As a Master’s student in Middle East history in 2008, Idan Barir decided to research the Yazidis “because almost no one else had studied them. They were exotic.”
Only a handful of academic papers had been published on the Kurdish- and Arabic-speaking religious minority in Iraq, whose secretive religion, a syncretistic blend of Zoroastrianism with Islamic and Jewish influences, had led Muslim Kurds and Western travelers to malign them as “devil worshipers.”
Seven years after beginning his Master’s thesis, Barir spends many hours a week communicating on social media with Yazidi friends — and friends of friends — in Iraq, to the point where some have jokingly dubbed him “Israel’s ambassador to the Yazidis.”
“They ask me to help them come to Israel. Or they want Israel to aid the Yazidis. They say, ‘Brother, you must help us.’
“Tons,” he says, have expressed an interest in joining the Israel Defense Forces.
But according to Barir, who is currently a PhD candidate at the School of Historical Studies at Tel Aviv University, Israel is not reciprocating the affection. In August 2014, when Islamic State forces laid siege to Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, slaughtering 10,000 or more Yazidis, and kidnapping thousands of girls aged 9-25 for abuse as sex slaves, Barir sent letters to 40 Knesset members. Not a single one responded. Now, a year later, as Israeli politicians debate the merits of absorbing Syrian refugees, Barir says the Yazidis have been left out of the discussion. “Without at all diminishing the Syrians’ suffering, they are refugees of a civil war. The Yazidis are refugees of a genocide.”
The Yazidi-Israel connection
In traditional Jewish sources, there are references to a group of people called the “Amgoshim.” These are the same people referred to as the Magi in Christian sources, most famously the three Magi who visited Jesus after his birth, identified by many scholars as Zoroastrian priests. Barir speculates that the Amgoshim could refer equally to the Yazidis, and that the term is the origin of the English word “magic,” because both Zoroastrian priests and Yazidis are reputed magicians.
Most Yazidis, says Barir, feel a connection to Israel and Jews.
“For them, it goes without saying that we are brothers. First, because they see the Jews as a nation whose origins are in Mesopotamia.”
Elder Yazidis have memories of Jewish doctors, tailors or teachers whom they interacted with before most of Iraq’s 140,000 Jews left for Israel in 1948-1951. And they see the Jews’ fate in Iraq as a precursor to their own.
“They are always saying that the Farhud pogroms against Iraqi Jews in 1941, in which several hundred Jews were massacred, was a precursor to what Iraq does to its minorities. ‘We should have learned the lesson, that the ground is burning under our feet.’”
Barir says the Yazidis have another connection to the Jews — what he calls a “consciousness of persecution.”
Why the Yazidis are hated
Over the centuries, Muslims and Western travelers in the Middle East observed the Yazidis and didn’t understand what they were seeing, says Barir.
“They saw the candle-lighting ceremonies, the worship of fire and the sun, strange dances as well as the sacrifice of an ox, and they failed to understand the context. They made up legends that Yazidis worship the devil and hold orgies at night, that if they draw a circle around a boy, he goes into a coma.”
As a result, Yazidis have been the target of persecution by both the Islamic State and Muslim Kurds. Although the murder of 10,000 or more Yazidis by IS and the displacement of hundreds of thousands has been well publicized, fewer people know that Muslim clerics employed by the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq openly call — on TV — for the murder of Yazidis.
“Nothing less,” says Barir.
“Kurds see the Yazidis as a live souvenir of the past. It’s romantic, but also a threat. Muslims see themselves as a step forward in development and this is a reminder of their pagan side.”
Barir compares Yazidis to Jews in 1930s Germany. “If you were to meet a Yazidi and a Kurdish Muslim, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. But when a Kurd sees a Yazidi, they are the ultimate other: primitive, heretical and threatening.”
There are 700,000 Yazidis in Iraq as well as 120,000 in Germany, 20,000 of whom were given asylum there in the past year. A total of about 7,000 Yazidis went missing in 2014, most of them women and girls. Today, an estimated 3,000-3,500 Yazidi girls remain in captivity, many as suspected sex slaves to IS members.
The crisis is so bad that Yazidi clerics have amended their religious law to accept these girls back despite their having been raped, and to erase the shame on their families, which traditionally could have resulted in the girl being killed by her own family members. If any of the girls or women become pregnant, the Yazidi religion now permits them to have an abortion, says Barir.
Yazidis are very divided politically but if there is one thing that unites them, says Barir, it is “the conversation about persecution. Yazidis see themselves as the victims of 74 attempted genocides. They look at Jews as a model: the traumatic history of the Jews as a nation struggling for recognition in an environment that hates them and had a great trauma in the past.”
This explains why so many Yazidis want to join the IDF.
“For all the wrong reasons,” comments Barir. “It’s part of their post-trauma. They hate Jihadist Islam. They’re sitting in refugee camps, and the narrative of revenge is very strong.”
From a quiet life to horror
On August 2, 2014, Islamic State forces captured the city and region of Sinjar, which was mostly inhabited by Yazidis. Civilians were told to convert to Islam immediately — or be killed. Thousands of men were killed and their wives taken as slaves. Tens of thousands of other Yazidis fled into the Sinjar Mountains, where an unknown number perished from lack of food and drink. Barir says a total of 450,000 Yazidis in Iraq have become internally displaced and are now living in Iraqi refugee camps.
“There is no future for them. They get food from the World Food Programme. They have no work. The entire community lives off donations.”
In Sinjar, one of the Yazidis’ main strongholds, Barir says many of the Yazidis worked as shepherds and farmers, but it is impossible for them to return there.
“In the first days after this happened, my friends called me and said they had run from their homes, from the killings. I thought Israel needed to say it would accept a symbolic number of Yazidis because it’s the humane thing to do.”
Barir wrote letters, translated op-eds and gave television and radio interviews. But his campaign never took off, he says.
“I approached 40 Knesset members. There was no answer. I have a close friend who works in the Foreign Ministry. She put my letter into the hands of the foreign minister and she saw him read it, but he did not respond.”
The Times of Israel contacted the Foreign Ministry to find out if anything has been done to help the Yazidis.
“Are you aware of the public discussion around the absorption of refugees?” replied Alon Lavi, the ministry’s deputy spokesman. “This is not a debate within the Foreign Ministry. It’s between the prime minister, the justice minister, leaders of the opposition, and others. We just carry out their decisions.”
Yes, but is Israel doing anything behind the scenes to help the Yazidis?
“You need to address your question to the decision makers.”
What makes a refugee?
What makes someone so desperate they would seek to leave their ancestral homeland, the site of their religion’s most sacred shrines, for an uncertain life in a new land?
Barir says the first stage of becoming a refugee is displacement, but that is not a sufficient condition.
“Even in Israel, during the Second Lebanon War, there were displaced people, people who left their homes in the north and went to Eilat for a month.”
But Israelis did not become refugees. Why?
“Because most government systems in Israel worked, despite the country being at war.”
In Syria, by contrast, there is no functioning regime. Trash may still get collected in Damascus, but not much else.
“A person becomes a refugee when there is no solution to their lives other than to keep running. It’s a complete collapse of all of a state’s systems at the same time.”
Is that the situation for the Yazidis?
“Yazidis can’t continue their lives even among their ‘brothers’ the Kurds, who don’t actually take care of them.”