JERUSALEM — The recent horrifying New York Times exposé on the Islamic State’s sex slavery system targeting Yazidi women was one of the most-read articles on the paper’s website in the last days. And yes, in a doubly perverse sense it feels good to be morally outraged at ISIS for a few minutes. But let us not get all too comfortable with our outrage over what the Times titled “Theology of Rape,” because we like to forget just how easily we forget. The history of mass media and atrocities in the modern world has taught us that the hurdle for us to really care — to the point where something is done about atrocities in progress — is just astoundingly high. The history of the last century provides a seemingly endless list of atrocities that were not stopped, and rarely was this ever for a lack of information about them. We, at least as countries and societies, simply don’t really care. We would like to think we do, but, empirically speaking, we don’t — and the latest case in point is the sheer existence of a system of Yazidi sex slave trade in 2015.
We humans and we modern societies have a tremendous ability to compartmentalize what is going on in the world around us and to assign most of it to such a distance that it simply does not matter. We have an even greater ability not to care or to forget and suppress quickly what we read, hear and see about the tragedies and wars around us. Our ability as societies to ignore, downplay or misunderstand what is going on — in the face of reports, coverage and even discussion in our own media — has a long tradition.
Let me give you just two examples of a dark tradition of not caring too much to illustrate just how easy this is and was: In the 1890s great massacres broke out in the Ottoman Empire; under Abdul Hamid II tens of thousands of Armenians were killedin a span of about three years. Germany was especially close to the Ottoman Empire at the time and was rather well-informed about what happened. From its own sources and from English papers, the German press printed horror stories featuring suchexplicit depictions of the murder of Armenians by mobs in some localities that even over hundred years later they make for a highly disturbing read. And still they failed to instigate any great response by German society as such.
The papers aligned with the German government downplayed the atrocity reports asBritish propaganda or outright justified what was happening. Some critical papers were shouted down with the accusation of being obsessed with minority issues because they were Jewish-owned. Others were either silent or sought their own way out of a tragedy that warranted some kind of response, especially because Germany was a quasi-ally of the Ottomans at the time, often either by advancing racial justifications or by stressing that Germany had enough problems at home to care about first. But don’t judge Germany of the 1890s all too quickly, the other Great Powers also did next to nothing to help the Armenians.
By the time the Armenian Genocide occurred, some 20 years later, one German paper, which was the widely acknowledged mouthpiece of political Catholicism, went a step further to justify not caring for the Armenians: it observed laconically that there were either many or not so many Christians in the Ottoman Empire, depending on the perspective. What the paper meant to suggest was that only if one counted the Orthodox Christians — the majority of Armenians were Orthodox — fully, as real Christians would the total number be high. It did not say so explicitly, but what it suggested was clear: because the victims are not really Christians, German Christians were not obliged to bother themselves with this faraway tragedy.
Another example — and a case in point that the size of the humanitarian disaster matters little to our ability to not comprehend, to suppress, downplay and so on — has to be the Holocaust as it was happening. Deborah Lipstadt and others have shown how often and almost casually news about the ongoing Holocaust was pushed to the less important pages of American papers and routinely downplayed in importance. Arecent study by Michael Fleming examines how the news about Auschwitz traveled to the Allies and how it was received. He painstakingly documents all the hurdles that needed to be surmounted before this news — about what is today the iconic killing place of the Holocaust — was taken seriously by policymakers and news media at all. Fleming combats the myth about the Allies not having had reliable information about Auschwitz until late in war; well, they did, but it would be just all the more comfortable to believe that they did not.
ISIS’ Sex Slavery
So, now we have more horrifying news about ISIS and we are outraged by ISIS’ sex slave system. And we should be. But then what? By the time you looked up from thatTimes article to do the next thing you probably already began to put this disturbing piece of information some place away from the things that matter to you. We learn to do so every day. But somebody needs to care. Why? Because it is simply far too easy not to care about the Yazidis (and we had in fact already almost forgotten about last year’s near extinction of tens of thousands of Yazidis, almost miraculously saved by the Kurdish Peshmerga). Not only are they far away, the overwhelming majority of us just don’t have any Yazidis in our circle of friends and neighbors. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, they are neither Christian, Jewish or Muslim and theirbelief system is just foreign in the most literal sense to us.
Given their history, at the very least the state of Israel and Armenia should, in some form, politically adopt the Yazidis. Like the Armenians and the Jews in the 1890s, during the Armenian Genocide and during the Shoah, the Yazidis, too, have no state of their own, no army and no powerful enough lobby anywhere. And precisely because they don’t and because they are not “one of us,” they matter so much and should matter more than the threatened destruction of the ruins of Palmyra. After we have proven, as a world, that we do not care that much for the Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims of Syria, or the Kurds and all the other inhabitants in now ISIS-controlled Iraq, the Yazidis should be the last straw. But they probably won’t be. ISIS is pretty clear about what it cares for and what it does not. What about us?