The Jew, the Copt and the Yazidi
I’ll get to those three in a minute but first, let me tell you what a Muslim friend said to me a couple of months ago. He’s an Iranian-born reporter who lives and works in the United Kingdom — one of the many used-to-be-Muslims who gave up religion once the mullahs took over in Iran. In the past few years he’s spent a lot of time in the Middle East, especially Iraq and Afghanistan.
We were having dinner at his cousin’s house in Topanga. This was shortly after the Charlie Hebdo massacres in Paris. We talked about how strange and unreal it seemed to have Jews killed in Europe just because.
“I think I finally have an idea what it’s like to be a Jew in most parts of the world,” my friend said.
“When I’m in Iraq, I feel relatively safe with other Shias. But I can walk a hundred feet and find myself among a bunch of Sunnis, and I honestly don’t know if I’m going to get out alive.”
It doesn’t matter that he identifies neither as a Shia or a Sunni.
“They find out I was born in Iran, and they assume I’m Shia, and that’s all they need to decide I deserve to die.”
And he certainly can’t let on that he’s renounced religion altogether: For a Muslim, that’s apostasy, punishable by death.
“So I’ve been trying to explain this to people when they talk about Jews and Israel: This is why Israel must exist.”
I don’t know if it’s because it came from a “former” Muslim, or because he had arrived at it by finding himself an endangered minority in what we know as “the Muslim world,” but his assertion struck me as especially poignant. I thought about all the times I’ve heard young Jews in this country proclaim that they are American, not Israeli; that they don’t care about Israel and have no connection to it; that Israel doesn’t have to be a Jewish state; and that one’s not Jewish unless one identifies as a Jew.
It doesn’t matter what you identify as, I want to tell these dreamers.
On Feb. 26, at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, Natalie Farahan of JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) had put together a program titled “The Fate of Religious Minorities in Today’s Middle East.”
JIMENA states its mission as “the preservation of Mizrahi and Sephardi culture and history, and recognition for the nearly 1 million Jews indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa who were displaced from their country of origin in the 20th century.” On this occasion, however, the religious minorities in question were not only Jewish, but also Coptic Christian and Yazidi.
Copts, who number somewhere between 5 percent and 23 percent of the Egypt’s 83 million population, are the native Christians of Egypt. Until Islam conquered the country, they — the Copts — were the majority. After that, especially under Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Pan-Arab ambitions, they became second-class citizens. Much like Jews in hostile territories, they were used as scapegoats by leaders and groups vying for control of the region, hated by local populations and viewed as “not really belonging” after centuries of being there. Most recently, the rise of militant Islam has augured for them what many call a “silent genocide.” Think staged beheadings, complete with cinematic scores, of men in orange suits.
Yazidis, too, predate Islam by centuries. Smaller pockets exist today in Syria, Georgia, Armenia, Turkey and Germany, but the largest population, approximately half a million, live in the area north of Mosul in Iraq. Whether by Ottoman Muslims or secular Baathists, they have been massacred, persecuted, forced to convert and ordered to emigrate en masse since the 1500s. Last year, ISIS forced 50,000 of them to flee into the mountains around Sinjar, where they faced starvation or death from exposure. Those who didn’t escape were slaughtered or forced to convert. Their women were treated as sex slaves and sold at the local market; their girls were forced to convert to Islam and sold as brides, or raped and killed. Children born to mothers in captivity were taken away.
As for the Jews — represented, that night, by Iranian-American reporter and blogger for the Journal, Karmel Melamed of Los Angeles — the largest remaining Jewish community in the Middle East is in Iran. Their numbers have sunk from 100,000 in 1977 to somewhere around 5,000 today (official reports by the government of Iran place them at around 10,000, which is almost certainly a gross exaggeration). For the most part, these remaining Jews feel safe enough to have chosen to stay.
“What do you think the region will look like for you in 10 years?” someone in the audience asked the three panelists at Kol Ami.
The Jews of Iran believe they can outlast the current regime by keeping a low profile and making clear that they condemn Israel at every turn, lest they be identified by the regime as Zionists. The Copts and Yazidis, on the other hand, are engaged in an existential battle with no end in sight. Even if they manage to escape the areas in which ISIS and other Muslim extremist groups have trapped them, there’s little help or even understanding waiting for them anywhere in the world. Their only options seem to be to stay and die, or leave and fall into the hands of hostile forces, or perish on the journey.
It doesn’t matter that Yazidis are monotheists, their religion derived from Zoroastrianism and other Mesopotamian religions; Muslim extremists view them as devil worshipers and therefore deserving of death. It doesn’t matter that the Copts view themselves as Egyptian; the extremists care only that they — the Copts — are Christian.
Elias Kasem, a Yazidi activist who’s traveling the world in a desperate attempt to summon help for his people, put it this way: “To survive, we would need the protection of outside governments, and they’re not interested.”
Where have we heard this line before?
Kasem was born in Sinjar, Iraq and fled the 1991 Gulf war with his family to a refugee camp inside Syria. He traveled at night, and on the way lost his 8-year-old sister. A 2007 bombing of two Yazidi villages in which 800 were killed prompted him to seek international support for his people. Since then, he’s been “everywhere,” including to Washington, D.C.
“The only real help we’ve received [from a foreign government] has been from Israel.”
He sat there on the stage, dressed all in black and looking anxious and exhausted. He had flown into Los Angeles that afternoon to take part in the panel and was flying out again the next morning, to Portland and Arizona and wherever else he may find a willing audience. With him was another Yazidi man whose family was last seen stranded in the mountains. He had no idea what’s become of them.
“The world is not interested in what happens to us,” Kasem said, “because we have nothing of value to offer.”
Nothing of value, that is, but an ancient culture, a thousand years of history, tens of thousands of human lives — which isn’t much in the world of realpolitik compared to oil, industry or the promise not to use one’s nukes.
It doesn’t matter what you identify as, I want to tell the young Jews who are so cavalier about their origins; that the Holocaust was 70 years ago; that Jews were driven out of Arab countries on a fortnight’s notice. It doesn’t matter what you think of the politics or policies of one Israeli government versus another, how you feel about the Palestinian issue, or about Judaism, or other Jews. Every day in some part of the world, for some minorities, extinction is a concrete, imminent reality. For them, help will not come soon enough or at all.
This is why, as my friend the reporter said that night in Topanga, Israel must exist.
Gina Nahai’s new novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”