Recruiting Jews to the Cause of Persecuted Yazidis, One Synagogue at a Time


After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Yotam Polizer, co-CEO of the disaster relief organization IsraAID, called his friend Haider Elias in Houston to see if IsraAID could help him.

Instead, Elias countered with his own proposition: His home was spared by the flooding, so he and half a dozen members of his religious community — a Middle Eastern ethnic group called the Yazidis — offered to work alongside IsraAID packing possessions and removing debris from flooded Jewish homes.

“There is really a shared destiny,” Polizer told an audience on Sept. 17 at University Synagogue in Brentwood, sitting next to Elias. “There is a unique partnership between the Yazidis and the Jews.”

Because of their historical proximity to genocide, American Jews are a prime target for Elias’ effort to lobby the United States government to come to the aid of this ancient religious sect as it struggles with an ongoing genocide at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

During two trips to Los Angeles last month, Elias addressed the local Jewish community in a series of synagogue visits, private dinners and High Holy Days appeals, hoping to mobilize them to lobby the United States on behalf of displaced and enslaved Yazidis. With Yazidis a population of well under 10,000 in the United States, Elias is increasingly relying on Jews to join the ranks of his supporters.

“As soon as we talk to a Jewish community member, they understand it right away,” Elias said in a phone interview after he returned to Texas. “They absorb it. They relate. They know exactly what is happening. It’s very hard for some other communities to understand.”

The Jewish community has loomed large on his recent travel schedule. In late July, Elias flew to Israel and visited Yad Vashem with fellow Yazidi activist and former sex slave Nadia Murad.

In September, he spoke on four panels in West Los Angeles with Polizer, whose group has offered aid and counseling to Yazidis in Iraq and Europe, and Rabbi Pam Frydman, an activist who heads the Beyond Genocide Campaign for the Board of Rabbis of Northern California. All four panels were co-sponsored by the Jewish Journal.

Returning to Los Angeles on Yom Kippur, Elias spoke at Temple of the Arts in Beverly Hills. In muted tones from the lectern, he described the events of Aug. 3, 2014.

In a single day, ISIS overran the Yazidi homeland in the Sinjar region of northern Iraq, murdering nearly 6,000, Elias said, including his 24-year-old brother, two of his cousins and nearly 50 close friends.

ISIS fighters loaded thousands more Yazidis onto trucks, with women and girls destined for sexual enslavement and young boys due to be brainwashed as child soldiers. About half a million Yazidis were driven from their homes, ending up in displaced persons’ camps where hundreds of thousands still live in tents.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish Regional Government has prevented Yazidis from returning home with any food, medicine and supplies that would enable them to rebuild their lives, Elias said.

Elias grew up in Til Azir, a small city of 28,000 Yazidis in the Sinjar region. Today, it’s a ghost town.

He followed news of the genocide from Houston, his home since 2010 after earning a visa for his work as a U.S. Army translator.

His home in Iraq was ransacked down to the windows and doorframes.

At the time, he was studying toward an undergraduate degree in the hope of becoming a doctor. But shortly afterward, he abandoned his medical ambitions to start Yazda, a lobbying and advocacy group based in Lincoln, Neb., where most American Yazidis live (yazda.org).

Elias engages audiences on a frenzied schedule. Between his two L.A. engagements last month he flew to New York and San Francisco, stopping each time for a brief layover in Houston.

To some extent, his efforts have succeeded. In the days after the genocide, demonstrations and lobbying in Washington, D.C., by Elias and others helped persuade President Barack Obama to launch strategic airstrikes that enabled Yazidis to escape an ISIS siege.

In March 2016, following lobbying efforts by Yazda and Frydman’s Beyond Genocide Campaign, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution recognizing the Yazidi genocide.

Now, Frydman and Yazda are pushing for Congress to pass the Justice for Yazidis Act, which would extend psychosocial support and speed refugee resettlement for Yazidis and other persecuted minorities in Iraq.

Elias said his work takes its toll. Each time he speaks to an audience, it traumatizes him anew.

He drew a contrast with his previous occupation as a translator.

“Translators, they’re like instruments,” he said. “They transfer the words. Most of the time they’re too busy to feel the information. If you’ve gone through something, it’s different.”

“It affects you,” he added. “And if it doesn’t affect you in the moment, it has its negative impact soon after, in the future. It makes you different.”

With all of his speaking engagements, Elias has little time to see his wife and three children, ages 16, 14 and 6 years old, and little leisure time for himself. Once a film buff, he hasn’t finished a film since August 2014, he said. His mind always returns to the massive amount of work on his docket.

His work also impacts his children. “Their daddy is not around most of the time,” he said.

Elias said his children understand why he’s gone so often. When other kids ask what their father does, “they say nothing directly,” he said. “They say he’s helping people.”

Amal Clooney (left) and Nadia Murad Basee at the ceremony where Murad was named a U.N. goodwill ambassador for the dignity of survivors of human trafficking. Clooney is Murad’s lawyer. Photo by Janet Mayer / Splash News

A sex slave survivor fights back


Nadia Murad Basee, a 23-year-old Yazidi woman, is sitting in an elegant living room high up on the Wilshire corridor, staring out the window. Her ebony hair hangs to one side of her face, falling over her shoulder like a blanket. As she turns her head, about to speak, her eyes appear glassy, as if on the verge of tears. But her expression is vacant.

More than two years ago, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters invaded Murad’s village of Kocho in northern Iraq and began a siege that devastated her life and decimated the Yazidi population. Murad was barely 20 when she was separated from her family — a mother, eight brothers and three sisters (her father died when she was 10) — and then abducted and sold into sexual slavery.


The forgotten genocide: While Yazidis struggle
for existence, the world does little to help


She remembers the sound of the firing squad that murdered six of her brothers and her mother, and the nightmarish months that followed when she was bought and sold like chattel, beaten and sexually assaulted daily.

“The total number of men that raped me was 12, and I will never forget their faces,” she said during a visit to Los Angeles last November.

And yet, Murad considers herself one of the lucky ones. Thousands of Yazidis were massacred on the spot, and an estimated 3,200 Yazidi women still languish in sexual slavery. Since regaining her freedom, Murad has launched a global campaign to raise awareness of the Yazidi genocide and draw attention to the plight of those still in captivity. Over the past year, she has testified before the United Nations alongside her lawyer, Amal Clooney, and was named a U.N. goodwill ambassador for human trafficking. Last October, she received the Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize, and, for a time, was considered a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. Time magazine named her one of the world’s most influential people.

But none of those honors has brought her joy; her focus is on rescuing her people and bringing ISIS to justice for its crimes. As she recounts the details of her story through a translator, her trauma is evident.

At times, she stares ahead blankly, avoiding eye contact. And during parts when she is overcome, tears streaming down her face, she barely seems to notice. She is so far away — her heart, her imagination, everything she loved still in Sinjar, the center of the Yazidi population in Iraq.

“My life before Aug. 3 [2014] was only life inside the small village,” she said of Kocho, with a population estimated at 2,000. “I didn’t even know other parts of Iraq.”

Murad grew up in a family of farmers that eked out a modest living tending sheep. They were so poor, her parents couldn’t afford to send her siblings to school, so her brothers wound up serving in the Iraqi and Kurdish militaries. By the time Murad came of age, though, their economic situation had improved and she was able to enroll in classes. She recently had completed her 11th year of schooling when ISIS stormed into town.

After Kurdish Peshmerga forces who were protecting the area retreated, Sinjar was left defenseless. According to a report issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, most villages in the Sinjar region were completely emptied within 72 hours of the siege, with the exception of Kocho. For nearly two weeks, villagers like Murad and her family huddled together in their homes awaiting rescue, even as they heard rumors of mass executions.

Before ISIS cut off the local cellphone tower, Murad’s family reached out to everyone they knew, begging for help. They could smell the stench of rotting corpses wafting from the countryside. “We told [everyone we could] that they will kill the men and take the women and the children,” Murad recalled. But help never came.

The family considered escaping, but with three pregnant women in the house, it would have been too arduous a journey. The night before the family was captured, they considered taking their own lives. “My brother said, ‘I know they will kill us and they will take the women and children. Perhaps I should kill you and then kill myself because I do not want to see you taken,’ ” Murad said.

The next day, the family was rounded up and sent to the local school, where male and females were separated promptly. Men and boys ages 12 and older were given the choice to convert to Islam or die. Hundreds of Kocho men were subsequently beheaded or shot. Girls ages 9 and older were transferred to holding sites in larger cities, where they were sold as sex slaves. Depending on their youth, virginity and beauty, girls could fetch prices from $200 to $1,500, and were often sold back and forth among ISIS fighter-owners.

When Murad arrived at a holding site in Mosul, the women and girls were instructed to wash. After being abused during transport, many knew there was more to come. “The first place they took us was the shower, the bathroom, and there was blood on the walls,” Murad said. “Women tried to commit suicide.”

Murad testified at the U.N. that the first fighter who tried to buy her was a “huge man, like a monster.” She pleaded with him to let her go. “I cried out — I said, ‘I’m too young, you’re huge!’ But he hit me, kicked me, beat me.”

A smaller man, the first of a dozen captors, bought her, forced her to dress up, wear makeup and then raped her at will. When she tried to escape, he locked her in a room with a number other fighters, who gang raped Murad until she was unconscious.

None of this violence is arbitrary. It is a deliberate, organized system designed to annihilate dignity, hope and prevent future population growth.

“When ISIS is held accountable, when my people are protected, when the women are freed and my people live with dignity, I will Be happy then.” — Nadia Murad Basee

In describing the way rape is used as a mechanism of genocide, the U.N. report emphasizes the assault on human dignity. “The sexual violence being committed by ISIS against Yazidi women and girls, and the serious physical and mental harm it engenders, is a clear step in the process of destruction of the … group — destruction of the spirit, of the will to live, and of life itself.”

The Islamic State’s use of sexual slavery is uniquely insidious because it ensures women are doubly victimized — by their gender and their religion. In the case of the Yazidis, the organized sexual violence occurred on such a massive scale, women and girls as young as 9 years old were subjected to “multiple — sometimes hundreds — of rapes by their various fighter-owners.” The combination of physical and sexual violence with psychological trauma “rises to the level of torture” — a war crime —  according to the U.N. report, and is ultimately designed to prevent future birth of the Yazidi population. When sexual desire is vanquished, so is a group’s future.

The challenge of proving and prosecuting the Yazidi genocide will fall to Clooney, who faces the daunting task of creating precedent for it within the international justice system. At present, the International Criminal Court is the only tribunal that could hold ISIS accountable, but neither Syria nor Iraq are party to the league of nations invested in it. When an attempt to issue a special referral was made by the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China vetoed it.

“This is a clear case of genocide, and genocide that’s gone completely unaddressed and ignored,” Clooney told NBC last fall. “I can’t imagine anything worse being done by one human to another.”

During her visit to Los Angeles, Murad met with members of the Israeli humanitarian organization IsraAID, which currently is providing disaster relief and psychosocial support to Yazidi survivors in Greece, Iraq and Germany, where Murad is based, along with other refugees of the Syrian war.

“The typical response we get from Syrian refugees is that they’re shocked to see Israelis and Jews working with them, and it takes a while to build trust,” Yotam Polizer, co-CEO of IsraAID said. “But with the Yazidis, it was the opposite. They came to us and said, ‘We want to work with the Jews.’ ”

According to Polizer, the Yazidi advocacy organization Yazda reached out to the Israelis because they wanted to learn how to document their genocide as efficiently as Jews documented the Holocaust. “They came to us and said, ‘We need mentorship. We want to learn from the Jewish experience how you were able to rebuild your communities after the Holocaust, rebuild your peoplehood, and build strong advocacy around the world.’ ”

Over the past year, IsraAID has worked with Yazda to help train Yazidis to collect survivor testimonies. “We’re helping them build their own Yad Vashem,” Polizer said.

While much of the world remains indifferent to Yazidi suffering, Polizer said the Jews have a responsibility to help. “There’s a very special connection between Yazidis and Jews,” he said. “We’re both religious minorities in the Middle East; we’ve both suffered from a lot of atrocities throughout history, and according to the Yazidis, [when there were still] Jews in Iraq, they had a strong connection to the Jewish community there. They are big fans of the Jewish people and the Jewish faith, which is kind of unique in that neighborhood. There’s a feeling of shared destiny.”

And yet, Polizer lamented, “I don’t feel like we’re doing enough. With all that’s happening in the Middle East, the Syrian crisis, and with everything going on in the U.S., the Yazidis have been suffering from the worst persecution you can imagine and they’ve been sort of left behind.”

Murad was fortunate enough to escape her captors, but her people remain trapped by an intractable conflict. To counteract the international community’s silence, Murad is determined to broadcast her story in forums around the globe. The more she speaks out, the more ISIS threatens her life. The stakes are impossibly high. “I don’t know if Yazidis will continue to exist as a people or not,” she said.

Worn down by so much sorrow and loss, Murad is a young woman who seems old already. Her skin is marked by the acceleration of time that comes with too much tragedy too soon.

“When ISIS is held accountable, when my people are protected, when the women are freed and my people live with dignity, I will be happy then,” she said defiantly.

But the terrible truth of the matter is that for now, “the path to accountability remains blocked,” according to the U.N. report. “The genocide of the Yazidis is on-going.”

How to help

LEARN more about the plight of the Yazidis by reading reports from the United Nations, Amnesty International or other news articles.

CALL or write your elected representatives to request that they act on behalf of the Yazidis.

DONATE to organizations working to assist Yazidis through advocacy and direct aid, listed below:

Beyond Genocide
norcalrabbis.org/yezidi-fundraiser
(415) 369-2860

Yazda
yazda.org
(832) 298-9584

IsraAID
israaid.co.il
info@israaid.org

A young Yazidi girl rests at the Iraq-Syrian border. Photo by Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

The forgotten genocide: While Yazidis struggle for existence, the world does little to help


It was well before dawn on Aug. 3, 2014, when fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) streamed out of the northern Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tal Afar, heading east. By daybreak, the Kurdish forces protecting the region’s civilian population had melted away. They fled with few warnings to the villagers, most of them Yazidis, members of an ancient and oft-persecuted religious minority.

The hundreds of settlements dotting the region, known together as Sinjar, are the locus of the global Yazidi population, which counts about 1 million souls worldwide. Across the arid expanse, the ISIS fighters who overran it seemed to follow the same script: Men and women were separated. Prepubescent boys were kidnapped for indoctrination as ISIS fighters. Women and their young children were sequestered into sexual slavery. And the men — those older than  12 — were forced to convert or else murdered, either shot in the head, sprayed from behind with bullets or beheaded as their families watched.

The picture painted in United Nations reports is dim. Within days, 5,000 were dead and about half a million displaced from their homes. One report, in June 2016, called the genocide “on-going,” estimating that 3,200 Yazidi women are still held as sex slaves by ISIS — bought, sold and raped by some of the same men who murdered their husbands and fathers. The bulk of Yazidis in Iraq who remain free stay in squalid refugee camps where basic needs are met barely or not all, while an untold number have embarked on the journey west, over perilous seas to the uncertain promise of refuge in Europe or the United States.

What’s worse is that the genocide of this tiny religious group didn’t take its victims by surprise. “We had a sense that it’s going to happen,” one Yazidi activist in Houston, Haider Elias, told the Journal.

In fact, ISIS has been remarkably forward about its genocidal intentions. “Unlike the Jews and Christians, there was no room for jizyah [ransom] payment,” explained an article in Dabiq, a glossy ISIS propaganda magazine. “Their women could be enslaved unlike female apostates who the majority of the fuqaha [Islamic jurists] say cannot be enslaved.”

A group of Islamic law students reviewed the Yazidi question, Dabiq reported, and ruled that unlike Jews and Christians, who are monotheists, Yazidis are pagans to be exterminated in preparation for Judgment Day. (In fact, Yazidis are monotheists whose Mesopotamian creed predates Islam by thousands of years.)

The Obama administration helped break a siege that stranded thousands of Yazidis on Mount Sinjar shortly after the Aug. 3 massacres, but it was a brief show of American airpower. The United States has done little else to ameliorate the situation; the West can claim neither ignorance nor impotence.

A handful of Jewish organizations have raised the alarm, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and at least one, IsraAID, has even offered on-the-ground assistance (see sidebar). But with the global population of forcibly displaced people topping 65 million, most of civil society is tuned to the larger picture. A network of Yazidis in the U.S. seeks its aid and protection for their coreligionists, but their numbers are few.

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to ISIS in the town of Sinjar, walk toward the Syrian border on Aug. 11, 2014. Photo by Rodi Said/ Reuters

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to ISIS in the town of Sinjar, walk toward the Syrian border on Aug. 11, 2014. Photo by Rodi Said/ Reuters

 

Iraq is one of the seven countries whose citizens are banned from entering the U.S. for at least 90 days, according to President Donald Trump’s recent executive order.  The order makes an exemption for religious minorities, but at present, the procedures for exercising that exemption are unclear. At press time, the order had been blocked by the courts and was awaiting appeal, but the constitutionality of a religious exemption appeared murky in the first place. Meanwhile, the president has promised “safe zones” in Syria but the majority of Yazidis in the Middle East are in Iraq.

The persistence of genocide into the second decade of the 21st century makes a cruel joke of “never again,” just as Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia did in the second half of the 20th century. More than two years after the Yazidi genocide began, the question remains: Shouldn’t we do something about it?

‘Nobody helped’

Salem Daoud is Mir of the Yazidis in the United States, the community’s chief religious functionary, serving alongside a council of elders. He speaks a halting English that would be difficult to fully comprehend even if he weren’t describing some of the most trying days of his life. So his son, Seif, who goes by Sam in the U.S., and Rabbi Pamela Frydman, an activist in Los Angeles, joined him on a recent conference call from Glendale, Ariz., to make sure he was understood.

Salem Daoud at the Castle of Mir Ali in northern Iraq. Photo by John Murphy.

Salem Daoud at the Castle of Mir Ali in northern Iraq. Photo by John Murphy.

In such a tiny community, no family is unaffected by an event on the scale of the genocide. Salem’s sister and brother-in-law were kidnapped and then rescued six months later; they’ve never been quite the same since, Salem said. It’s hard to know what to ask a person who sat, more or less helplessly half a world away, while his relatives and countrymen were slaughtered and enslaved.

When Salem’s phone began to ring in early August 2014, there was little he could do to help the man on the other end, a local leader in Sinjar by the name of Ahmed Jaso.

“Till the last minute, till before they killed him, he was calling my dad, like, every, I would say, hour,” Sam said on the phone. “And he’s saying, ‘Do something for us, to save us from their hands.’ ”

Jaso was in a village called Kocho, where ISIS troops were lining up the villagers in groups of 60 or 100 and demanding payment to spare the locals’ lives. When the ransom was not forthcoming, they killed residents in a hail of gunfire, Jaso told Salem. Sam explained that his father has many contacts, people who might have been able to help, “whether here in the U.S., in Iraq, Russia, to people in Germany” — even people close to the White House. “Everybody put their hands on their eyes and their ears,” Sam said.

“[Jaso] would call, ‘[ISIS] said they just killed a hundred, so we need support to save the rest. … They killed another hundred, they need money.’ ” he said. “But nobody wanted to pay.”

“We give the information to a lot of people,” Salem added in his imperfect English. “Just nobody helped. No government, and nobody.”

The village of some 1,800 people was cleared out — the men slaughtered, the young boys kidnapped, the women enslaved.

“Very hard time, that was,” the Mir said. The last time he called Jaso back, the local leader was awaiting his turn at the death squad. “The last time, I hoped I’d be one of these people with them,” Salem said.

The activist

Frydman — known more commonly as Rabbi Pam — is a recent arrival to Los Angeles from Northern California, having moved here in May. There, she started the San Francisco congregation Or Shalom Jewish Community 25 years ago and spent a decade as a social justice activist and educator.

One January morning, Frydman sat down in front of her laptop at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Pico Boulevard. In front of her, a manila folder contained a manuscript of a book about the Holocaust she’s writing that she put on hold two years earlier, when she first learned about the genocide of Yazidis and Assyrian Christians in Iraq and Syria. She finally was finding time to get back to work on the book. Asked to describe how she became active in the struggle for Yazidi survival, she scribbled an impromptu timeline on the back of the manila folder.

Rabbi Pam Frydman. Photo by Bret Putnam

Rabbi Pam Frydman. Photo by Bret Putnam

In November 2014, Frydman saw an email from the Board of Rabbis of Northern California about an event at a Jewish Community Center in the Bay Area. “It said, ‘Act before it’s too late,’ ” she recalled. At the gathering, she saw footage of Yazidis being marched up to the heights of Mount Sinjar, where they were trapped.

“We heard about children who were dehydrated because there just wasn’t enough water,” she said. She heard a story about a woman being driven up the mountain by ISIS forces and struggling to carry both of her children — one of many such stories to emerge from these forced marches. When this particular woman grew too exhausted to hold both children, she put one of them down.

“As soon as she put that child down, the child was slaughtered, was killed, and I said to myself, ‘This is a death march! This is what our people went through in the Holocaust!’ ” Frydman said, her voice wavering. “The fire was in my belly and my heart was shattered, and I felt that I had to do something. And I returned to my home and I started to contact Jewish and interfaith colleagues, and I said, ‘What are we gonna do?’ ”

Soon, she organized a program called Save Us From Genocide, a consciousness-raising campaign for the plight of the Yazidis and Assyrians, hosted by four Bay Area interreligious councils in concert with the United Religions Initiative, a global interfaith network. A project of Save Us From Genocide administered by the Northern California Board of Rabbis, called Beyond Genocide, hopes to gain attention and relief specifically for atrocities perpetrated against Yazidis.

In addition to helping finance university scholarships for Yazidis studying outside Iraq, Beyond Genocide assists in Yazidi migration and resettlement. On that last score, Frydman could describe her efforts only in vague details, out of abundant caution against putting Yazidis in danger.

Asked how much Beyond Genocide had raised for resettlement, she responded, “A very small amount. But with this very small amount, we have performed miracles.”

‘My brother’

Frydman’s resettlement and advocacy work runs primarily through tight-knit networks of American Yazidis such as the one operated by Saeed Hussein Bakr, whom she calls “my brother.” Bakr arrived in the U.S. about five years ago and found his way to Phoenix, where currently he works as a cook for a local Panda Express. As the disaster in Sinjar unfolded, groups quickly sprang up among American Yazidis to help those fleeing for their lives in the Middle East, managed by people like Bakr.

“Yazidis are not a big community,” he said. “So, almost, we all know each other.”

Saeed Hussein Bakr

Saeed Hussein Bakr

Headquartered in places such as Lincoln, Neb., the largest American Yazidi population center, these networks raise money when possible, though the community is in large part newly arrived and not a wealthy one. More often, they deploy contacts in the United States, Europe and the Middle East to help Yazidi migrants who find themselves in trouble.

Bakr’s group, Yazidi Rescue, will alert Coast Guard officials in Greece, for example, when a boatload of Yazidi refugees is abandoned or waterlogged in the Mediterranean or Aegean sea. In other cases, they’ll help Yazidi women escape from slavery or help refugees who are imprisoned abroad. There are no rules or standard operating procedures for this type of operation, only dire phone calls to anybody who might be able to do something, whether civilians or government officials.

“Some nights, I can say we help 1,000 people in one night,” Bakr said.

Bakr first became involved after one of his sons, Layth, on his way to the U.S., got on a boat headed to Greece from Turkey. His boat capsized, and some of the refugees on board with him drowned. “That’s why I work to help those people,” Bakr said.

Remarkably, though, his son’s near-death experience in the Aegean Sea was not the most harrowing episode for Bakr. That would be earlier, in August 2014, when Bakr’s son and other relatives were turned out of their homes and driven up Mount Sinjar.

“For seven days, they were in the mountains, no power, no communications. We don’t know at any time if ISIS, they captured them,” he said. “It was horrible days. Those seven days, they were the worst seven days in my life.”

An ancient people long oppressed

The Yazidis are an ancient people, born in the cradle of civilization. Consecrated to one God, they survived through the ages. In each generation, the yoke of oppression found them, and they cried out for deliverance — except sometimes their savior was a long time in coming.

Sound familiar?

“In each and every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us,” Jews recite each Passover. It would be equally true on the lips of a Yazidi.

The parallels between Jews and Yazidis become uncanny at a point. Both are ethnically distinct religions dating to the birth of monotheism. Both have been singled out by Muslim rulers for persecution based on their strange and foreign faith, slandered as perversions of Islam.

But somewhere along the ages, the historical arcs of the two people diverge. Whereas the history of Jewish genocide ends after the Holocaust, Yazidis have had no such luck.

Since the 15th century, Yazidis count 74 farmans against them — literally, decrees, calls by rulers for their destruction that inevitably result in mass slaughter. They’ve faced genocide at the hands of Kurds, Turks and Arabs, mostly Sunni Muslims backed by the Ottoman Empire. ISIS is only the most recent in a long line of persecutors.


More: A sex slave survivor fights back


Invariably, Yazidi customs and belief are offered as the reason for their oppression. The religion has no central texts that have survived the ages, but its folklore is vivid and distinct from any other faith. Adherents claim to descend not from Abraham but from Adam. Their legend has it that Adam and Eve, as a sort of competition, each placed their seed in a jar. When Eve’s jar was opened, it held an unpleasant stew of filth and insects. Adam’s contained a beautiful baby boy, ibn Jar, literally the son of Jar, who became the ancestor of the Yazidi people.

Ironically, it is their guardian angel that has earned them the fanatical ire of radical Islamists. Yazidis regard as sacred Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel, a fallen angel who refused to bow to Adam when God requested he do so, and who consequently gained dominion over the fates and follies of man. This origin story bears a similarity with that of the Islamic legend of Iblis, the archdevil in Muslim theology. The resemblance between the tales has historically motivated the slander of Yazidis as devil worshippers, a kind of Middle Eastern blood libel that continues to claim the lives of its subjects.

“They have made Iblis — who is the biggest taghut [idolator] — the symbolic head of enlightenment and piety!” the article in the ISIS magazine Dabiq exclaims. “What arrogant kufr [infidels] can be greater than this?”

One irony to emerge from this account is that peacocks don’t exist in the region where Yazidi civilization arose. If the community of nations is not watchful, it’s not inconceivable to imagine a Middle East with no more Yazidis, either.

‘Never again requires a lot of energy’

Google searches for “Yazidis” saw a massive spike in early August 2014 and then returned, but for a few small flutters, to a flatline. But things never went back to normal for Haider Elias, a Yazidi activist in Houston who is the president of Yazda, an advocacy, aid and relief organization.

That’s not the role he’d imagined for himself before ISIS began to wreak catastrophe. A former translator for the U.S. Army in Iraq who immigrated in 2010, Elias was raising three children and studying biology as an undergraduate in the hopes of attending medical school. When his brother was murdered in Iraq and the rest of his family displaced from their homes, he dropped his medical school dreams to dedicate himself to advocacy.

Haider Elias

Haider Elias

Elias and his peers at Yazda run a gamut of programs aimed at helping those displaced by the genocide. They’ve presented on the catastrophe in more than 10 states, including California, and in Europe. In Iraq, the group offers psychological and psychosocial therapy to help reintegrate women who have escaped or been rescued from ISIS. On top of all that, Yazda runs documentation projects to record video testimonies about the genocide and document mass graves.

Elias is still a full-time student at the University of Houston, though he’s switched majors to psychology at the recommendation of some American friends. A social science degree would better suit him for advocacy work, they told him. His days are long and busy, but he’s motivated by the knowledge that his people still face imminent danger.

“Many people want to come back [home] but they’re afraid that the security forces again are going to fail and run away, and this time it’s going to be more fatal, more catastrophic,” Elias said.

And so Yazda now is advocating for international protection for Yazidis, without which resettling Sinjar is unfeasible. “Without some form or guarantee of protection, this community is terrified,” he said.

Elias admits to still being angry. He’s angry with ISIS, naturally, and with the world for standing idly by; but more specifically, he’s angry with the Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga, for abandoning their posts before the Islamists’ murderous advance.

“It’s not a battle and they lost — they ran away,” he said. “They did not tell the population. When you lose many lives and you think you lost the battle, the first thing you do, you inform the population. The second thing, you run away.” To hear Elias and other Yazidis tell it, the Peshmerga didn’t quite bother with the first.

Though most Yazidis are behind Kurdish lines for the moment, their situation remains precarious and their advocates few. Elias made note of a chilling silence in Congress, broken only on occasion by legislators who represent Yazidi population centers, including two Republicans, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

“We need a campaign in 2017 to help the Yazidis, whether to advocate for international protection or accepting Yazidi refugees in the U.S. or sending more humanitarian aid to the areas,” Elias said.

Responding to the genocide, Yazda took up “never again” as a rallying cry. But Elias is not naïve about the prospects of his people.

“Never again requires a lot of energy, a lot of passion, a lot of work,” he said.

‘Save us!’

The Yazidi call for aid is neither subtle nor nuanced. Even before the genocide, theirs was a struggle for existence. There is no conversion into the community, and a child with even one non-Yazidi parent is considered to be outside the faith. The massacres and enslavement of Yazidis compound an already dire population problem.

“An entire religion is being exterminated from the face of the earth,” Vian Dakhil, a Yazidi member of the Iraqi Parliament, told the legislature on Aug. 5, 2014, in a tearful plea that briefly went viral on the internet. “Brothers, I appeal to you in the name of humanity to save us!”

Before she could finish the next sentence, she collapsed, weeping.

The Yazidis interviewed for this story made clear they are open to any help they can get — military, political, financial and otherwise. Currently, Frydman and her colleagues are advocating for a real immigration pipeline to allow Yazidis to come to the U.S. notwithstanding the Trump administration’s refugee policy.

Three men prepare to leave Mount Sinjar. From left: Saeed Hussein Bakr’s sons, Layth Saeed Hussein and Hussein Saeed Hussein, and his nephew, Fuad Shaker Hassow.

Three men prepare to leave Mount Sinjar. Saeed Hussein Bakr’s sons, Layth Saeed Hussein (right) and Hussein Saeed Hussein (left), and his nephew, Fuad Shaker Hassow.

 

The Trump order, before a federal judge blocked the bulk of it on Feb. 3, in theory allowed Yazidi immigration to continue largely unimpeded. In practice, though, the International Organization for Migration, which coordinates refugee admission, has told Yazidi refugees their immigration has been canceled until further notice, Reuters reported. A faith-based exemption raises constitutional questions and its legality is a matter for the courts to decide.

But not all displaced Yazidis want to leave Iraq, anyway. Many simply want to resume their lives in the villages where they were born and escaped death, according to Salem Daoud, the Yazidi Mir. Much of that territory is still held by ISIS.

For now, the totality of a people’s homeland lives in limbo and its diaspora finds only limited means to help them. Often, prayer is the only recourse. Frydman recalled a joint prayer group near Phoenix with Yazidis, Jews and Universal Sufis. After the prayers were over, a Yazidi elder approached her and showed her a tiny book in a plastic pouch. Peering through her bifocals, she discovered it to be the Book of Psalms. A Jewish friend had given it to the elder, he told her, shortly before immigrating to Israel after the declaration of the Jewish state. “He said the prayers in this book will protect me,” the elder told Frydman.

The themes reflected in the Book of Psalms, as it happens, are more topical now for the Yazidi people than they ever have been in recent memory. As it says in Psalm 7:

O Lord, my God, in You I seek refuge; deliver me from all my pursuers and save me, lest, like a lion, they tear me apart, rending me in pieces, and no one to save me.

How to help

LEARN more about the plight of the Yazidis by reading reports from the United Nations, Amnesty International or other news articles.

CALL or write your elected representatives to request that they act on behalf of the Yazidis.

DONATE to organizations working to assist Yazidis through advocacy and direct aid, listed below:

Beyond Genocide
norcalrabbis.org/yezidi-fundraiser
(415) 369-2860

Yazda
yazda.org
(832) 298-9584

IsraAID
israaid.co.il
info@israaid.org

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.”

Islamic State seeks to justify enslaving Yazidi women and girls in Iraq


The Islamic State group said it enslaved families from the minority Yazidi sect after overrunning their villages in northwestern Iraq, in what it praised as the revival of an ancient custom of using women and children as spoils of war.

In an article in its English-language online magazine Dabiq, the group provides what it says is religious justification for the enslavement of defeated “idolators.”

The ancient custom of enslavement had fallen out of use because of deviation from true Islam, but was revived when fighters overran Yazidi villages in Iraq's Sinjar region.

“After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Shariah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations, after one fifth of the slaves were transferred to the Islamic State's authority to be divided as khums,” it said. Khums is a traditional tax on the spoils of war.

“This large-scale enslavement of mushrik (idolator) families is probably the first since the abandonment of Shariah law,” it said.

Dabiq, distributed in a slickly-produced online format, is described by the group SITE that monitors militant publications as Islamic State's English-language magazine.

The cover shows a picture of St Peter's Basilica in Rome, with an Islamic State black flag superimposed in place of the cross atop its obelisk. Inside it features photos of the group's arsenal of heavy weaponry and what it says is the final letter to his mother from an American journalist the group beheaded.

The article on slavery confirms practices documented by Human Rights Watch, which says Yazidi women and girls were forced to marry Islamic State fighters and shipped out in busloads from Iraq to Syria to be sold off as prizes.

Islamic State practices a harsh form of Sunni Islam and has declared its leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi the ruler of the entire Muslim world. Mainstream Sunni scholars around the world have denounced the group and its interpretation of Islam.

The group has hounded ethnic and religious minorities in northern Iraq since seizing the city of Mosul in June, killing and displacing thousands of Christians, Shi'ite Shabaks and Turkmen who lived for centuries in one of the most diverse parts of the Middle East.

“FIRMLY ESTABLISHED”

U.S. President Barack Obama justified his decision to bomb Islamic State targets in August in part because the group was poised to commit what he called “genocide” against Yazidis, who were trapped at the time on a mountaintop after fleeing an Islamic State assault on their towns and villages.

Yazidis, who follow an ancient religion derived from Zoroastrianism, have faced some of the harshest penalties from Islamic State, which regards them as devil-worshippers.

The Dabiq article said fighters were reviving a practice of the companions of the Prophet Mohammad by enslaving enemies. Enslaving women and forcing them to become wives reduces sin by protecting men from being tempted into adultery, it said.

“One should remember that enslaving the families of the (non-believers) and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah, that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Quran and the narrations of the Prophet,” the article said.

Many of the captives had “willingly” accepted Islam, the group said, “and now race to practice it with evident sincerity after their exit from the darkness of idolatry”. Mothers had not been separated from their young children, it said.

U.S.-led air strikes have halted Islamic State advances in the north of Iraq, allowing Kurdish forces to regain ground. Many of the Yazidis trapped on the mountain they consider a holy site, Mount Sinjar, were eventually able to escape, but their nearby villages are still under militant control.

HORRIFIC CRIMES

On Sunday, Human Rights Watch said Islamic State was holding hundreds of Yazidis captive in both Iraq and Syria and that the group had systematically separated young women and teenage girls from their families, forcing some into marriage with fighters.

Fifteen-year-old Rewshe, one of several Yazidi girls who escaped Islamic State captivity and spoke to Human Rights Watch, said Islamic State fighters transported her with about 200 Yazidi women and girls on a convoy of four buses to Raqqa, their de facto capital in Syria.

An Islamic State commander sold her and her 14-year-old sister to a fighter, who told her with pride that he had paid $1,000 for her, she said. The fighter sold her sister to another fighter, Rewshe said. She escaped through an unlocked door while the man who bought her slept.

“The statements of current and former female detainees raise serious concerns about rape and sexual slavery by Islamic State fighters, though the extent of these abuses remains unclear,” Human Rights Watch said.

“The Islamic State’s litany of horrific crimes against the Yezidis in Iraq only keeps growing,” said Fred Abrahams, special adviser at Human Rights Watch.

Reporting by Isabel Coles; Editing by Peter Graff

Yazidi toddler undergoes heart surgery in Israel


The 17-month-old, Wisam, and his father arrived in Israel in June in advance of the surgery, which was performed Sunday. Wisam was born with congenital heart disease.

Wisam’s family — including his mother and two newborn twins — is among the 200,000 Yazidi families besieged by ISIS, the militant Islamist group, on Mount Sinjar in Iraq. As of Wednesday, Wisam’s father had not made contact with the family.

Dr. Lior Sasson performed the seven-hour surgery at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, outside of Tel Aviv. It was funded and organized by Save a Child’s Heart, which brings children from developing countries to Israel for cardiac treatment.

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