Genocide, Politics, and the Moral Vote
On 21 November 2018, there was a chance for the Knesset, our elected representatives, to show a bit of dignity, a bit of respect for themselves and others, and a bit of ability to engage in a discussion of moral issues. Instead, the government went for shallow, meaningless scornful behaviour when presented with the bill to recognize the Yezidi genocide. Let me tell you a bit about genocide, a bit about who the Yazidis are, what happened in the Knesset and then what should have happened, even if the bill was voted down in any case.
Accepted Definition of Genocide
In 1948, The UN General Assembly (UNGA) published a definition of genocide:
In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:(a) Killing members of the group;(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
International organizations, including the UN Human Rights Commission, and authors of number of academic articles have weighed this definition against the Yazidi tragedy and determined that a genocide has been, and is still being, committed against them. In spite of this, UNGA has not yet formally named the Yazidis as genocide victims/survivors. While numbers of dead are being bandied about, one researcher argues that we do not yet know the full extent of the massacres because only survivors have been surveyed and families with no survivors at all have not yet been identified.
Little has been written about the Yazidis. Political science professor Shak Hanish provided some information in his article on Christian, Yazidi and Mandean minorities in Iraq:
Yazidism is an ancient religion dating back to the Sumarian period in Mesopotamia. The great majority of Yazidis live in Iraq, about 600,000 people. Their ethnicity is Kurdish and they speak the Krmanji Kurdish dialect. They live mostly in the western part of Nineveh province (in Sinjar area) and some live in the Kurdish-administered region. Yazidism is a closed religion in regard to conversion of other people. The Yazidis suffered historically from armed campaigns to eliminate them from the Abbasid period rule to the Ottoman Empire rule. They are the most oppressed religion in Iraq because their religion and beliefs are misunderstood by Muslims. [page 9]
More interesting facts are described by a team of psychiatrists working in Turkey who published a paper discussing their work with displaced Yazidi children and teenagers:
Yazidis are monotheists, who believe in one God “Xweda” (Ezda) the creator of the world, who sent seven angels to protect it. They believe that at first God created “Melek Taus”, the Peacock Angel, from his own illumination and six other angels later. They also believe that “Melek Taus”, who is the master of the other six angels, refused to bow to Adam. Because of this “Melek Taus” is often misunderstood to be Satan by other religious groups, as Satan also refused to bow to Adam. Thus Yazidis who respect and praise “Melek Taus” are wrongly called “devil worshippers”. Because of that they have been confronted with many genocides in their history, although Yazidis strictly refuse to kill others. Yazidis do not accept religious conversion and their children are baptized at birth. They are only endogamous and may not marry other Kurdish or other clans. Yazidi cultural narratives are based on oral tradition such as Strans (songs accompanied by music) and Kilams (songs with various themes). White is a holy colour for Yazidis. Also, the water of Kaniya Sipi “The White Spring”, is holy, especially during praying rituals and pilgrimage . For Yazidis, earth, air, fire and water are also holy. They have many taboos to protect the purity of earth, air, fire and water. They believe that not following these taboos and traditions can lead to psychological and physical problems. And they also try to treat psychological and physical problems with different religious rituals . [page 146]
I think it is important to understand something about their culture and not just the fact that they are a persecuted minority. And not just the fact that ISIS tried to kill them all off in 2014.
Proposed Bill to Recognize the Yazidi Genocide
MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union) proposed a bill stating that Israel recognizes the genocide committed against the Yazidi people. The government asked for and got a year to study the issue before the bill was presented for the first time before the Knesset for consideration. If passed at this first reading, the bill would have been sent to the relevant Knesset committee to weigh objections to different aspects of the bill and make amendments to correct oversights and incorporate changes handling objections (for a more thorough discussion of how bills pass through Knesset into law, click here). It would then have potentially made it through to second and third (the final) readings. Instead, it was defeated at this early stage.
Svetlova made a plea for morality in the ten minutes given her to present the rationale for the bill. She said Israel must consider what is important in the world and not only what is important to Israel and the Jews. When we say “never again,” she asked:
Does that mean “never again” for the Jewish People? Or does it mean that when another People is being decimated that we will also stand by them and say what has to be said? . . . This genocide was purposefully carried out in order to annihilate the Yazidi population, a People thousands of years old, . . . just because of their origins and their faith.
She asked that this Knesset not repeat the “farce” when the Knesset failed to recognize the genocide of the Armenian People.
First we look at whether it is bad for us or good for us, what we can do with it, whether it may offend a strategic partner, etc. Moral issues interest us a lot less.
And Svetlova mentioned the fact that Israel is still selling weapons to Myanmar, a place in which a genocide is taking place to this day. She acknowledged that the UN has not officially accepted the massacres and horrors committed against the Yazidi People as a genocide, but that does not mean that Israel cannot do the brave thing and tell the world that we are not only fighting Holocaust denial, but also denial of the genocides of other peoples.
If the government had in fact used that year they asked for to study the issue, I think Deputy Foreign Minister Zippi Hoteveli’s ten-minute rebuttal to MK Svelova’s presentation would have had something substantial in it other than fluff. She claimed that she is in agreement with Svetlana regarding the need for Israel to raise her voice against genocide and such horrors:
As the Jewish People, we have the moral responsibility to be sensitive to events such as this. Experienced in suffering and persecution, we need to identify with the terrible tragedy experienced by the Yazidis and to shout out about the moral outrage.
And here I say, from this platform, that the government cannot agree to this bill while international processes related to it are still ongoing and the UN has not taken a formal position on this matter.
Hotoveli acknowledged that the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (HROHC) studied the issue and concluded that it fit the criteria for a genocide. There has been, as yet, no General Assembly or Security Council decision on this matter.
Therefore, Madam Speaker, in spite of the importance of the subject, and in spite of the fact that there is no disagreement in principle regarding this historic event that must be recognized, I say that, for the moment, as the State of Israel is still examining the implications and the correct manner by which to do that, we cannot agree with the bill, and we will not vote for it; we will vote against.
This took four of her ten minutes. Instead of using the time left to her to delve into the various aspects that the government is examining with respect to the implications and potential effects of such a bill passing, Hoteveli decided to talk about criticism of the government’s handling of the latest hostilities against Hamas in Gaza, to make fun of Zippi Livni’s flip-flopping from one party to another, to discuss Israel’s unwillingness to go along with the migration agreement under consideration in the UN, the Nation-State Law, and the fight against terror.
MK Ksenia Svetlova got another three minutes to respond and she wondered aloud if the government opposition to the bill was some kind of revenge against the opposition, in other words, for purely political reasons.
You can watch the entire discussion in Hebrew on the Knesset website (at 1:49.35 to 2:15).
The final vote was 38 in favour of the bill and 58 against. Bibi had requested all members of the coalition oppose the bill. Twenty-four MKs were not present in the room at all, and not just for this vote.
What More Could Hotovely and Svetlova Have Said?
First of all, Hotevely could have explained why the Israeli government is waiting for the UN to declare the genocide when we are so busy in the UN fighting so many of its anti-Israel resolutions. She claims that Israel is working in partnership with the UN to determine whether or not the massacres and enslavement of the Yazidis can be called a genocide, as well as other serious issues. What does that mean: working in partnership? Doing exactly what? Given the Jew-hate spewing out of the UN from multiple directions, I think we should be let in on why the Israeli government thinks we should be cooperating with that body in such a monumental and value-laden issue when we have seen that values does not seem to be uppermost in the UN’s considerations.
This whole business about the UN just makes it sound as if the government (Netanyahu) wants to push the issue aside and not have to deal with it. It has been suggested that he does not want to recognize the Armenian genocide so as not to damage relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan. It does not seem as if there is much to save regarding the former but Ajerbaijan has threatened that harm would come to our diplomatic and economic relations with them. It is likely that recognition of the Yazidi genocide would lead to the Armenian genocide being raised once more and that is what he is trying to hold off. So if Bibi claims he is waiting for UN labeling of these two genocides, it is probably because it does not look as if it is about to happen.
But more importantly, when taking relations with Azerbaijan (or any other country) into consideration when determining our own legislative activities, we should look at how often Azerbaijan (for example) votes with or against anti-Israel resolutions in the UN before worrying too much about offending them.
Given all of this, I do not think the defeat of the bill has anything to do with the fact that it was raised by the Zionist Union, as Svetlova retorted.
I am sure that Bibi and the government understand that what happened to the Armenians and, more recently, to the Yazidis are both genocides. I am not sure they are worried that labeling these genocides would lead to a watering down of the term, genocide, as others have suggested. Since the definition of genocide includes the intention to wipe out an entire people, then if we call a systematic massacre a genocide, it will be similar in intent — and perhaps relative extent (proportion of the population exterminated) — to what the Holocaust was to the Jews. It does not diminish the Holocaust to acknowledge other instances of genocide.
Therefore, preserving good diplomatic international relations (by not having to deal again with the issue of the Armenian genocide) seems to be the only thing behind the unwillingness to recognize by law that what happened to the Yazidis was a genocide. Is that a good enough reason? To be able to assess that, we would have to know with which countries relations would be affected and how. But I do not think we are going to get that information. Therefore, we citizens do not have the data that would allow us to weigh the values of acknowledging the truth and standing up for what is right versus the value of self-preservation, if it really would have that dramatic an impact beyond voting against us in the UN (that many of our so-called friends and allies do anyway).
That leaves us with the bad taste of us not taking a moral stand on the issue of the Yazidi genocide: the moral stand we ask of others who vote with the Arab countries against Israel in order to protect various self-interests. If we are not prepared to stand tall and act according to our own value system, we cannot legitimately accuse others of not standing with us.
And when all Svetlova could come up with in her response to Hotevely was that government opposition to the bill was because it was proposed by the Zionist Union, she missed her opportunity to truly challenge the government. She should have raised the issues I presented above and asked Hotevely pointed questions based on these. On the record. And she should have asked Hotevely why she wasted time talking about everything except the bill in question in six of the ten minutes she had allotted to her.
But I guess it is asking too much of our legislators to expect them to present intelligent and thought-provoking speeches from the Knesset platform.