In April, the renewal and rejuvenation of Spring join with faith and remembrance. Faith and hope are embodied in the celebrations of Passover and Easter; darker memories are stirred by the commemorations of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) and of the Armenian Genocide.
On Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) 2015, Jews will gather around the precious remnant of aging survivors. We will touch yellow stars of David, view documentaries showing the tracks at Auschwitz approaching the Arbeit Macht Frei sign, avert our eyes from the images of endless piles of corpses near the mouths of the crematoria and the walking corpses following liberation. We will give voice to our deepest fears over the resurgence of deadly anti-Semitism in Europe and relentless attacks demonizing the state of Israel-home to the largest Jewish community in the world.
But this year, the Jewish community and everyone else for whom memory is a sacred trust should also be looking at haunting images of the Yazidis, the people targeted for extinction by ISIS. Having sustained mass murders, the starvation deaths of their children, and the mass abduction of their women, they might soon be reduced to a historical footnote.
The Yazidis are monotheists, mostly concentrated in northern Iraq, whose beliefs were different enough from their neighbors that they were unfairly accused of devil worship, and therefore persecuted. They have been accused as well of being Christians and Shiites.
Persecuted they are, but Jewish they are most definitely not. So why should Jews invoke their plight on Yom HaShoah?
Because part of the memory of our collective experience, is standing up for the helpless, rendered voiceless by evil-doers. The Holocaust brutally taught us how ordinary people can be turned into murderers and enablers of genocide.. It taught us about the power of words and images to induce people to treat yesterday's neighbors as sub-human. It gave us chilling insight into the capacity of Man for sheer evil, and the intoxicating delight of some people in inflicting pain on others. Most of all the Shoah chillingly informs us of the consequences of apathy and silence in the face of relentless barbarism.
At this moment, more than 300,000 Yazidis languish in refugee camps. While Western intervention led last summer to relief from the siege of Mt. Sinjar where Yazidis were dying of hunger and thirst, military intervention disappeared soon after, leaving those still in the historic Yazidi areas exposed and vulnerable. The ISIS genocidal campaign, according the UN, went in from village to village, wiping out the males, and carting off the women and girls as wives, concubines, or just playthings for jihadists who treated them as trophies of war according to Sharia, often subjecting them to repeated rape and slavery.
Other groups also suffer unspeakable crimes at the hands of ISIS, including Assyrian Christians, Kurds, and Shiites. But more than any other group, it is the plight of Yazidis that evoke memory of Nazi brutality: That of a victim stripped of everything: rights, possessions, clothing, relatives, food, liberty, and the ultimate indignity of the loss of voice. Most Holocaust victims lost the ability to cry, scream, pray, or hope. Worse, they were mocked by oppressors who reminded them that no one out there cared whether they lived or died.
Today, Yazidis have no voice. They have no effective way to share their plight. They have no empowered expats who can do it for them.
A few years after their liberation, Simon Wiesenthal met with old friends who had begun to reconstruct their broken. One had resumed his medical practice, another got back to law. Wiesenthal had been an architect before the war, and his friends gently prodded him to taking up his pre-war vocation and help rebuild the world -- and his life. "Time to move on," they said, chiding him for spending all his time documenting Nazi crimes and tracking the criminals. He replied, "I am not an especially religious person, but I am a believer. So is each of you. I know that in this world you will be the rich ones and I will remain poor. But after we die, when we arrive before the Heavenly Court, we will be met by 6 million souls. There, I will be the rich man. I will be the only one who call say to them, without hesitation, I never forgot you".
We never met any Yazidis. But isn't that the point? The Nazis turned a blind eye to the sanctity of every human, reducing people to numbers, then ashes. As our eyes engage the first faint springtime stirrings of the earth to reassert life from nothingness, our moral vision ought to be enhanced. Should we not be able to find and protect the sacredness of humanity, even among those we have never met?
This essay was co-authored by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Director of Interfaith Affairs