The last week of military battles in northern Syria, after the United States abruptly withdrew its troops and the invading Turkish army began killing Kurdish civilians and soldiers, has special meaning for Sima Kestenbaum, an Israeli-born resident of Queens.
Kestenbaum is a Kurdish Jew.
The daughter of a Kurdish father who grew up in a heavily Kurdish region of Iraq and moved to Israel at 16, Kestenbaum (maiden name: Aloni), who lives in the Rockaway Park neighborhood, said she has followed the recent events in Syria on cable broadcasts of Israeli TV and through daily phone conversations with members of her family who still live in Israel.
“It’s not fair. It’s terrible. It breaks my heart … I feel very sad,” she said of the images of Kurds – “especially the children” – who have been killed by Turkish soldiers. “My family feels like me.” As far as is known, nearly all the Kurds in northern Syria belong to a branch of Sunni Islam.
Kurds are an Iranian ethnic group native to an area known as Kurdistan — never an autonomous country — that spreads across parts of Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. The victorious Allies promised the Kurds an independent country after World War I, but quickly reneged, leaving the Kurds as a minority, often despised and persecuted, in their respective lands.
Kestenbaum’s father told her of warm relations between Jewish and Muslim Kurds in his native Iraq, and between Jews and Muslims in Palestine “before the state” — before Israel’s independence was declared in 1948.
A century after the Turkish-perpetrated Armenian Genocide that took at least one million lives, Kestenbaum said she and her Kurdish Jewish relatives are scared for the future of the threatened Kurds in Syria.
Several thousand Kurds there have reportedly lost their lives in the first days after President Trump ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. soldiers. The Turkish army immediately filled the power vacuum, aligning itself with the army of Russia.
Kestenbaum said the sudden action of Trump, reportedly after a telephone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who considers the Kurdish troops terrorists and plans to establish a 20-mile-deep “safe zone” left her baffled. “I don’t understand what he’s doing. We are very upset with Trump.”
A U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamist ISIS organization since 2015, the Kurdish soldiers led the multi-nation alliance that toppled ISIS and captured thousands of ISIS soldiers, many of whom have reportedly escaped imprisonment since the fighting began.
According to the University of Washington’s Center for Jewish Studies, about 500 Jewish families remain in the Kurdistan area of Iraq.
Jewish tradition holds that Jews have lived in the region of modern-day Kurdistan since the Assyrian conquest of the Kingdom of Israel in the Eighth Century BCE. Most left in the late 1940s and early 1950s, nearly all settling in Israel. Israel’s current Kurdish Jewish population is estimated at 200,000 – most, like Kestenbaum’s family, in Jerusalem.
In Greater New York, Kestenbaum finds herself a virtually lone Kurdish Jew. There is no Kurdish Jewish community here, she said —just a few other Kurdish Jewish families or individuals, but no Kurdish Jewish synagogues or other organizations. Leaders of Jewish organizations here have difficulty identifying any Jews with Kurdish backgrounds.
Kestenbaum said she attends worship services at a nearby Sephardic congregation.
In addition to Hebrew and English, she speaks a dialect of Kurdish, a west Iranian language related to Farsi and Pashto.
A New York resident for several decades, she said she tries to maintain Kurdish traditions in her home, where she lives with her husband and three children. One of her keepsakes, she said, is a Kurdish cookbook. Her family knows her favorite Kurdish recipes. “We eat Kurdish.”