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Interview

Kibbutz experience impacted top UK adviser in Iraq

Faced with the dilemma of whether to protest the American invasion from without or shape it from within, Emma Sky chose the latter

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Emma Sky (second left) tours Doura Market in Baghdad in April, 2007 (Courtesy Curt Cashour)
Emma Sky (second left) tours Doura Market in Baghdad in April, 2007 (Courtesy Curt Cashour)

Emma Sky was at a loss for words when asked by a member of the British Iraq Inquiry in January 2011 what training she should have undergone before leaving for Iraq eight years earlier.

“I was trying to think what one-week course you could go on that would equip you to occupy somebody else’s country,” she said. “This was a crazy question, but I thought that my ten years in Israel/Palestine had given me such enormous experiences that helped me develop my instincts on how to approach things in Iraq.”

Responding to a British government request for volunteers to rebuild the country following the fall of Saddam Hussein in June 2003, the petite British Council employee soon found herself responsible for the entire province of Kirkuk, where Kurds and Arabs were struggling for dominance over the oil-rich territory.

In her new book The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (Public Affairs, 2015), Sky describes a decade of trials and tribulations in occupied Iraq, first as Governorate Coordinator for the northern province of Kirkuk under the Coalition Provisional Authority (2003-2004), and then, three years later, as political adviser to General Ray Odierno who commanded the US forces in the country (2007-2010).

British Iraq adviser Emma Sky courtesy Emma Sky

Sky’s book, described by a New York Times book review last week as an “important and disturbing memoir,” is a tribute to the American forces alongside whom she served in Iraq. It oscillates between satisfaction at minor successes in a desperately fragmented country, to deep frustration over America’s ultimate failure to safeguard Iraq’s embryonic democracy.

Under President Barack Obama, eager to end America’s involvement in the country as quickly as possible, the administration effectively handed Iraq over to a sectarian Shiite government loyal to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, tragically squandering human life and vast financial resources in the process, the book argues.

Kibbutz ‘was the ideal society’

Born to a Jewish father whom she never knew, Sky told The Times of Israel that it was her search for identity as a young woman which originally drew her to Israel. “As a young person, you’re always looking for where you belong,” she said.

After graduating from high school, Sky decided to volunteer on Kibbutz Kfar Menachem, a workers’ community established by socialist youth group Hashomer Hatzair in 1939 located midway between Jerusalem and the coastal city of Ashkelon.

“For me it was the ideal society, an imagined community,” Sky recalled her time surrounded by Scandinavian volunteers, underprivileged Israeli teenagers from development towns, and soldiers of Nahal, a program combining military service and community volunteerism.

“There you were, with a bunch of young people, really discussing the meaning of life. These debates about should you refuse to do military service or should you go and join a unit to be a moderating influence happened when I was at a very young and impressionable age,” she remembered.

Israeli soldiers of the IDF 'Nahal Haredi' unit seen during a shooting exercise at the Peles Military Base in the Northern Jordan valley, August 2013 (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers of the IDF ‘Nahal Haredi’ unit seen during a shooting exercise at the Peles Military Base in the Northern Jordan valley, August 2013 (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Sky had just started as an undergraduate at Oxford, focusing first on classics and then on Middle Eastern studies, when the first Intifada erupted in December 1987. She decided that her purpose in life would be “to help bring peace in the Middle East.”

“At the time I didn’t know how, but I thought that’s something I want to dedicate myself to,” she said.

Dashed hopes for peace

That resolve brought her to back to the region, and she began volunteering with Palestinian NGOs in the West Bank. When the Oslo Peace Accords were signed in September 1993 — now an employee of the British Council — she ran institution-building projects for the fledgling Palestinian Authority, as well as programs bringing Israeli and Palestinian civilians together.

“I thought I’d be there for five years until there’d be peace and two states. So after a decade, when the Second Intifada broke out, that’s when I despaired and left,” she said.

When the First Gulf War broke out in August 1990, Sky was an impassioned pacifist itching to take action. She signed up as a human shield, determined to protect the Iraqi population from Coalition air strikes. She never ended up leaving for that war, however.

A memorial candle shines at the ceremony commemorating the 17th anniversary of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination at the president's residence in Jerusalem, October 25, 2012 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A memorial candle shines at a ceremony commemorating the 17th anniversary of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination at the president’s residence in Jerusalem, October 25, 2012 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was a watershed moment for Sky. Believing wholeheartedly that one must do everything in one’s power to support the cause of peace, she attended the Tel Aviv rally on November 4, 1995, where Rabin was gunned down by right-wing extremist Yigal Amir.

“I had though it inevitable that there would be two states for two peoples. But when Rabin was assassinated I could see how one violent individual could destroy the hopes of a generation,” she said. “If you don’t stand up against those individuals, then they’ll win.”

‘If you want to bring about change, you have to compromise’

Sky may have decided to sit out the First Gulf War, but her spirit of volunteerism materialized 12 years later, in the aftermath of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq which toppled the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein.

“I thought: I’ve gained all these skills and experience working in Israel/Palestine for a decade, I’m against the war, but let me go and be a moderating influence, let me go and use my skills to help Iraq,” she said.

‘It’s much easier to be on the sidelines, to be a referee, than it is to actually work within one side to try and bring about a result,’ Sky said

“It’s much easier to be on the sidelines, to be a referee, than it is to actually work with one side to try and bring about a result,” she continued. “I think as I got older, I realized if you want to bring about change you have to compromise. To change others, you’ve got to be willing to change yourself.”

Sky learned that far from simply being “good guys” or “bad guys,” as American soldiers often categorized them, Iraqis could be molded into friends or enemies depending on how they’re treated.

“People can change their opinions,” she said. “From my time in Israel/Palestine I know there isn’t one Israeli opinion or one Palestinian opinion. There are many different shades of opinions, and those opinions change.”

Emma Sky and General Ray Odierno tour Doura Market in Baghdad, April 2007 (courtesy Curt Cashour)
Emma Sky and General Ray Odierno tour Doura Market in Baghdad, April 2007 (courtesy Curt Cashour)

Another lesson gleaned from the Israeli-Palestinian context was that “it’s all about the politics.”

“I had spent a decade trying to find technical solutions to problems, and watched everything fall apart because the politics weren’t right. I had the same sense in Iraq: if we don’t get the politics right, there’s no amount of nation-building or capacity development you can do that will be sustainable.”

Iraqis miss their Jewish neighbors

 

During her time in Iraq, Sky was surprised by the level of Iraqi sentimentality for the country’s bygone Jewish population. At the start of the twentieth century, Jews were estimated to comprise 40 percent of Baghdad’s population, she noted.

“The memory of Jews in Iraq is everywhere,” Sky said, remarking that Youtube clips of traditional Iraqi music commonly circulated in the county were often preformed by Jews living in Israel. “Iraqis see that their music heritage and some of their culture has been kept alive by Iraqi Jews.”

Kurdish President Masoud Barazani (photo credit: Helene C. Stikkel/Wikimedia Commons)
Kurdish President Masoud Barazani (Helene C. Stikkel/Wikimedia Commons)

Once, during a visit with Masoud Barazani, President of the autonomous Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq, Sky was told of an emotional meeting between the Kurdish leader and a congressman’s chief of staff of Kurdish-Jewish descent.

“The chief of staff said to Barazani: ‘you may not remember me, but we’ve met before. I was the little boy who you helped escape from Iraq,'” she said. The American staffer as well as Barazani’s translator were in tears, Sky wrote in her book, and Barazani himself “struggled to maintain his composure.” During his meeting with Sky, Barazani proudly noted that former Israeli defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai hailed from the next village over.

‘The memory of Jews in Iraq is everywhere,’ Sky said

Those days, sadly, are long gone. Today, with the Islamic State gaining control over vast tracts of land in northern and western Iraq, it is doubtful whether Iraq even exists as a state today. It is not only the Jews — who composed the Babylonian Talmud in the land between the two rivers 1,500 years ago — who are now extinct from Iraq, but increasingly also Christian and other minorities whose existence can be traced back millennia.

So what lesson can Israeli decision-makers learn from America’s mistakes in Iraq? For Sky, the most important conclusion is the danger of Islamic radicalization in the absence of a viable political solution.

“If some solution to the Palestinian situation is not found, if there’s no willingness to try and work with the Palestinian Authority, the only alternative becomes the Islamic State,” she said. “The Islamic State is already trying to make inroads into the Palestinian areas. That should be the long-term strategic fear that Israel has. The only way to prevent this is to try and reach a two-state solution.”

Palestinian demonstrators in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, hold Islamic State flags as they protest an American film insulting the Prophet Muhammad, September 14, 2012 (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinian demonstrators in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, hold Islamic State flags as they protest an American film insulting the Prophet Muhammad, September 14, 2012 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Once, a visiting US Treasury official wondered aloud in Sky’s presence why Iraqis hated the Americans so much despite the massive American financial investment in their well-being.

“I remembered Israelis saying: ‘the Palestinians have a high standard of living, they’ve got fridges, they’ve got electricity, they should be grateful.’ They’re not grateful because they don’t like being occupied; they want to run their own affairs.”

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