Kirkuk and Jerusalem: Cases of Chauvinist Settler-Colonialism

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(January 9, 2019/KDJ) Among the most contentious cities in the Middle East are Kirkuk and Jerusalem. Located in the north of modern Iraq–the Iraqi Kurdistan region, specifically–Kirkuk is an ancient Kurdish city often dubbed “the Jerusalem of Kurdistan.” For centuries, the city had a solid Kurdish majority, with minorities of Turkmen, Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians, Jews, and others.

Jerusalem has long been the capital of the Jews–and only the Jews. No matter how many empires conquered the city–Roman, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Arab, and Ottoman–Jews always remained the majority in the city. It is true that Jerusalem plays an important religious role in Islam and Christianity. Yet Jerusalem is more central to Judaism than it is to Islam or Christianity. And Jewish presence in the city far predates the rise of both Christianity and Islam.

Despite these deep historic ties, Arab politicians, military officials, media personalities, and others have embarked on a two-pronged campaign of settler-colonialism and “narrative theft” regarding both cities. Unless the region’s indigenous peoples speak out, the aboriginal history of both Kirkuk and Jerusalem will go the way of Tenochtitlan and Cahokia under the watchful eye of an enabling international community.

Rise of Ba’athism

Ever since ancient times, Kirkuk was a center of Kurdish life. The city was dominated demographically by the Kurds, although various other minorities lived relatively peacefully alongside them. The collapse of the Iraqi Kingdom in the middle of the 20th Century heralded a new era of Pan-Arab Nationalism–one rooted in racial supremacy. Saddam Hussein’s rise to power was initially viewed by some Iraqis as an alternative to the power structure placed in the country during the British Mandate. Quickly, though, his corruption and brutality proved to be no less prevalent than previous regimes.

The Ba’athist Party appointed Muzhir al-Tikriti as the city’s first Arab mayor in 1969. But rather than simply heralding an era of new ethnic relations in the city, a cruel new process of “Arabization” began. Saddam banned Shiite-Arabs from burying their dead in the holy Shi’a city of Najaf. Instead, they had to bury their dead in Kirkuk–in effect, multiplying the number of Arabs in the city through the dead. Kurdish tombstone inscriptions were also replaced with Arabic to entrench this policy.

In 1963, the brief Ba’athist regime of Ali Saleh al-Sa’adi destroyed 13 Kurdish villages in the region and expelled Kurds from 34 other villages in the city’s Dubz district. These villagers were replaced with Arab settlers. Later that year, Arabs and Turkmen were recruited into armed units formed to harass and attack Kurds in a series of pogroms. The violence and ethnic cleansing only continued and was amplified as the Ba’athist Party consolidated its power and grew in number. Schools, streets, and businesses were renamed in Arabic, and realtors could only sell property to Arabs. Human Rights Watch estimates that between 1991-2003, Saddam Hussein expelled some 200,000 non-Arabs from Kirkuk.

Continued Arab Chauvinism

The collapse of Saddam Hussein didn’t immediately herald the end of Arab Chauvinism in the country. Iraq’s Kurdish peshmerga  forces captured Kirkuk from ISIS terrorists after fighting in 2014, and held it until pro-Iran Shiite mercenaries captured the city three years later. Turkey has referred to Kirkuk as a “Turkmen city” and long sought to prevent Kurdish control over the region. Meanwhile, Iran and the central Iraqi government in Baghdad were concerned about potential secession following the 2017 independence referendum in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

The recent return of the city to Kurdish control is still irritating the central government. Following the October 2017 capture of the city by Shiite-Arab, pro-Iran forces, city officials of Kurdish descent were replaced by Arabs and Turkmen. After many Kurds from the region were forced out or fled, Arabs from the south moved in. However, the recent return of the city to Kurdish hands, as well as the demographic majority of Kurds in Kirkuk, seems to have prevented the same kind of Arabization process that Saddam Hussein implemented decades ago.

Jerusalem in 1967

Jerusalem is no different. Even during Ottoman times and the British Mandate period, Jerusalem always retained a Jewish majority–including in “Arab East Jerusalem,”  as many like to label it. The 1948 invasion of Jordan’s Arab Legion resulted in the ethnic cleansing of Jews from the Old City, including the Jewish Quarter. The Jordanian occupying forces destroyed old Jewish cemeteries, turning them into latrines or parking lots. They desecrated synagogues, Jewish houses and businesses, and holy books. The Jordanian forces replaced the now-departed Jewish population of the east with Arab settlers, both from Jordan and other parts of Mandatory Palestine who fled the violence. Jews were forbidden from visiting holy sites.

In 1967, Israel liberated the east of Jerusalem after crushing the Jordanian, Egyptian, and Syrian armies in the Six-Day War. All had prepped, yet again, for the destruction of Israel. This time, they lost Judea & Samaria (the West Bank), the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula.  Israel later handed back the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and gave Gaza to Palestinian self-rule.

However, the Jewish state rebuilt historic Jewish neighborhoods, villages and towns in the east of Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, which had been emptied of Jews by the Arab invasion forces. One such area is Silwan. Silwan once was majority-Jewish, populated by olim to Mandatory Palestine from Yemen. Following Arab riots early in the 20th Century, it became devoid of its Jewish community, who were replaced by Palestinians. A controversial 2015 court ruling ordered the Palestinian community to be compensated and evacuated, while the descendants of the original Yemenite-Jewish community return, rebuild, and open a Yemenite-Jewish heritage center in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, other Jewish neighborhoods are being rebuilt throughout eastern Jerusalem, in communities that were once forced out by Arab invaders.

Narrative Theft

The Arabs of Iraq & the Palestinian Territories, in order to stymie the return of indigenous populations to Kirkuk and Jerusalem, have stolen the narrative of Kurds and Jews. Whitewashing their own human rights abuses and history of colonialism in the Levant, the Arab political & educational system has invented the terms “Kurdification” (often referring to Kirkuk) and “Judaization” (often referring to Jerusalem). Using such terms, the Arabs claim that Kurds and Jews are forcing minorities (predominantly Arab people) out of their “native” cities, where their communities have existed for “thousands of years” and have an “Arab and Islamic identity.”

It matters little that in both cases, Kurds and Jews have vowed to negotiate over the status of the cities, perhaps unfairly. In peace negotiations under former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, Israel offered to cede much of eastern Jerusalem to the Palestinians for a capital of a new Arab state. Meanwhile, Kurdish leaders have repeatedly expressed a willingness to coexist with minorities in Kirkuk and share the city.

Absurdly, the Palestinians have denied Jewish history in Jerusalem–which predates the Arab Conquest of the Middle East by thousands of years–while calling excavations of historic sites in the city a “colonial method of ethnic cleansing.” The reason why is obvious: for decades, the Palestinians have stolen the Jewish narrative & history, pretending to be an innocent, indigenous people victimized by foreign usurpers. The fact that their ancestors brutally colonized Iran, Mesopotamia, the Levant, and North Africa is erased out of history. When the Israeli government launches excavations and archaeological projects in Jerusalem, it proves the truth: that Jewish presence in the region far predates the spread of Arabs out of the Arabian Peninsula, thus, invalidating the Palestinian claim of Jerusalem being an “Arab and Islamic city.”

Equally troubling is the usurpation of the victim narrative in Kirkuk by Arabs there. When Kurds began returning to Kirkuk in 2014 after defeating ISIS there, Arabs and some Turkmen began to complain that “their city” was being unfairly seized. In doing so, they failed to recognize that the city had historically been majority-Kurdish, and accused the returning Kurds of enacting ethnic cleansing. It is true that Turkmen did suffer from Saddam’s Arabization policies in the city alongside the Kurds.  Yet recently, Kurdish authorities were protecting the city from jihadists and trying to cooperate peacefully with Kirkuk’s minorities. Sadly, it has not stopped hostility towards a renewed Kurdish presence in the city, let alone a Kurdish majority.

An Indifferent World

The international community, sadly, doesn’t seem to share the urgency for justice in regards to aboriginal claims to Kirkuk and Jerusalem. The UN did nothing when it came to Saddam’s Arabization plan in Kirkuk, and came out against the Kurdish independence referendum in 2017, paving the way for Iran-backed militias to occupy the city. The UN also joins the Arab facade of Jerusalem being “occupied” and denying the historic truth of Jewish holy sites in the Old City.

It is true that in an age of Arab political weakness, the rise of populism in Europe, and US President Donald Trump’s hostility towards the United Nations, such resolutions matter very little and have no “teeth.” The greater concern comes from the indifference that political institutions worldwide display when it comes to the historic injustice of the Arab Conquest, the systemic racism the Arab World displays against indigenous peoples, and the erasure & rewriting of history the Arab World uses as a political tool.

Rather than seeking to make amends and engage in peace talks, Arab governments continue to act like blameless victims of imperial aggression. Knowing that they cannot take Kirkuk and Jerusalem by force outright, they seek to circumvent armed conflict via attrition (terrorism) and international forums. Younger generations of people may be exposed to these “alternative facts” and grow up to believe them. The theft of indigenous land–Kurdish Kirkuk and Jewish Jerusalem–was bad enough, yet ultimately defeated. However, the cultural appropriation of the Kurdish & Jewish historical narratives is ongoing, and needs to be fought vociferously if justice is to prevail.