Something unexpected and disturbing occurred in the Knesset on Nov. 21. A bill recognizing the 2014 slaughter of Yazidis in Iraq by ISIS as “genocide” was voted down, 58 to 38.
It was unexpected for several reasons. Both the government of Israel and Jewish organizations around the world recognized the slaughter for what it was during a terrible summer that saw thousands of Yazidis brutally murdered and over 7,000 young women and girls enslaved by the killers of their families.
Speaking to the UN General Assembly in September 2014, Benjamin Netanyahu introduced his remarks with a condemnation of “militant Islam,” declaring: “Typically, its first victims are other Muslims, but it spares no one. Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Kurds — no creed, no faith, no ethnic group is beyond its sights.”
On a local level, there were several initiatives by Jewish groups to assist Yazidi survivors. The Winnipeg Jewish Federation’s Operation Ezra sponsored refugee families, and efforts by Montreal-based Jewish businessman Steve Maman (dubbed the “Jewish Schindler”) led to the release of more than 100 Yazidi girls.
The Knesset vote was disturbing on moral grounds. As the bill’s sponsor, MK Ksenia Svetlova of the opposition Zionist Union, pointed out, “Israel was created from the ashes of the Holocaust; we are obligated to recognize the suffering of others.”
One might add that there is a precedent even closer to home: During the first half of the 20th century, Jewish communities from British Mandate Palestine to Iraq were subject to persecution and violence at the hands of Islamists and Arab nationalists, and were uprooted after World War II. The parallels are, sadly, all too clear.
True, no state always chooses the morally upright path — something many people generally expect of Israel, often unreasonably. For example, Israel’s reluctance to recognize the Ottoman Turkish genocide of the Armenians is based not on the facts of the case, but on a strategic decision not to further strain relations with Turkey.
What’s galling in the Yazidi case, however, is that there is no state like Turkey in the equation to justify the Knesset vote.
In an interview with Seth Frantzmann, an Israel-based journalist who has reported from Syria and Iraq, MK Svetlova said that the “government parties opposed it because the ministerial commission for legislation decided that on Sunday.” She told Frantzmann her impression was that “the foreign ministry is worried about moving too fast on this issue.”
Her account seems consistent with the government’s explanation. During the Knesset debate, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely justified opposition to the bill on the grounds that the United Nations had not recognized the ethnic cleansing and murder of Yazidis as a “genocide.”
Svetlova was far from alone in pointing out the irony of Netanyahu’s government, which excoriates the United Nations for its discriminatory treatment of Israel — citing the UN as justification. But it is not the whole truth.
While the U.N. Security Council has not explicitly recognized the Yazidis’ suffering as a genocide, it manifestly has not ruled it out.
Firstly, UNSC Resolution 2379 of September 2017 notes that ISIS committed crimes “involving murder, kidnapping, hostage-taking, suicide bombings, enslavement, sale into or otherwise forced marriage, trafficking in persons, rape, sexual slavery and other forms of sexual violence, recruitment and use of children, attacks on critical infrastructure, as well as its destruction of cultural heritage, including archaeological sites and trafficking of cultural property” — all crimes that can be prosecuted under the 1951 Genocide Convention.
Given the documented evidence of ISIS crimes against the Yazidis and the wording used by the United Nations, to argue that the international body does not consider this genocide is to raise pedantry above principle.
This was a bad, bad day for Israel’s parliament. The decision will have disappointed many Israeli voters, along with Jews abroad who would like Israel to show leadership on the issue of genocide prevention.
Svetlova says she will reintroduce the Yazidi genocide bill in six months. Let’s hope the Knesset gets it right next time.