Israel: The Great Disconnect

Click here to read Michael Walzer’s response to this essay, and here to read a reply by James B. Rule.

I was attending a friend’s wedding at the Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan. Before starting the ceremony, the rabbi was running through a list of announcements. Amid notices of committee meetings and other events came an injunction that took me off guard—a reminder of the obligation of unstinting support for Israel. The Jewish state, we were reminded, needed always to maximize the strength required to confront its enemies, both immediate and potential.

The nods and murmurs around me suggested that this appeal was entirely familiar in context. For me, it was jarring.

I was trying to imagine my own reaction—in a Presbyterian ceremony like those I grew up attending—to an exhortation from the pulpit to support Calvinist supremacy in Northern Ireland, against demands for equality from Roman Catholics. Surely using a wedding as a springboard for such a message would have gone against the grain. I would have felt like walking out.

In this case I did nothing of the kind, and the happy occasion proceeded without further geopoliticlal intrusions. But the moment stuck in my mind. It pointed to the stunning disconnect between the attitudes of many American liberals toward Israel versus our thinking about other political regimes, including our own.

Communities and Universalism

Western liberalism grew up largely as a challenge to communal states—those based on identifications of religion, ethnicity, language, and other supposedly primordial ties. In the liberal model, obligations between states and citizens have nothing to do with the latters’ communal identifications. Liberal governments protect communities, just as they also protect citizens from communities. Free-thinkers, apostates, members of minorities, and other square pegs in majority communities are at home in liberal states, so long as they meet their obligations as citizens. In this universalistic vision, one may lose one’s rights of citizenship by renouncing them or by being convicted of a crime. But states recognize no favored communities, and hence designate no groups as wrong kinds of people for full citizenship.

Such visions have slowly gained ground over the last two centuries—notwithstanding constant setbacks and reactions. Current waves of Islamism reflect yet another surge of yearnings for a state that will serve as a Procrustean bed, with room for only the right kind of people. The results have been predictably dire not only for non-Muslims in those states, but also for groups deemed not Muslim enough for full citizenship—Sufis, Ahmadis, Shiites under Sunni regimes, and others. And we see similar pressures against the Tamils under the Buddhist Sinhalese regime in Sri Lanka; against non-Russian and non-Orthodox minorities in Russia; and, indee...

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.