Op-Ed: Jewish History Is Among Casualties of ISIS Victories


The terrorist group's gains in Syria and Iraq have lead to the demise of historical sites that have biblical significance. 

Somewhere in the background noise, as we go about our busy lives, terrible events unfold in Syria and Iraq as ISIS expands its caliphate. We read the reports of how ISIS has captured another city or attacked yet another minority group, and it all seems so far away. 
But from the perspective of Jewish history, these places have not always been so far away. Many of them were places where Jews once lived. Some are mentioned in the Bible or the Talmud or surface in Jewish folklore.
Some play important roles in Jewish history; some minor ones, but they were all places where Jews, Muslims and others once shared lives. Consider the following:
In January 2014, ISIS captured Fallujah, the first Iraqi city to fall to the group. Fallujah was once the site of Pumbedita, the renowned Babylonian rabbinic academy that was active for 800 years. Some of the greatest sages of the Talmud studied there.
In the summer of 2014, ISIS took control of Mosul, a city in northern Iraq with a population of more than a million residents. It expelled the city’s remaining Christian citizens and destroyed a number of holy sites (including the tomb of Jonah, the prophet who was chagrined at the idea of God showing forgiveness to the enemy), and thousands have fled or are suffering in an environment of repression and desperation.
There was once a great yeshiva in Mosul at the beginning of the 16th century and in the 12th century, Jews fled there to seek Muslim protection from the Crusaders.
Among many other sites devastated during this period is Dura Europa, a site of an incredible ancient synagogue celebrated for the pictorial art on its walls. Satellite imagery indicates that most of Dura Europa, once a multicultural Roman city, has been looted.
Just a few days ago, ISIS captured the Syrian city of Pal­myra, an oasis city known as Tadmor in Hebrew. After witnessing what happened to the antiquities and treasures of the cities previously captured by the group, there is fear of what will become of the city’s population and its history.
Palmyra had a Jewish community as early as the Mishnaic period. The rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud had reason to resent Palmyra because of its role in helping the Romans, but Palmyra was also home to the legendary Queen Zenobia, who may have been Jewish.
The United States has been involved in an air campaign to reverse ISIS’ advances, but it is not clear what more can be done given the complexity of the situation and our country’s tragic role in the region. Certainly, there are many refugees who need care or a place to go.
What is clear is that we must keep this part of the world in our hearts — and make it a major issue in the next presidential election — and not only because Jews, too, have a stake in this region. 
When Jews lived in the Middle East beyond Israel, it was a place of great religious and cultural diversity; what is left of that diversity is now in danger of extinction. Archaeological and world heritage sites have been destroyed or are in danger. 
Most devastating of all — the most important reason for Jews to care about what is happening there — are the hundreds of thousands of lives that have been lost and the millions that are imperiled by the war between the Syrian government and ISIS and other insurgent groups.
The prophet Jonah once tried to turn his back on the city of Nineveh, near Mosul. Let us not forget the prophet and the terrible mistake he made.
Dr. Steven Weitzman, the Ella Darivoff director of the Herbert D. Katz for Advanced Judaic Studies, is the Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.


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