I saw the mass graves of Yazidis murdered by ISIS. It was a genocide and Israel should recognize it.
In December 2015, almost three years ago, I made the long drive into the killing fields of Sinjar in northern Iraq, where Islamic State committed genocide against the Yazidi minority. It was night by the time we got there, to the desolate areas around Sinjar mountain, called Shingal by locals. This was the place where members of the Yazidi minority had fled attacks by ISIS in August 2014.
Scenes of tens of thousands of people huddling, starving and dehydrated, galvanized the US to begin air strikes on ISIS. Yet just beyond where I slept on one of those cold nights in December, ISIS had machine-gunned men and elderly women and buried them in mass graves.
Last week the Israeli Knesset failed to pass a bill to recognize the Yazidi genocide. There are compelling reasons for Jerusalem to recognize the genocide, particularly because Israel is a living example of how people have taken the future into their own hands in the wake of the Holocaust. The Yazidis are a clear case, there is nothing controversial about the issue. They suffered genocide, experts at the UN and EU and others have already agreed on this. No one denies there was a genocide, and recognizing it doesn’t compromise Israel’s relations with any country. Yet Israel’s parliamentary majority chose not to back the bill; the ruling coalition ordered its members to vote against a preliminary reading.
IT’S WORTH remembering how we got here and why recognition should be considered by Israel.
ISIS had been allowed to take over swaths of Syria and parts of northern Iraq in the spring and summer 2014. Cynical and powerful countries in Europe and the West did nothing to prevent the takeover and often turned the other way as thousands of their citizens joined the black-clad ISIS columns of fighters. Social media companies initially did nothing as hundreds of thousands of pro-ISIS accounts tweeted scenes of beheadings and mass killing. Like the Nazis, ISIS crimes began with one group and grew to include others. ISIS began with the mass executions of Shi’ites at Camp Speicher, a former military base they captured in June 2014. While the world watched, more than 1,000 men were murdered, many of them beheaded. Then ISIS expelled all the Christians of Nineveh plains, marking their houses like the Nazis marked Jewish property. The world shrugged, as it had in 1938. Not our problem.
Then ISIS attacked the Yazidi minority in northern Iraq. ISIS prepared meticulously for this offensive against the towns and villages populated by 400,000 Yazidis. It used captured equipment from the fleeing Iraqi army, including US-made Humvees and M-16s to overrun the Yazidi areas. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters fled. In just a few days in August, ISIS massacred thousands of men and elderly women and began selling women and children into slavery. At first people didn’t want to believe this was happening. How could thousands of women be marked with numbers, like Jews had been at Auschwitz, and sold in 2014? But it happened. And it happened as Western countries looked on and did nothing.
Eventually, ISIS made several mistakes. Like Hitlerism, ISIS thought it could conquer the world. But as Hitler ran into Stalin and Churchill, ISIS ran into things it didn’t expect. In Iraq, it ran into masses of Shi’ite militias who flocked to defend Baghdad, and in Syria it ran into Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) who refused to surrender the city Kobani. In the Kurdish region of Iraq, it faced hundreds of thousands of men and women willing to defend their homes. As the Nazis had been stopped at Stalingrad, so the black plague of ISIS was broken in Kobani and in their offensive toward Baghdad in 2014 and 2015. Conveniently, by this time the world had begun to sign on to the US-led international Coalition. Though the Coalition helped defeat ISIS militarily, nothing was done to help victims of the ISIS genocide. No investment has been made in Yazidi villages or Sinjar. I went to Iraq and interviewed many Yazidis seeking shelter in the Kurdistan region, and saw again and again how the international community failed to help.
Four years after the genocide, the displaced Yazidis live in muddy tents, still fearful of being attacked again. Cynical politics in Iraq, including Baghdad’s disputes with the Kurdish region, have prevented Yazidis from returning or even feeling secure. The road to Sinjar, the one I drove on in 2015, is blocked. Yazidis are told to drive through Mosul, where they were sold into slavery. It would be like asking Jews to drive through Hitler’s smoldering Berlin in 1946. They wouldn’t feel safe. But the international community doesn’t care because Yazidis are not seen as important to the future of Iraq. The international community cares about powerful groups in Iraq – particularly politics in Baghdad. Today the US and Iran are in a contest over who will control Iraq. The Yazidis, like Jews in 1946 in Europe as the Cold war began, are victims of history. They simply do not matter in the larger scheme of the Middle East’s power politics.
THE PARALLELS between what happened to Jews in Europe and what happened to Yazidis in Iraq do not have to be exaggerated to make the similarities seem to fit. There is a direct connection.
ISIS is a Nazi ideology. It replaces the Nazi obsession with racial supremacy with an obsession with religious supremacy. It views all other religions besides a narrow interpretation of its own as sub-human and deserving of death, expulsion or slavery. This is the model Nazism used as well. Jews, Slavs, Gypsies and others were to be exterminated, enslaved or expelled to make way for “living space.” Nazism, like ISIS, came up with rules, laws and reasons. Both murdered systematically.
ISIS, for instance, rounded up Yazidis in their towns and often kept them for a few days before separating men and women. The men were systematically machine-gunned to death, like the Einsatzgruppen had done during Hitler’s campaigns in the east. Women were sold. More than 30 mass graves have been found. I saw two of them in 2015.
Like in Europe in 1941, in 2014 in the Middle East there were a large number of willing executioners and collaborators to help ISIS. Many local people in Mosul or Raqqa may claim today that they objected to the crimes, but there was little opposition to ISIS, just as there was almost no opposition to Nazism in Germany in the 1930s. After 1945, people suddenly said they opposed Nazism, which is convenient. But they didn’t want to resist. It was the targets of Nazism, such as the Soviet Union, who resisted with zealous terrible vengeance. Similarly, in Iraq, what ISIS provoked was vengeance by Shia militias. As in the Second World War, the nice Western powers eventually signed on to fight ISIS as they had done Nazism. But it was too late for the victims.
NOW WE come to 2018 in Israel. Western powers are notorious for doing nothing to help genocide survivors. Europe, for instance, takes in refugees, but it mostly takes in those who have the resources or strength to make the perilous journey to get ashore in Europe. European states almost never reach out to help refugees in their place of origin where they are the most vulnerable. So a poor Yazidi family, sheltering and fearful in a camp, afraid of being persecuted again on the way to Europe, gets nothing. Just like the Jews got nothing in 1946. Who today remembers what happened to the Jewish survivors in 1946? Even when the allies had liberated them they didn’t see them as “Jews,” they often saw them as whatever citizenship they held before. A German Jewish victim of Nazism might not be seen differently than their German neighbors upon liberation.
Similarly, a Yazidi is just an “Iraqi” in the eyes of Greek authorities when they arrive as refugees to Europe. No one says, “These people have suffered genocide, let’s create a special camp for them, to comfort them and care for them specifically.” Well, no, that would be “discrimination” against the other refugees. A former ISIS member and a Yazidi victim of ISIS are viewed the same. That’s not a surprise; many Jews who had fled to the New World were surprised to see former Nazis and collaborators coming in as refugees a few years later. Those Nazis are still being discovered.
Israel can do more for the Yazidis, and there is no reason Israel should not be doing more. One simple and symbolic thing that Israel could do is recognize the Yazidi genocide. Ksenia Svetlova, a member of Knesset from the opposition Zionist Union, wanted that to happen. She worked to get support across the political spectrum. Some criticized her for not doing enough, but why didn’t Knesset members from Likud and other coalition parties run to sign on to support recognizing the genocide? Why should she have to “work” hard on what should be a consensus issue? When her bill came for a vote, because the governing parties didn’t want to “lose” a vote to an opposition bill, the recognition was not granted. This was a shame. It would have been very easy for the governing coalition to take up the bill, add a sponsorship to it, and adopt support for Yazidis as a consensus issue. By not doing so, what would have been a largely symbolic gesture, was squandered. Instead, Israel looks more ridiculous for having not recognized this genocide. But looking good is not the best reason for Israel to do what is right. The best reason is because the Yazidis are a vulnerable people, a tiny minority in the region who have suffered greatly at the hands of intolerance.
I DROVE into Sinjar three years ago. It was cold and the towns were mostly deserted. On the way, we stopped at the compound of Qasim Shesho, the bear-like Yazidi warrior who fought against ISIS with dozens of companions near the foot of Sinjar. It was impossible not to think of the Warsaw Ghetto when seeing these people who took up the rifle against an onslaught of modern weaponry that ISIS had. When all seemed hopeless and lost, their people being carted off to slavery and mass graves, they resisted.
After meeting Shesho, we drove over the mountain, where the refugees were sheltering, and down into Sinjar city, which was laced with ISIS mines and tunnels. We went to see the mass graves that had been uncovered. Among the soil was human hair and people’s skulls with bullet holes in the back. Old clothing and blindfolds the victims had worn. This is what the Soviet Red Army had found as they liberated the Nazi death camps. What kind of people zealously gun down huddled men and elderly women and teenage boys? We know who those people were: 50,000 volunteers for ISIS from all over the world. The same kinds of people who flocked to welcome Hitler, who yearned to murder their neighbors.
Years later, I am still haunted by the mass graves, the matted hair, the skulls and clothing. Often when I speak about Yazidis or the genocide, people shrug. There’s lots of suffering in the world, why dwell on this? Maybe because 3,000 Yazidis are still missing? They still haven’t been found. People’s loved ones are still turning up, sometimes sold by ISIS members who have kept them as slaves. Isn’t that shocking? Isn’t it shocking that people were sold on the same social media we use, traded like people trade and buy used clothing? These ISIS members, some of them from the West, would brag about selling virgins and little girls.
Western countries and Middle Eastern countries failed the Yazidis. Israel certainly understands that failure. Every year on Yom HaShoah people stand in silence because of that failure. Every year Israel trains its army so that never again will the people be defenseless against a powerful enemy. Yazidis don’t have a safe place, they are still stuck in camps. The least they deserve is recognition for their suffering.
And then they deserve support to go home or to receive asylum.