How Israel Can Help the Yazidis of Iraq

The Islamic State's recent onslaught on the Yazidi religious group in Sinjar looked suspiciously like a genocide attempt. Israel must show the Western world how to react.

Tomer Persico
Idan Barir
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Displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community arrive at a camp near the Syria-Iraq border, August 9, 2014.
Displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community arrive at a camp near the Syria-Iraq border, August 9, 2014.Credit: AP
Tomer Persico
Idan Barir

Early last Sunday morning, Islamic State forces raided the town of Sinjar and its environs, about 120 kilometers west of the city of Mosul, which has been under the organization’s control for almost two months. As they have done every time they occupy a region, the Islamic State militants gave the non-Muslim minorities two choices: convert to Islam or be killed.

The Islamic State control of Sinjar is particularly dramatic and has a potential of becoming historically traumatic, since the vast majority of the region’s inhabits are members of the Yazidi minority – who are known in Islamic Sunni discourse as “devil worshippers” or “the greatest of all the heretics.” The Islamic State fighters show no mercy toward them and apparently intend to try to eradicate this ancient religion.

The Yazidi religion, which has roots in the centuries before the Common Era, is characterized by syncretism – in other words, a combination of various elements of the religions of the region. It is similar to the ancient Persian Zoroastrian religion. The Yazidim absorbed various traditions, mainly from Sufi Islam, but were inspired by all the cultures prevailing in Mesopotamia. Like Judaism, the Yazidi religion focuses on prohibitions of purity and impurity. Like the Muslims, they have five daily prayers. Like the Zoroastrians, they are commanded to maintain the unity of the “four elements” (earth, water, air and fire). Like the Egyptians and the Hindus, they believe that God is embodied in human beings, and like most of the Far Eastern religions, they believe in reincarnation.

The Yazidi religion reached the peak of its development during the time of Sheikh Adi Ibn Musafir, a Sufi cleric of Lebanese extract who made his home in the Lalesh Valley near the city of Mosul, and was active there in the 11th and 12th centuries. Sheikh Adi – whose tomb stands, to this day, on the site of his Sufi haven – renewed and sealed the Yazidi religion, integrating many Sufi elements. According to Yazidi belief, the deity is embodied in human beings, and Sheikh Adi is one of its incarnations. Another incarnation is the Peacock King, a divine entity that looks like a peacock.

As mentioned, the Yazidis’ Muslim neighbors throughout history considered them heretics. The Yazidis were forced to live in a constant state of flight, and during the past several hundred years established two large enclaves in the northern Iraqi mountains: in the Sheikhan region, around the temple of Sheikh Adi in Lalesh, and around the Sinjar mountains. Despite that, they were often subject to massacres over the years.

Yazidi history describes a long sequence of massacres that began in the early days of Islam, with the latest taking place at present. In every generation, the “others” – the Muslims in particular – try to eradicate the Yazidis. In addition to the massacres, Muslim rulers harmed the Yazidis throughout history by desecrating the temple of Sheikh Adi, and in modern times by turning it into an Islamic madrassa and mosque.

After the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the beginning of Al-Qaida activity in the country, the persecution of the Yazidis became more brutal than ever. Events escalated in the summer of 2007, when Al-Qaida carried out a major attack that led to the destruction of two Yazidi villages in Sinjar and the killing of about 800 Yazidis.

In the wake of those attacks, the desperate Yazidis asked for the protection of the international community. However, the request was lost in the flood of events taking place at the time in Iraq, and the Yazidis returned to the terrible routine of lowering their profile in order to avoid getting involved with Al-Qaida.

The height of the persecution of the Yazidis took place, as mentioned, at the beginning of last week. Prince Tahseen Said, the 81-year-old leader of the community, described recent events as the worst acts of violence against Yazidis he has ever seen.

A Yazidi friend from Sinjar, who now lives in Erbil (the capital of the Kurdish district) and with whom we spoke a few days ago, said that all the members of his family have fled Sinjar and are among the wave of refugees estimated at 200,000 people, about half of whom fled to the Kurdish region in the north and half to the Sinjar mountain range. The refugees on the mountain under siege by the Islamic State were forced to spend recent days exposed to the desert sun, without water, food and medicine.

Reports from the region indicate that dozens of children and the elderly have died of dehydration in recent days. At night, the Islamic State militants raid the mountain range under cover of darkness and kidnap young women, in order to sell them into prostitution and slavery in the market places of the cities under their control in Syria and Iraq. There was some relief when, last weekend, American planes dropped water and food for the refugees.

Immediately after hearing about the battles in Sinjar, Nikolay Mladenov, the special UN envoy to Iraq, warned of a “humanitarian tragedy” taking place in Sinjar, and called on the Kurds to take in the refugees and protect them.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who withdrew in panic at first, have renewed their attacks on the region, as well as their attempts to rescue Yazidi refugees and transfer them to the autonomic Kurdish region and to Syria. The Iraqi parliament has recognized the attacks against the religious minorities in northern Iraq as genocide. World public opinion has also been aroused, and a number of Western cities are holding demonstrations calling for the rescue of the Yazidis. Hopefully the U.S. Army will not stop providing them with humanitarian assistance.

There are additional Yazidi communities, mainly in Germany, but they lack religious leaders and a surviving tradition. The eradication of the Yazidis in northern Iraq would, therefore, be, if not genocide, then certainly the murder of a religion. The Yazidi religion is liable to disappear soon, along with hundreds of thousands of Yazidis. In addition to their destruction of temples and ancient relics of historical value, the Islamic State will also be remembered as destroyers of nations and cultures.

Now, of all times, Israel, the state of the Jewish people, victims of the Holocaust, can serve as a beacon to the Western world, which is hesitant about helping out in the crisis in Iraq. Israel should declare its intention of taking in a symbolic number of Yazidi war refugees. In doing so, it will show the way to the Western world, and perhaps contribute to the rescue of an ancient culture.

Idan Barir is a PhD candidate at the School of Historical Studies and the Department of Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University; Dr. Tomer Persico is a lecturer in the Department of Comparative Religion at TAU and the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

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