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Reading Eichah in the shadow of the Yazidi genocide

Jews have known enough intentional brutality to make it impossible to ignore the suffering of the Kurdish minority

“How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people!
She is become as a widow, that was great among the nations.”

Jews around the world read these words from the Book of Lamentations on Monday night, the start of the somber Tisha B’Av fast day. Sitting in the dust, they mourned the loss of the two Jewish Temples in Jerusalem. It was not only a time to remember the loss of Jewish sovereignty and proximity to God, but also to weep over the wholesale slaughter of Jews by Babylonian and Roman forces.

The images in Lamentations are vivid, raw, chilling.

Their visage is blacker than a coal; they are not known in the streets…Their skin cleaves to their bones; it is withered, it is become like a stick.They that are slain with the sword are better than they that are slain with hunger; For these pine away, stricken through, for want of the fruits of the field. The hands of the pitiful women have boiled their own children.

The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE was no less brutal.

“Throughout the city people were dying of hunger in large numbers and enduring unspeakable sufferings…” writes Josephus Flavius, who witnessed the horror with his own eyes. “Gaping with hunger, like mad dogs, lawless gangs went staggering and reeling through the streets, battering upon the doors like drunkards.”

But Jews are not the only people stopping this week to recall famine and thirst, rape and exile, a national tragedy that befell their people.

Today, August 3, 2017, marks three years since the Islamic State captured the Yazidi city Sinjar and surrounding areas in northern Iraq.

It was the start of the long nightmare for the Yazidis, a long-persecuted Kurdish-speaking religious minority. For those who have seen the scenes of destruction and spoken with survivors, it is impossible to read Lamentations without one’s thoughts turning to the Yazidi genocide.

On a scorching morning in August 2014, as Yazidis celebrated the end of a fasting period, columns of pickups trucks suddenly appeared on the hills above Sinjar. ISIS quickly surrounded the city, and ordered its residents into government offices to be sorted by age and sex.

Thousands of the Yazidi men were rounded up, summarily executed, and tossed into pits. “After we were captured, ISIS forced us to watch them beheading some of our Yazidi men,” recalled a 16-year old girl. “They made the men kneel in a line in the street, with their hands tied behind their backs. The ISIS fighters took knives and cut their throats.”

“We are orphans and fatherless; Our mothers are as widows.”

Yazidi boys were taken from their families, and sent to ISIS indoctrination camps to be turned into terrorists.

“Her young children are gone into captivity before the adversary.”

The girls and women were about to face their own horror. ISIS members began searching faces of the frightened Yazidi women by the light of hand-held lanterns. They then selected those to be taken away. More than 6,000 Yazidi women, including pre-adolescent girls, were transported to ISIS-held regions of Iraq and Syria to be enslaved.

They were raped, beaten, confined, and sold at auction like cattle. One survivor was sold so many times she is not sure how many times it happened.

“The first 12 hours of capture were filled with sharply mounting terror…,” recounts a UN Human Rights Council report. “At the holding sites, relatives huddled together, trying to hide their adolescent daughters. ISIS fighters forced Yazidi women to give up valuables, including gold, money and mobile telephones. As the fighters did so, women rushed to write and memorize telephone numbers of relatives who, they hoped, might be in a position to assist them later.”

Thousands of Yazidi women remain in ISIS captivity.

“They ravished the women in Zion, The virgins in the cities of Judah.”

Tens of thousands of Yazidis managed to make it to Mount Sinjar before ISIS was able to slam shut their trap around the city. But they were staggering into another type of hell. As summer temperatures topped 50 degrees Celsius, the sick, the young, and the elderly began to fall. Hundreds of Yazidis died on Mount Sinjar as ISIS committed their atrocities in the towns below.

“We have drunken our water for money;
Our wood is sold unto us.
Our pursuers are upon our necks:
We are weary, and have no rest.”

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With time, the Yazidis were able to recover somewhat and achieve moderate victories. Kurdish fighters along with Western special forces were able to break the siege on Sinjar by mid-August. Air drops were initiated by the US and other nations. Countries have begun to officially recognize the ISIS campaign against the Yazidis as genocide. Many brave women escaped their captivity, and some, like the inspiring Nadia Murad, have dedicated themselves to telling the story of their people.

But the nightmare is by no means over. Women remain enslaved, boys are still being indoctrinated in ISIS camps. Yazidis villages remain empty, as even governments that purport to protect them refuse to let them back into their former homes.

How deserted lies the city,
once so full of people!… The elders have ceased from the gate,
The young men from their music.
The joy of our heart is ceased;
Our dance is turned into mourning.

What should Israel and the Jewish people take from the convergence of these two national days of mourning, one ancient and one ongoing? What responsibility does Israel have to a people experiencing tribulations that are all too familiar in Jewish history?

Nadia Murad (R) speaks with Lazar Berman (C) and IsraAID's Navonel Glick at the Knesset, July 24, 2017 (photo credit: Mickey Noam-Alon, IsraAID)
Nadia Murad (R) speaks with Lazar Berman (C) and IsraAID’s Navonel Glick at the Knesset, July 24, 2017 (photo credit: Mickey Noam-Alon, IsraAID)

It is easy to reflexively grasp at excuses for inaction.

Yazidis and Jews do not know each other, and share virtually no history. But today that is changing. Nadia Murad was in Israel in July, sharing her story at a Knesset event hosted by MK Ksenia Svetlova’s Lobby for the Strengthening of Ties between Israel and the Kurdish People (which I advise), and the Israeli NGO IsraAID. Nadia visited Yad Vashem, and gave interviews to Israeli press. With unlimited information available at ours fingertips, ignorance is no longer an excuse. We can no longer say we don’t know.

Others will point to Israel’s many troubles, and will ask why we would spend resources outside our borders while we have so many pressing needs here at home. While Israel’s first responsibility is undoubtedly to its own citizens, it can offer much to Yazidis without affecting its ability to serve the Israeli public. Moreover, as a people still scarred and outraged over the world’s indifference to our impending genocide in World War II, Jews should be the first to offer aid and comfort when it is within our ability to provide it.

But what can Israel actually do? Iraq is still considered an enemy country, and Israel cannot reach Yazidi areas or the refugee camps in which they wait for their chance to return home.

A first step would be to follow the lead of the United Nations, European Union, US, UK, Canada, France and Scotland, and pass a resolution recognizing the Yazidi genocide by ISIS. Svetlova, with Murad by her side, announced a bill on July 24 calling on Israel to recognize the genocide, and recommending that the Education Ministry adopt curricula about the painful episode.

MK Ksenia Svetlova speaks on a panel with Yazidi survivor Nadia Murad on July 24, 2017 (photo credit: Mickey Noam-Alon/IsraAID)
MK Ksenia Svetlova speaks on a panel with Yazidi survivor Nadia Murad on July 24, 2017 (photo credit: Mickey Noam-Alon/IsraAID)

Israelis and Jews around the world can donate to organizations working with Yazidis. IsraAid has been working with Yazidis in Iraqi Kurdistan and in Europe since 2014. Shevet Achim, an Israel-based Christian organization, has been bringing Yazidi and Muslim Kurdish children to Israel for life-saving heart surgery.

As a country that has extensive experience with war and genocidal enemies, Israel has developed unparalleled insights and abilities to cope with national and personal tragedies. Psychologists and social workers have been helping Holocaust survivors, combat soldiers, and civilians under missile attack since the birth of the country. That knowledge would be of great value to Yazidi survivors and professionals if they could be brought to Israel to learn and be treated.

Institutions like Yad Vashem exist to both commemorate the pain of yesteryear and help create a narrative to allow the Jewish people and others to rebuild and create a better future while honoring the past.

Israel can also help Yazidis create a vibrant and prosperous society. Israeli universities can accept a number of Yazidi students to offer them educational horizons that they could never have achieved in Iraq. Health care, agriculture, entrepreneurship – Israeli expertise in a variety of fields represents enormous potential in what Israel could offer.

Finally, refugees. No one would expect Israel to take in tens of thousands of refugees, and rightfully so. But a few hundred Yazidi refugees would not tax Israeli services nor would it have any impact on demographics. Germany has taken in 1,100 female Yazidi survivors to help them recover from their mental and physical trauma.

When Israel is lagging behind Germany and the United Nations on human rights, that is a sign something must change. There is a much Israel and the Jewish people can do, some of which only they can do.

But it will take brave survivors like Nadia and determined politicians like Svetlova to continue spreading the difficult story; it will take national will on the part of Israelis and their elected leadership; and it will take recognition of an ongoing genocide by the Jewish people and a decision that we will never let it happen again.

About the Author
Lazar Berman, a former Times of Israel journalist, holds a Masters degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University. He has worked at the American Enterprise Institute, and served as a Chaplain-in-Residence at Georgetown. Lazar's writing has appeared in Commentary, the Journal of Strategic Studies, Mosaic, The American, and other outlets.
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