“We are so cynical, and we live in a particularly cynical age,” Tom Kaplan said in a phone conversation the other day. “I find myself rebelling against that every day in one form or another.”
Cynically, it is easy enough to dismiss his passion as an affectation or to argue that there are causes more worthy of attention than the Kurdish people. Yet Justice for Kurds, the organization he had launched together with his friend, the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, is remarkable because it speaks with the clear and thundering urgency the ancient prophets once summoned to help us tell right from wrong. For Kaplan, the abandonment of the Kurds is simply wrong, and righting this wrong can neither be delayed nor dismissed.
It’s not that Kaplan is above calculation. The Kurdish cause is so urgent, he believes, in part because the Kurds are our allies in the war against ISIS, and despite what the smart kids say on Twitter, blithely abandoning allies is never particularly good policy in the long run. But even more resonant is the fact that the Kurds, alone in a corner of the world stirred largely by narrow sectarian calculations, stood up and fought when the fight mattered.
It was the Kurds who, in 2014, held back the tide of violence, battering ISIS along a thousand-mile front. And when the ghouls of the Islamic State were finally defeated, it was Kurds, too, who liberated city after city, freeing Kirkuk, Mosul, and others from their captors. Any other group might’ve decided to choose this dark hour to negotiate for its own benefit, realizing that its position was never as strong as it was in the midst of a battle short on well-trained soldiers. The Kurds fought first and negotiated later. The result, Kaplan said, was the repetition of a familiar historical cycle, ending with the Kurds once again being denied their right to self-determination, and once again being haughtily informed by the leaders of more powerful nations, which had called on them for aid, that the time simply wasn’t right.
The Kurds, Kaplan said, have displayed a “lack of cynicism that is both charming and disappointing.”
America has used the Kurds for its own ends more than once, illuminating the price of their naiveté, but also of our own cynicism. In 1972, when the Shah, bedeviled by Saddam Hussein, urged Henry Kissinger to arm and train the Kurds so that they may rise against the Iraqi despot and weaken him by demanding their independence. Courtesy of the CIA, $16 million was funneled into the operation, which led to the deaths of thousands of Kurdish fighters. Still, grateful for America’s support, Mustafa Barzani spoke in terms of honor and duty, and sent Kissinger three rugs and a gold-and-pearl necklace when the American statesman got married. Three years later, with the Shah and Hussein’s relationship thawing, the Iranian monarch asked Kissinger to call the whole thing off. Barzani was hurt. “Your excellency,” he wrote to Kissinger, “the United States has a moral and political responsibility to our people.” Kissinger never replied. When questioned by the House Intelligence Committee about his betrayal of his Kurdish allies, he replied that “covert action should not be confused with missionary work.” It’s precisely that kind of amoral “realism” that Justice for Kurds hopes to eradicate.
The goal of his and Lévy’s new organization, Kaplan stated, wasn’t to demand Kurdish independence immediately; that, he explained, would have to be coordinated in concert with other nations. But remembering the Kurds and their sacrifice, Kaplan said, is a duty that none of us can deny.
“One day,” he added, “people will look upon this moment and ask where were you when the Kurds were getting pummeled, and these enlightened and noble people were being assaulted by people whose characteristics are exactly the opposite. We’re not delusional. We’re against very entrenched interests, and yet we are sufficiently naïve and idealistic to believe we can make a difference by standing with the Kurds and urging people to express sympathy for the Kurds and say, ‘these people deserve better.’ We must remember our debt to them.”
As we sit down this evening to speak of fleeing the house of bondage, there are few better ways to remind ourselves that the struggle for freedom is a story without end than remembering those, like the Kurds, who still err in the wilderness and still yearn for a promised land of their own.
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