Why the plight of Iraqs Yazidis concerns the Jewish community

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In August, ISIS attacked and took over the Kurdish-controlled town of Sinjar, driving more than 50,000 Yazidis out of their homes and fleeing for their lives to Sinjar Mountain. The United Nations confirms that 5,000 men have been executed and as many as 7,000 women and girls (as young as 11) have been made sex slaves by ISIS. Eyewitnesses report stories of beheadings, rape and children dying of starvation and dehydration. The Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking community indigenous to Iraq, follow an ancient monotheistic religion that is neither Christian nor Muslim. They have been targeted by ISIS for genocide.

Stories such as this, of course, bring back memories of what happened to the Jewish people during the Holocaust, when we were faced with genocide and the international community turned its back on us. So when Peggy Shapiro, the StandWithUs community coordinator in Chicago, asked if I could meet with those in the Bay Area who are trying to help the Yazidis, I was happy to help.

Last month, about 80 members of the Bay Area Jewish and Hindu communities joined forces at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City to heighten community awareness of the Yazidi genocide. Participants included members of StandWithUs, the American Jewish Committee, JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) and JUMP (Justice and Unity in Mideast Policy), as well as the International Association for Human Values and the Hindu American Foundation.

That’s how I met Somanjana Chatterjee, Silicon Valley journalist involved in the International Association for Human Values, which has spearheaded efforts on behalf of the Yazidis, and Dr. Uday Aloka, a Yazidi physician in San Diego. Aloka related his trip to Iraq this summer so his children could visit his dying father. During that time, ISIS attacked the area and he and his children barely escaped. His elderly, now widowed mother is still trapped in Iraq and unable to get a visa to come to the United States.

Why is StandWithUs, as an Israel-focused organization, involved in this effort? Not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because we know that ISIS wishes to do to the State of Israel and to the Jewish people just what they have done to the Yazidis. There is high awareness in Israel of the plight of the Yazidis, and the Israeli government has sent relief supplies to them via Kurdistan.

Shapiro herself is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. “I heard the stories of a persecuted people surrounded by ISIS and abandoned by the world; I knew I had heard these before and that they were mine,” she said. “Just as the victims may have different names or religions, there is a common element of a people who are fighting desperately to maintain their ancient culture and religion. And just as the enemy may wear black hoods instead of brown shirts, the ideology is the same. It is the glorification of death and genocide. ISIS equals Hamas equals Boko Haram equals Hezbollah. The sooner we learn that formula and unite, the sooner we will defeat them.”

What’s next? Other Jewish community organizations, including AJC and JIMENA, whose leaders helped publicize last month’s event, are now involved. We are also working with local Hillel organizations to bring speakers to campus to raise awareness of the Yazidi genocide. And we can work with members of the Yazidi community and their Hindu allies to support political efforts to enact expedited refugee status for Yazidis seeking to immigrate to the United States.

As JIMENA’s president Gina Waldman, who spoke at the event, so eloquently stated, “Today I am here to raise my voice on behalf of the voiceless women whose cries we cannot hear, whose tears we cannot see, whose suffering we cannot begin to endure. Those Yazidi women and men who are mute: A bullet has pierced their voice, their women and children forced into conversion, beaten, raped and sold into slavery. Our voices must be their voices. Their plight must be our plight.”

To learn more and to donate to Yazidi relief efforts, go to www.iahv.org/us-en/yazidi-relief.

Dr. Michael Harris
is a physician in Marin County and an activist with the Israel advocacy group StandWithUs/SF Voice for Israel.


Dr. Michael Harris
Dr. Michael Harris

Dr. Michael Harris is one of the founders of San Francisco Voice for Israel, now the Northern California chapter of StandWithUs. His book “Winning a Debate with an Israel Hater” was published in October 2015.