Rumors flow in Turkey: Kurdish leader is a Jew

ISTANBUL — The war in Iraq has ended, and the Kurds in the country's north emerge as one of the war's great victors, liberating themselves from Saddam Hussein's oppressive rule and declaring an independent state.

To the world's surprise, it turns out that one of the Kurds' top leaders is actually Jewish and that, as a result, the nascent Kurdish country will forge a close alliance with Israel, giving the Jewish state another toehold in the Middle East and access to the oil riches of the Iraqi north.

A far-fetched fantasy? Perhaps, but in the last few weeks, a similar scenario similar has been discussed in various articles in the mainstream press in Turkey, a country watching developments in northern Iraq with great worry.

Turkey, which has a close strategic relationship with Israel, has a Kurdish minority estimated at more than 10 million and only a few years ago ended a decade's battle with Kurdish separatists in the country's southeast that claimed some 30,000 lives.

Turkish leaders fear that any move toward independence by Kurds in Iraq could lead to a revival of the separatist movement among Turkey's Kurds.

As a result, Turkey has been building up its military presence along the Iraqi border, ostensibly to stem a possible flood of refugees from Iraq — but also to pressure the Iraqi Kurds to stay quiet.

In the weeks leading up to the war, the Turkish press was filled with various articles reporting, mostly with suspicion, about the Iraqi Kurds' postwar plans.

A Feb. 17 article in the respected daily newspaper Hurriyet offered an interesting take on the situation: Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party, one of two political factions that control the autonomous Kurdish area of northern Iraq, is Jewish and comes from a long line of Kurdish rabbis, the article claimed.

The article was based on information taken from "The Folk Literature of the Kurdistani Jews," a 1982 anthology that discusses a Kurdish rabbinic family named Barzani, and from work done by a Turkish researcher who found Ottoman documents that refer to a 19th-century Kurdish rabbi also named Barzani.

In the article, the researcher — a history instructor named Ahmet Ucar — said Barzani's "Jewish roots" should lead to a different understanding of the region and its history, since the Hebrew Bible states that the Jewish "Promised Land" stretches from the Nile to the Euphrates, an area that would include Kurdish territory in northern Iraq.

A series of articles and columns in the Haber Turk newspaper, printed after the Hurriyet story ran, took things even further.

"Brothers, we should quit the stories of Mosul and Kirkuk belonging to us," said one column, referring to two oil-rich northern Iraqi cities that some Turks believe were unfairly taken from Turkey when the Ottoman Empire was divided up after World War I. "The real owners have started to come out. I am sure you understand who they are.

"Turkey, don't be asleep!" the column warned.

Yona Sabar, a Kurdish Jewish professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at UCLA and author of "The Folk Literature of the Kurdistani Jews," said the articles are based on an inaccurate reading of Kurdish Jewish history.

According to Sabar, a 16th-century Kurdish rabbi named Shamuel Adoni also was given the name Barzani to signify that he came from the town of Barzan. He was followed by a string of well-known rabbis with the Barzani name, including Asenath Barzani, a woman who was ordained as a rabbi in the 17th century.

But Sabar said it is unlikely that Massoud Barzani is connected to that family.

"Barzan is a very well-known Kurdish tribe, and the Jews who lived in that area were very few," he said.

The Kurdish Jewish population in Iraq, Iran and Turkey probably reached 25,000 at its peak, though almost the entire community left for the Jewish state soon after Israel's 1948 War of Independence. There is no discernible Jewish community left in the area today.

Rifat Bali, a Jewish historian in Istanbul, said the Barzani story is part of a larger theory circulating for the past few years that has particularly strong popular support in Turkey's conservative nationalist and Islamist circles.

"Islamists here always say that Israel has a Kurdish card it wants to play — that it has good relations with the Kurds and it wants to create a Jewish state from the Nile to the Euphrates, and that includes the Kurdish area," Bali said.

"It's fueled, first of all, by the obsession that Jews are behind everything, and that they use in front of them a crypto-Jew," Bali said. "There is also a Turkish fear that the world is looking from the outside and trying to divide Turkey up."

Indeed, a book titled "Israel's Kurdish Card,'' which describes the possibility of Israel expanding its borders through an alliance with the Kurds, has been sold in Turkey for the last few years.