(JTA) — Despite a reported terror threat by the Islamic State, 500 people attended a sold-out screening in New York of a film about Kurdish fighters and a talk with its director, the French-Jewish philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy.
Police provided heavy security for the screening Monday of “Peshmerga” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, including sniffing dogs and dozens of officers. NBC had reported that the authors of the threat claimed to be affiliated with the terrorist group.
Levy, who has produced a number of films in conflict zones, spent many months documenting the fight of the Kurdish male and female combatants for whom the film is named against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. A supporter of Kurdish sovereignty, Levy was in the Iraqi-Kurdish capital of Erbil last month when a majority of voters in a controversial referendum supported independence.
He was able to board one of the last flights out of Erbil and arrive in New York before the Iraqi government blocked the airspace of the Kurdish enclave as punishment for the local Kurdish authorities’ decision to go through with the referendum despite Baghdad’s opposition.
The State Department said it was “deeply disappointed” by the Kurdish regional government’s decision, warning the vote could “increase instability.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said Wednesday that his country was not involved in any way in the referendum, apart from having a “deep, natural, longstanding sympathy of the people of Israel for the Kurdish people and their yearnings.”
Israel’s public position on Kurdish national aspirations has been influenced by its desire not to sour the country’s now strained relations with Turkey.
Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s president and leader of the Islamist ruling party, opposes Kurdish independence both in Iraq and in Turkey, which has a large Kurdish minority that international observers say is oppressed.
Levy told JTA that Israel should embrace an independent Kurdistan, where he said he witnessed many expressions of solidarity and admiration for Israel, including during the vote Monday.
Although supporting Kurdish independence may complicate Israel’s relations with the Turkish government, which have declined amid expressions of hostility by Erdogan in recent years, doing so will not alienate millions of secular and liberal Turks, “who also recognize the Kurdish right” to nationhood, Levy said.
For Kurds, he added, the relationship with Israel “goes beyond an alliance. It is a brotherhood.”
Levy was among several Westerners in Erbil who saw Israeli flags being waved on the day of the vote — a gesture he interpreted as reflecting “a sort of admiration for Israel” and a sense of kinship felt by many Kurds toward the Jewish state.
“I had never seen anything like this anywhere in the Middle East — except Israel,” said Levy, who travels the region extensively and has toured Libya during its bloody civil war in 2011.
The 7 million Kurds living in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey are “a minority surrounded, besieged by 200 million people and hostility. And you can’t compare their situation to Israel, it’s different, but there are similarities and they feel those similarities.”
More generally, he said, a viable Kurdistan “represents a triumph for moderate Islam. For women’s equality and for the values that many people in the West, and Jews especially, share with Kurds.”