This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide of Christian minorities by a sultanate Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey.)
When I was a freshman in college, I had a floor-mate in my dorm named Don, who was an American-born, 18 year old of Armenian descent. I vividly remember him telling me the harrowing story of his own family’s slim and precarious survival of the Armenian genocide, a story I can only presume was passed down to him, and a story that reinforced the brute contingency of his own existence.
When an Ottoman killing squad came to his family’s house, bent on slaughter, Don’s grandfather (who was only 5 years old at the time) happened to be playing in a crawlspace underneath the house.
The boy stayed quiet, hidden and no doubt terrified, while inside the house his entire extended family was butchered to death.
It was by through this moment of spatio-temporal fortuitousness and happenstance, of fate in its most primordial form, that Don’s grandfather survived… thereby allowing Don himself to someday come into existence.
Of the Armenian genocide:
The total number of people killed as a result has been estimated at between 1 and 1.5 million. The starting date is conventionally held to be 24 April 1915, the day Ottoman authorities rounded up and arrested some 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople. The genocide was carried out during and after World War I and implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied male population through massacre and subjection of army conscripts to forced labour, followed by the deportation of women, children, the elderly and infirm on death marches leading to the Syrian desert. Driven forward by military escorts, the deportees were deprived of food and water and subjected to periodic robbery, rape, and massacre. Other indigenous and Christian ethnic groups such as the Assyrians and the Ottoman Greeks were similarly targeted for extermination by the Ottoman government, and their treatment is considered by many historians to be part of the same genocidal policy.
The events of that time are one of unspeakable horror.
One might then find it surprising that none too many Americans appear to be aware of this genocide, mainly because Armenians haven’t had the funds to trademark the atrocity, publicize it ’round the clock, nor build huge Memorials in every Western country to forever commemorate its horrific occurrence.
In Tablet magazine (“A New Read on Jewish Life”), Peter Balakian has a piece titled “Jews and the Armenian Genocide“:
In recent decades, the contributions to the understanding of the Armenian genocide made by Jewish scholars both in Israel and worldwide have been extraordinary. The list is long and includes Elie Wiesel, Deborah Lipstadt, Robert Jay Lifton, Robert Melson, Irvin Staub, Jay Winter, Yehuda Bauer, Israel Charny, Donna-Lee Frieze, Colin Tatz, Yair Auron, documentary filmmaker Andrew Goldberg, and many others. In the United States, the Center For Jewish History, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum, the Houston Holocaust Museum, the Illinois Holocaust Museum, and the Museum of Tolerance have all made a difference in giving space to program Armenian genocide events over the past two decades.
Notwithstanding the deep involvement and commitment of Jewish intellectuals to the Armenian plight and discourse, the Israeli government has not been able to pass an Armenian genocide resolution, which is to say, to make an official gesture of redress to Turkish denial. In recent years, the Israeli government has reiterated at times some of the Turkish government’s propaganda. For example, several years ago Foreign Minister Simon Peres stated, “We reject attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. What the Armenians went through is a tragedy, but not genocide.” Until recently Turkey has been a friendly Muslim ally in a hostile region. In their trade relationship Turkey is a key supplier of water to Israel, and Israel supplies Turkey with high-powered weapons, and the lucrative military manufacturing deals are important to Israel’s economy…
But for Balakian, this strategy is no longer advantageous because, well, things have changed:
… But in recent years the alliance between Turkey and Israel has eroded. The Turkish flotilla incident of 2010—when Turkey sought to bring relief to Palestinians in Gaza and were met with gunfire by Israeli forces that killed several Turks—created a significant rupture. And a new wave of anti-Semitism has erupted in Turkey, and now Hamas has its headquarters in Istanbul. Recently, President Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of surpassing Hitler’s “barbarism” for its military actions in Gaza.
So, what is to be done?
At the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide might this be a time—when the ironies of history have surfaced, especially in the wake of the collapse of Israeli-Turkish relations—for Israel to rethink the moral concession it has made in this ethical arena? Not as revenge against Turkey, but as thoughtful reflection on painful truths.
Now that Turkey is a lost cause with respect to the Zionist cause, now is a convenient time for… atonement.
Tablet magazine has a companion piece by Andrew Tarsy on how “Jewish Organizations Must Stop Denying the Armenian Genocide“. The article’s byline reads: “Staying silent in the face of radical evil is wrong. It’s time for us to engage.”
National Jewish organizations in the United States have played a dangerous game for decades, giving safe harbor to denial of the Armenian genocide. As its 100th anniversary arrives on April 24, there is an opportunity to turn the page on a dismal chapter of Jewish American history…
Over the past three decades, various national Jewish leaders have urged Armenians to address their need for validation by taking up the matter with the Republic of Turkey itself. Imagine Jews being told to do the same with Germans. Jewish leaders have made public comments that deliberately provide cover for those who willfully undermine the truth; and in our name, they habitually advocate against congressional efforts to acknowledge the genocide. Some even take steps to exclude the Armenian story from genocide education curriculums and Holocaust commemoration events.
The reasons provided to support these choices?
First, Turkey is an important ally to Israel and Jews cannot afford to risk provoking their anger by telling the truth. In addition, Turkey has been tolerant toward Jews within its borders and we owe them a debt of gratitude. Paradoxically, we are also told that Jews in Turkey will not be safe if Jews in America speak plainly about the Armenian genocide.
Second, we are told that Armenian advocates might use the designation of “genocide” and any platform we give them to make comparisons and connections to the Holocaust that advance their own cause of recognition. We should not support the Holocaust being used for this kind of purpose.
No advocate for this position has been more outspoken than Abraham Foxman, longtime National Director of the Anti-Defamation League. He has hardly lacked for company among the most prominent professional and volunteer leaders within the ADL and in other national Jewish organizations.
Here, we have a stark and dissonant logical endpoint to Jewish particularism, separatism, and ‘Is-it-good-for-the-Jews?’ ethnocentrism, trumping even the most uncontroversial of moral cognitivism, trumping the objective and irrefutable genocide of non-Jews in the early 20th century.
But, surely, Tarsy is just engaging in hearsay, right?
Eight years ago the Jewish community in Greater Boston made a very different choice. I was Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League there at the time. Our diverse Jewish community chose to publicly acknowledge that the events beginning in Constantinople on April 24, 1915, were indeed genocide, and that a congressional resolution saying as much was in order.
Those involved in the Boston decision and those who supported it were not poorly informed, nor did they take the challenges of Jewish and Israeli security lightly. It would also be inaccurate to say, as Mr. Foxman did shortly thereafter, that we were prioritizing an Armenian cause above concern for Turkish Jews or Israel or that our judgment was clouded by assimilation and intermarriage, charges he also made via the media. In fact the decision to acknowledge the Armenian genocide was a matter governed by the facts as well as they could be understood. I believe that the frustration Mr. Foxman directed at the Boston Jewish community was based on its refusal to defer to his judgment and the commitments he may have made on the community’s behalf.
Foxman, still the MSM’s go-to guy for pontifications about what constitutes legitimate ‘hate crimes’, deployed here what is for Jews the slander of all slanders: accusing the Boston group of being (gasp!) “clouded by assimilation and intermarriage.”
Never forget, however, that to simply point out the existence of such peculiar Jewish ethnocentrism automatically qualifies one as being ‘anti-Semitic’.
Since the episode in Boston, some of the most prominent national Jewish organizations have followed suit in one way or another, using the word genocide with varying degrees of sincerity and candor and virtually no follow-through.
In his concluding paragraphs, Tarsy has recommendations for powerful American Jewish groups:
The American Jewish community would be wise to retire two morally and strategically bankrupt imperatives that have contributed mightily to this morass.
The first of these feckless imperatives is that anything said to be necessary for Israel’s safety and Jewish security can be justified without rigorous and transparent analysis…
A second imperative we must fully let go of is that the Holocaust has to be insulated from comparison and even commemoration alongside other catastrophic crimes like the Armenian genocide.