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 Kurdish studies program in Tel Aviv illustrates growing relations with Israel

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Kurdish studies program in Tel Aviv illustrates growing relations with Israel  16.5.2012  

The Ben-Gurion University campus in Beersheba, Israel. Photo See Related Links

May 16, 2012

LONDON, — A Kurdish Studies Program was established at the Moshe Dayan Centre in Tel Aviv two years ago. The research center, which focuses on Middle Eastern and African studies, says the program was set up because the Kurds have “grown in importance as a political power to reckon with in the Middle East and all aspects of Kurdish issues -- political, cultural and historical alike -- have emerged as the subject of remarkable scholarly interest.”

Professor Ofra Bengio, a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Centre and head of the Kurdish Studies Program, has been working on the Kurdish issue for more than 30 years and supervising students researching the subject for 15 years. She told Rudaw that the center has students studying both Kurdish dialects, Sorani and Kurmanji, but that the program is not well-known due to a lack of publicity.

"Part of the program is to convene forums and bring speakers in to discuss various aspects. Another part of the program which was started this year is to have a course on the Kurdish language which Ceng Sagnic is leading now. We started with around 10 students, some of whom were lecturers themselves. A third part of the program is to launch a series of Kurdish Studies publications. This series will be published by the Moshe Dayan Centre," she told Rudaw.

The center has held several seminars with guests such Dr. Mordechai Zaken speaking about the Kurds and tribalism in Kurdistan, former Mossad official Eliezer Tzafrir talking on Israeli-Kurdish relations, Dr. Denise Natali speaking about Kurdish nationalism and Dr. Sherko Kirmanji, an expert on the Kurdistan Region in post-war Iraq.

Ceng Sagnic, an M.A. candidate at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Middle Eastern politics and history, teaches Kurdish at the center. He told Rudaw that most students are Israelis who are researching Kurdistan and the Kurds.

"All of my students are Israelis except for one Kurdish young man studying for his master’s here,” Sagnic said. “He did not have a chance to learn Kurdish in northern Kurdistan or Turkey, but is doing so here in Israel. They have made huge progress in Kurdish although they do not believe when I tell them this. You know, any language student will not believe that he or she is progressing unless he or she starts using the language in daily life."

Sagnic added that he is not only teaching Kurmanji. “In my course, I am showing them samples from both classical and modern Kurdish literature and examples from Sorani as well. That's why the course is not a simple language course but … becomes the door to Kurdish discourse, terminology, geography, literature and even politics. For instance, I receive so much attention when it comes to the Kurdish names of cities that they read the Turkish or Arabic versions of them.”

Bengio says that the center want to further develop language courses and cultural activities, and to establish relations with universities in the Kurdistan Region.

“We have made great efforts to develop such relations but unfortunately so far there has not been a positive response from any,” she says of Kurdish universities. “Also, as far as I know, there does not exist a course about the Jews or Israel in any of the universities.”

The professor hopes that one university in the KRG will respond to this “challenge.”

“It seems to me that political inhibitions should not prevent cultural cooperation and the expansion of knowledge of the two societies,” she concluded.

As recently as last Saturday, speculation about Israeli-Kurdish relations was rampant as the Kurdistan Regional Government KRG rejected claims that they were to host Israeli intelligence officers.

The claims came from Iranian officials and show how the Kurdistan Region has unwillingly become implicated in the Israeli-Iranian dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. There have been accusations that intelligence services from both counties operate in the Kurdistan Region.

In the past, Jews lived in the Kurdistan Region as traders, farmers and artisans, but left Iraq after 1948 when they began to be persecuted by Baghdad and headed to Israel. Due to Israel’s policy of supporting ethnic minorities in the Middle East, they established military and political relations with Iraqi Kurds after the 1950s. Israelis supported the Kurds after the uprising in 1991 was crushed, and today there is still a vibrant Kurdish community in Israel.

According to a poll published in the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv in 2009, 66.9 percent of Iraqi Kurds say they support relations with Israel.

Turkish Kurds, however, have been less positive about relations with Israel. It was, after all, Israel that helped Turkey locate and capture Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), in 1999.

Furthermore, Palestinian-Kurdish relations have improved after the fall of Saddam Hussein, who initially supported the Palestinians against Israel. Last year, Palestine opened a consulate in Erbil, and a football team from the Kurdistan Region will participate in the Palestine International Championship in May.

Report by Wladimir van Wilgenburg - Rudaw

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