headquarters in New York of his documentary film on the subject titled “Peshmerga,” which is the Kurdish-language name of the Kurdish combatants. Levy is not a member of the Jewish Coalition for Kurdistan.
Rubinfeld is a former president of the federation of French-speaking Jewish communities of Belgium and founder of the Belgian League against Anti-Semitism. He unveiled the pro-Kurdish group while in Israel, where he is slated to attend a first-of-its kind conference on Kurdish independence at Israel’s Knesset.
Scheduled for Nov. 29, the 70th anniversary of the successful vote on the UN Partition Plan for Palestine, the event is titled “Kurdistan and Israel: Together Toward Peace and Stability in the Middle East.” The conference is being organized by Zionist Union lawmaker Ksenia Svetlona. In addition to Israeli lawmakers, members of the Kurdish Jewish community and activists like Rubinfeld, Kurdish civil society leaders also will attend.
“It’s natural that such an event should take place in Israel, which is today the best ally of Kurdistan today, and perhaps its only one, unfortunately,” said Rubinfeld, who began lobbying for the Kurdish national cause two years ago. “There is widespread understanding of the rightfulness of the Kurdish cause and its strategic importance” in Israel, he added.
Israel was among the first countries in the world to support the establishment of a Kurdish state following a statement on the issue by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel in the past had remained silent on Kurdish national ambitions, which Turkey, a major trade partner of Israel and previously also a key ally, has long opposed.
While a majority of voters in Kurdistan supported independence in the September referendum, the Iraqi government said it does not recognize the referendum’s results and implemented various sanctions, including a ban on all outgoing and incoming flights from the Kurdish autonomy. Amid pressure from Baghdad, Kurdish militia soldiers last month ceded dozens of forward positions to Iraqi army troops, in what Rubinfeld decried as “a great accomplishment for Iran.”
Iran is widely seen as dictating various policies and actions of the government of Iraq. “The Peshmerga were abandoned by the United States under Donald Trump,” charged Rubinfeld.
Following clashes between Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers and Iraqi Security Forces in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk in October, President Trump said he is “not taking sides.” The State Department said it “strongly opposes” the referendum on independence, preferring a dialogue facilitated by the United States and United Nations.
“There is a kinship between the two peoples, the Jewish one and the Kurdish one, that transcends merely political calculus,” Rubinfeld said. “We are two nations of several millions people who by and large both stand for Western values such as tolerance, progress, equal rights for women and who, in the Middle East and beyond, stand up to tyranny and fanaticism.”
Rubinfeld added that the Israeli flag is to many Kurds a second national symbol “because they identify with Israel and the Jews.”
Iraq’s parliament in Baghdad voted last month to criminalize flying the Israeli flag in the country, after they appeared at several Kurdish rallies in the lead up and aftermath of the referendum.
For far too long, the right-wing parties in Israel have flirted with the neo-Nazi and antisemitic elements in Europe.
Two hundred thousand Jews were betrayed and murdered by Poles during the Holocaust. This estimation belongs to Prof. Jan Grabowski, the author of the chilling book Orgy of Death that was published in Poland in 2011.
Grabowski, a well-established and revered historian, admits this estimate is very conservative and that the number could be dramatically higher. He wrote a extensive research on involvement of Poles in the Holocaust; was vilified by the local media; sued the publication; and won the case (Haaretz February 11, 2017). Here is a quote cited in the book from a diary that belonged to Stanislav Jeminsky, a teacher from the city of Lukov who died in Majidanek concentration camp in 1943:
Grabowski was vilified for this important research, as many in Poland believed that he was tarnishing Poland’s image and washing his country’s dirty laundry in public. The right-wing Law and Justice Party promised to put an end to all that.
And now comes the law. “Whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation or the Polish state of being responsible or complicit in Nazi crimes or other crimes against peace and humanity or war crimes, should be subject to a fine, or a penalty of imprisonment for up to three years.”
What does it mean to accuse the Polish nation? Were hundreds of thousands of Polish murderers and accomplices part of the Polish nation or not? When an individual does something outstanding – such as winning a Nobel Prize or inventing a life-saving medicine – that person usually receives nation-wide honor and the whole nation takes pride, even if the state never supported, encouraged or sponsored the individual. And if hundreds of thousands of individuals commit horrific crimes – crimes that are being encouraged by a significant national institution such as the Catholic Church, for example – can these individuals be considered to be a part of a nation? I believe the answer is clear.
NOT ONLY Poland tries to distance itself from the Nazi crimes. Hungary and Croatia are whitewashing the histories of their respective governments that collaborated with the Nazis. Ukraine, in its quest for national heroes, celebrates Stepan Bandera and armed militias that took part in the extermination of Jews during the Holocaust. In Lithuania, dozens recently marched near the site where 170 Jews were executed, with banners of “Pepe the Frog,” a symbol popular with extreme-right and antisemitic movements in the US. In many countries the names of collaborators still remain a dirty secret, closely kept by the government, while their right-wing leaders try to distance themselves from the unwanted past.
How should Israel react to these attempts to rewrite history? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once said the world understands strength and power. Well, this is exactly the moment to stand firm and oppose these attempts, to denounce them without fear, for the Jewish nation experienced enough fear in its long history. The Jewish state is obliged to protect the historical truth, to battle the glorification of the murderers, to cry out loud: “Never again.”
It’s unthinkable that some of those who deny the Holocaust, the leaders and the activists of distinctively antisemitic, sometimes even neo-Nazi movements, visit the Jewish state. They enter the country that was created from the ashes of the Holocaust and are welcomed here by some politicians with extremely short historical memories.
In 2011, the Belgian far-right leader Filip Dewinter – the former head of the Vlaams Belang Party, whose members openly deny the Holocaust and glorify the Nazis, was welcomed in Israel by Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis. In 2016, Heinz-Christian Strache, now vice chancellor of Austria, whose Freedom Party mourns the fall of the Third Reich while countries around the world celebrate victory over the Nazi Germany, was invited to Israel by Likud MKs.
When Israel allows such visits, it helps the neo-Nazis and the antisemites around the globe to promote hate, violence and racism. Last week, when the whole world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I submitted a bill that will prevent visits in our country of those who preach hatred against the Jews and adore Adolf Hitler.
For far too long, the right-wing parties in Israel have flirted with the neo-Nazi and antisemitic elements in Europe. It’s time to present a new policy in this regard. Parties and movements that deny or justify the Holocaust – and leaders who preach hatred toward Jews, Muslims or any other group, whether in their countries or abroad – are not our friends. And they will never be.
The writer is an associate professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a policy fellow at the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, and a member of Knesset for the Zionist Union.
Zionist Union lawmaker: It has been a long time since an MK appeared officially in Turkey
In a sign of improving government ties, an Israeli and a Turkish think tank are set to hold a joint event in Istanbul with an MK and a Turkish Foreign Ministry official.
MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union), who is to participate in Friday’s session with Turkish Foreign Ministry official Mesut Ozcan, told The Jerusalem Post that “it has been a long time since an MK appeared officially and publicly in Turkey.”
The event is the latest in a series since 2012 between the Ramat Gan-based Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and the Global Political Trends Center (GPoT) at Istanbul Kültür University, and supported by Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation.
Dr. Nimrod Goren, head of the Mitvim Institute, told the Post that the continued meetings in Turkey, the US and Israel kept a channel open during times when the Turkish and Israeli governments were at loggerheads.
Their meetings produced policy recommendations on how to improve relations and on regional development. When the Turkish experts were in Israel they met with Foreign Ministry officials and members of the Knesset, he noted The Israeli delegation in Turkey met with former Turkish diplomats.
Muhammed Ammash, a researcher and project officer at GPoT, told the Post that from the Turkish point of view, “it is important to have stable allies in the region.”
Higher level security cooperation could be resumed soon after a deal is reached, and after a period of confidence building there could even be a return to military cooperation.
We both face the threat of terrorism in the region and border Syria, Ammash said.
Svetlova said ways are needed to improve Israel-Turkey relations on the ground, and not only at the top level.
Asked about those who oppose rapprochement because of the Islamist ideology of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling AK Party, she responded that the Prime Minister’s Office supports it and that sometimes it is necessary to reach a deal even when there are fundamental disagreements.
“It is not all black and white,” she said, adding, “I do wish to repair relations with Turkey, but not at any cost.”
The MK said that she has not yet seen the draft of the agreement that is being negotiated between Ankara and Jerusalem.
Goren said that former Turkish ambassador to Israel Ahmet Oguz Celikkol, who was humiliated six years ago when then-deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon sat him on a low couch during a meeting broadcast on TV, is also expected to attend Friday’s meeting.
Ayalon summoned Celikkol in January 2010 to protest against a Turkish television drama that portrayed Israeli diplomats as masterminds of a child abduction ring.
Ayalon invited media crews to the beginning of the meeting in Jerusalem and pointed out there was no Turkish flag on the table. He also said he was deliberately avoiding a handshake with the ambassador.
The goal is of the meeting in Istanbul is to examine what an Israel-Turkey agreement means for bilateral ties, regional dynamics, and Israeli- Palestinian relations, continued Goren. In addition, the meeting is designed to ensure that the agreement leads to diverse channels of cooperation between the countries.
As an example he mentioned that a delegation from the Turkish Red Crescent Society was in Israel this week hosted by Magen David Adom.
Asked about the chance of tensions flaring once again when there is another war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, he replied that “differences will remain and particularly the Palestinian issue.”
He said that during the first years of Erdogan’s term as prime minister, relations were better, though not without problems.
Goren asserted that there is a linkage between Israel-Turkey relations and the peace process with the Palestinians, and that Israel can continue to expect criticism on this front as long as there is no progress.
“Having an agreement is a major achievement, but it still requires successful implementation and constructive marketing to the public. The meeting in Istanbul is set to produce recommendations in this regard,” said Goren.
Reuters contributed to this report.
When Islamic State targeted Yazidis for genocide in 2014, Israelis such as Lisa Miara, Idan Barir and Ksenia Svetlova stepped forward to raise awareness and say ‘never again’.
Asking what it means to say “never again” continues to haunt many, especially in the context of the ongoing wars in the Middle East. One instance where that question is perhaps especially relevant is the 2014 Yazidi catastrophe in Iraq.
IDAN BARIR – a PhD student in Tel Aviv University’s history department who researched Yazidi history and culture – vividly recalls August 2014. Islamic State had attacked an area in northern Iraq populated by the Yazidis, a religious minority.
“They [the Yazidis] were in need of someone to help them. They were looking for an Israeli to help and I was the only Israeli they knew. I was bombarded [by pleas]… asking for help.”
At the time, hundreds of thousands of Yazidis were fleeing ISIS to Sinjar Mountain and then onward, often via Syria, to displaced persons camps in the Kurdish region of Iraq.
“Gradually it [the requests for help] stopped. It took me a year to know it wasn’t going to work. Israel has other interests that don’t make it possible for Israel to help,” says Barir.
The genocide of Yazidis in 2014 by ISIS has become a defining moment of this decade. ISIS sold more than 5,000 women and children into slavery and murdered thousands of men. So far, some 45 mass graves containing the remains of men and elderly women have been found scattered across dozens of villages around Sinjar. Hundreds of thousands of Yazidis live in refugee camps and some have sought shelter abroad.
During the genocide and after, many people, especially Jews, were impacted by its similarities to the Holocaust. Like scenes out of the Einsatzgruppen’s 1941-1942 campaign of extermination in eastern Europe, Yazidis were gunned down and buried in mass graves. Similarly to what happened to Jews, captured Yazidis were numbered and moved like cattle and used as slaves; Yazidi women were photographed and recorded before being sold into slavery.
Barir, 37, from Givatayim, is a research associate in the Forum for Regional Thinking, with a concentration on minorities in Iraq, and a member of Maktub, the Arabic-Hebrew Translators Forum at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
He recently released a book of Yazidi poetry called I Own Nothing Save My Dreams, an anthology of poems written after the genocide. It was released in 2017 with Hebrew and Arabic translations of the poems.
“It all began 12 years ago when I was doing my MA thesis and looking for a subject that wouldn’t bore me to death,” he tells of his fascination.
He wanted to concentrate on minorities, and when he found out about Yazidis, it became an instant interest of his.
“When I started on the project I had an idea to do something related to their religious practices,” he recalls. “After a year and a half working on this, I had heard a lot from them. The Yazidi story and view of the world are so similar to that of the Jews. They suffered a long string of persecutions and attempts at annihilating the entire community and forcibly converting them to Islam.”
Like Jews who suffered expulsions throughout history, Yazidis count more than 70 cases of attempted genocide against them and they recall key persecutors.
Barir, who had spent time interviewing Yazidis who live in Germany, decided to concentrate on collective memory. Through it all he became friends with dozens of community members.
KSENIA SVETLOVA, now a Zionist Union MK, is another Israeli who found herself very much involved in the Yazidi situation.
In 2014 she was a journalist.
“As a reporter I followed news. To my horror, the news spread quickly. We learned that they [the Yazidis] were trapped on Mount Sinjar.”
The whole world knew, says Svetlova.
“It’s not the 1940s when people didn’t know and there was some excuse,” she recalls. “It was televised – a genocide televised – and it made me think.”
For Svetlova, 40, who was born in Moscow and came to Israel in 1991, the struggle to help Yazidis has meant raising awareness in the Knesset, most recently through hosting a conference on the subject last month in the Knesset.
Svetlova has a background in Middle Eastern studies and the Arabic language.
For 14 years she was a journalist in Israel and concentrated often on Arab affairs.
She knew about Yazidis from courses at the university, but the 2014 massacres brought back memories of her own family’s suffering in the Soviet Union during the Holocaust era.
“We know a group is being slaughtered and no one is doing anything; it made me feel vulnerable and I was thinking of ourselves here. What if something like this happens here and no one comes? In the 21st century genocide can happen anywhere.”
She recalls former UN secretary-general Butros Butros-Ghali expressing surprise in the 1990s that the Rwandan genocide was carried out with machetes.
“It was not a huge group [that perpetrated the genocide]; it was not undefeatable. So why did it happen?” But what can Israel do? “We are not a big empire, we perhaps cannot get involved in the Iraq war, but we can do something for survivors, people saved from this hell.” She says it was important to raise awareness and bring the Yazidi cause to the attention of Israelis.
“There is a clause in the foreign budget called humanitarian aid. It’s absurdly low, it’s lower than in the 1970s and 1960s when we were a poorer state,” she says. Why isn’t more being spent to help genocide survivors today? Even a small state can do something.
As a Knesset member she says that it is an obligation to ask the right questions about the amount and direction of aid. She has also sponsored a bill that would recognize the Yazidi genocide.
“No one should object to this.”
However when it comes to a vote later this year, the “true colors” of various Knesset members will become clear. “As far as I know, this is first time we would recognize a foreign genocide. It is a precedent.”
From Jerusalem to Iraq
Lisa Miara, 56, president and founder of the Spring of Hope Foundation, who works to liberate women and children from ISIS and to rehabilitate them, first came face-toface with the Yazidi genocide at a camp in Iraq in 2015.
Miara, who came to Israel from the UK in 1975 and lives in Jerusalem, explains: “I was invited as part of a legal team doing research for litigation against funders of the terrorist regime of Saddam Hussein,” she recalls. “I walked into the Halabja Memorial Museum on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day 2015 and was wiped out seeing another people and group destroyed by gas through fear and hate.”
Then she traveled north to the city of Dohuk, closer to the Turkish border, where there were displaced persons’ camps for Yazidis.
“My journey was to go up and do research on the genocide of Yazidis. We went to the Shariya camp. It was one of the first camps erected by the UN after the August 3 commencement of the genocide, about three months after.”
She says the camp was in shocking condition. It had been constructed without experience, and there was a lack of privacy.
“It was one of the worst camps in that sense. Originally it held 24,000 Yazidis who had escaped from Sinjar area.” There were also women in the camp who had escaped ISIS, who had been sold by multiple male captors and horrifically abused. Miara decided she would stay and work with the victims.
Miara, speaking by phone from the Kurdish region of Iraq, juggles her work with volunteers as she discusses the work her group is doing for Yazidi survivors.
“We have an office and house for volunteers and a storeroom center where we distribute 15 to 20 tons of goods a week,” she says. There are classrooms and her NGO is building a community center on 0.2 hectares of land in the camp.
“It’s a therapy-through-arts center, but we call it a community center, [with concentration on] arts, drama, English – psychological diagnosis through the arts.”
Miara’s journey to Iraq wasn’t predictable.
Born in London, her eldest son was injured in a terrorist attack in Israel in 1998.
Consequently, she established SOHF to work with terrorism victims. Through that she became interested in Saddam Hussein’s crimes.
The sight of the Yazidi refugees crammed into their camps inspired her to devote time to this cause. She says that of the 24,000 originally living at Shariya camp, some 4,000 have emigrated to Germany since 2015.
“I connect it with our work in Jerusalem.
All these years of intifada and we have buried so many [in Israel]. After the bombing at Café Moment [in Jerusalem in 2002], something in me was not able to just keep burying our kids and walk away,” Miara recalls.
She says the work with Yazidis is a form of tikun olam, a Jewish concept of helping others.
“If you touch one person, you can affect a universe.”
But the struggle has been “diabolical” and “overwhelming,” she says. Looking at thousands of people in need of basic services, without international organizations providing aid, she wonders “if the UN can’t do this, who the heck are we?”
A special role
“I was naïve in the beginning,” says Barir about his attempts to get Israel to do something about the genocide in 2014. “I basically thought Israel should take a stand in whatever way possible, in a moral way even, to say that ‘never again,’ which is the Israeli motto, should be applied to the Yazidis, on the moral level.”
Barir says Israel had many other options on the table.
“It could take them all [as refugees] or do nothing,” he argues.
“Between those poles you have endless possible actions. You could symbolically invite 500 Yazidi families or orphans or women who had been captives. Israel could start a plan of offering medical assistance.”
But it didn’t happen, he recalls.
“So I figured out it might be best to work on other options, helping and harnessing not Israel as a state, but harnessing Israelis, people to people – Israeli solidarity, private people.” One way to do that was to harness people’s stories and speak on the media and raise awareness.
Barir also noticed that Yazidis were publishing poems on Facebook in the wake of the genocide. He began collecting poems, sharing them and translating them. That eventually became a book. Many Yazidis speak Kurdish, but they write in Arabic. After years of labor, Barir is now ensuring that this poetry is shared with new audiences.
“It touched people on a personal level. A lot found it similar to Holocaust poetry; it moved them and struck a chord for them. Many Arabs and Palestinians found it similar to their national Nakba poetry and found it touching.”
Miara agrees that Israel has a special role to play.
“We as Israelis have something to offer, and doors have opened because I am Jewish and Israeli and there is respect for Israel, for Jewish people and years of parallel history,” she says. But 2,000 women are still missing, ISIS has not been defeated, and the Kurdish region and Iraq face many challenges ahead. Miara says the lack of long-term commitment by international NGOs and the media still surprises her.
According to Svetlova, everything starts with education. “When teachers talk about ‘never again,’ the message that should be sent is that it should never happen to anyone – not just to us. When we talk about the Holocaust, of course it is unique, but many horrible things happen in the world. Are these things being discussed enough? “We are still at the beginning of this journey of connecting Israel, Jews and Yazidis and raising the world’s awareness.
“I was surprised how many people do not know,” she says.
As MKs line up to declare support for Kurdistan, one lawmaker seeks to facilitate contact between Kurds and Israelis
Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel’s Arab affairs correspondent.
A bill introduced in the Knesset and set to be brought to a vote in the coming weeks would see all areas controlled by Kurdish people in the Middle East excluded from the laws prohibiting Israelis from traveling and doing business in enemy states.
MK (Zionist Union) Ksenia Svetlova announced her bill on Wednesday during a rare Knesset conference about relations between Israel and the Kurdish people.
The purpose of the bill, she said, was to ease access to Kurdish-controlled territory for “Israelis who want to be there for academic or commercial purposes, or visiting graves of their loved ones.”
Tens of thousands of Jewish families were forced to immigrate to Israel from Iraq soon after the birth of the State of Israel in 1948. Today, there are almost 200,000 Kurdish Jews in Israel, about half of whom reside in Jerusalem.
The bill, a copy of which was given to The Times of Israel, makes no explicit distinction between Kurdish-controlled areas in Iraq — known as the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), where Israelis can travel fairly safely — and other Kurdish areas, whether in northern Syria or in Iran.
The vagueness is intentional, the bill’s author told The Times of Israel. The legislation is currently meant to refer just to Iraqi Kurdistan, though that could change in the future.
Svetlova, who serves as the head of the Knesset pro-Kurdish caucus, gave a cautious estimate of its chances of being signed into law.
“I’m not saying one hundred percent it will not pass,” she said, adding that she knew many government ministers are “sympathetic” to her initiative.
“But even if it will not pass this time, it will help us put on the table a very important definition: What is Iraqi Kurdistan? Can we continue to treat it just like [the rest] of Iraq?” she said.
Svetlova added: “It’s important for Israeli citizens who are interested in pursuing ties with the Kurds to know that when they come back from Kurdistan they won’t be persecuted by a variety of security agencies, and this is unfortunately what happens now.”
‘We’re happy to be a second Israel’
Wednesday’s conference on Kurdish-Israeli relations was attended by lawmakers from both the ruling coalition and the opposition who expressed deep support for the Kurdish people and their right to self-determination.
The conference was also attended by pro-Kurdish activists from Israel, Europe and Iraq.
In September a majority of voters in the KRG supported independence in a referendum, but opposition from Baghdad and every state in the region but Israel stymied the Kurdish hopes of establishing their own state in northern Iraq for the time being.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly lobbied world leaders to support the Kurdish referendum.
Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan echoed a sentiment common among lawmakers at the conference, saying that though Israel has “limitations” in terms of what it can do for the Kurds due to regional politics, “Israeli civil society can give a lot to the Kurdish population.
“There is a huge gap on almost everything” between the opposition and the coalition, said former minister Tzipi Livni, “but when it comes to the Kurdish people, we all feel the same.”
Ben-Dahan chimed in, “I agree.”
Likud MK Nurit Koren said, “We must do everything we can to help our brothers in Iraqi Kurdistan.”
Svetlova suggested Israel supply the Kurds with agricultural technology that would help wean them off their crucial economic support from Turkey, which opposes Kurdish independence.
Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren called it a “tremendous injustice” that the Kurds, whom he called a “moderate Muslim, pro-Western people deeply deserving of freedom,” do not receive the same amount of international support for an independent state as the Palestinian people, despite being vastly more numerous.
There are around four to five million Palestinians living between Gaza and the West Bank, while the Kurds are estimated to number around 35 million between Turkey, Syrian, Iraq and Iran.
Iraqi Kurds have publicly expressed their thanks for Israel’s support by waving the Jewish state’s flag at independence rallies, prompting Iraq’s parliament to criminalize it.
Kahraman Evsen, president of the Kurdish European Society and one of the speakers at the Knesset event on Wednesday night, said he didn’t mind criticism over Kurds’ ties to Israel.
“It’s a common idea for the people in Kurdistan to say, okay, you reproach us for being a second Israel, but that is exactly what we want, because Israel is a democracy, Israel is a country that is based on the rule of law that protects minorities, is inclusive and has diversity,” he said. “If people are criticizing us for being a second Israel, then we are happy.”
Israel and Egypt are too important to each other to just give up.
Israeli and Egyptian flags merged one into another were at the center of the stage, the president of Israel and others spoke about true friendship, true alliance, true hope. The festive ceremony that marked 40 years since Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel was inspiring indeed.
One small thing put a shade on an otherwise perfect event. Not even one guest from Egypt, apart from the honorable Ambassador Hazem Khayrat, was there to celebrate Sadat’s visit to Israel and the peace accord that followed. Not even one public event on that occasion took place in Cairo.
It’s important to stress that this necessary minimum includes military cooperation between the two frenemies.
During the last few years, since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power in 2013, relations had improved dramatically. The extremely dangerous situation in northern Sinai obliged the leaders of the two countries to work together against the Islamist insurgency on the peninsula.
They also agreed to close ranks on specific issues related to security in Gaza, such as the tunnels that were used to smuggle weapons from Egypt to Gaza and terrorists from Gaza to Egypt. Never before had an Israeli prime minister and an Egyptian president worked so closely with each other, never before could their military discuss issues so freely and work together against security threats.
The representatives of the National Security Council who participated in one of the discussions on the issue at the Knesset actually said that they prefer the military aspect of relations to any other issue, noting the importance of security coordination between the two countries.
Does this mean that since military cooperation is going well, Israel can be satisfied with that and just let go of even a semblance of bilateral relations – diplomacy, commerce, culture etc.? It’s easy to wave off the discussion on normalization of relations with Egypt by stating that the peace with Egypt was always cold, while animosity toward the Jewish state was always the bon ton among the intellectuals and media. However, as it often happens in the Middle East, things can always get worse if unattended and in most cases, they will.
It seems that 40 years since the historical visit, the ice keeps piling on the already frosty relations between the two countries, which keep growing apart in all but one sense, the military. In any other aspect of relations, we witness a dangerous withdrawal from even modest successes of the past.
Today there is no connection between the civil societies – the anti-normalization vibe in Egypt is still very powerful. No academic cooperation is taking place, no visits of prominent intellectual figures such as Saad ad-Din Ibrahim or Ali Salem occur. The Israeli ambassador to Egypt was absent for nine months and returned to the country only after enormous efforts and long negotiations.
Trade between the two countries is non-existent, and even the QIZ (special free trade zones established in collaboration with Israel) are on decline. The Israeli businessmen who used to travel to Egypt regularly fear instability, and the Egyptian companies shy away from direct cooperation with Israel, afraid of backlash from boycott supporters in their own country.
The cooperation in natural gas production has become less promising as well, for the Egyptians have discovered their own enormous gas field. This discovery might jeopardize the already signed deals, but there is something more to it – the very negative attitude to this cooperation on the Egyptian street.
Tourism from Israel to Egypt has almost stopped due to security reasons and only the golden shores of southern Sinai experience a modest renaissance during the Jewish holidays.
And there is of course the media. After some timeout in anti-Israeli attacks, it seems that more and more outlets are going back to what they know so well – conspiracy theories where Israel plays the major roles, blaming Israel for cooperation with ISIS and what not.
All of that means that the circle of Egyptians who are exposed to Israel and Israelis is shrinking alarmingly – no trade, no academic exchange, no tourism, no civil society cooperation. The only Egyptians who get to work with Israelis come from very specific circles in the army, while everybody else is oblivious to Israel-Egypt relations.
Certainly, a renewal of negotiations with the Palestinians that would end in signing a peace treaty between the sides could jump-start the relations not only between Jerusalem and Cairo, but also among Jerusalem and Amman, Riyadh, Abu-Dabi and other Arab capitals. This would change the existing equation between Israel and the Arab world and provide a positive background for normalization.
The question is what will happen if there will be no progress between Israel and the Palestinians in the near future. What if the current situation of no-peace/no-war continues for a few more years? How would it affect the state of relations between Israel and its partners in the Arab world, Egypt and Jordan? There is no doubt that a serious move toward true normalization can only be made when something happens in the Palestinian arena, but until this occurs Israel must do much more. For this it will need a functioning and independent Ministry of Foreign Affairs, some perseverance and possibly some aid from the country that at the time negotiated the peace between Israel and Egypt, the United States.
The key actors in foreign policy in DC should be aware that today the Israeli-Egyptian peace is being emptied of its real meaning, that the situation is deteriorating despite the close military cooperation, and that some of it has to do with statesmen’s indifference to other components of the peace – trade, culture, civil society, diplomacy.
Israel and Egypt are too important to each other to just give up. Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat didn’t.
The writer is a member of Knesset for Zionist Union.