State of Denial
It’s time for Israel to rethink its rejection of the Armenian Genocide
There has been speculation about Turkey’s shifting international ties ever since the election of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of the Islamist AKP party, in 2003, and the Gaza flotilla incident of May created a new breach in the long-standing alliance between Turkey and Israel. Among the many issues that have emerged in post-flotilla relations between the two countries is the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
The flotilla episode is fraught with complexities and ironies on both sides. While the Turkish-led mission focused on a grave human rights crisis—Israel’s oppressive treatment of Gaza’s Palestinians—Turkey’s righteous indignation toward Israel both oversimplifies Israel’s distress about Hamas and seems glaringly hypocritical in view of its own human-rights problems. Those problems, which include Turkey’s repressive and violent treatment of its large Kurdish population, some 15 million or more, and its record of legal detention, imprisonment, and torture of Turkish intellectuals, journalists, and political activists, constitutes one of the world’s worst human rights records, as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports repeatedly show, over the past 20 years. Add to that Turkey’s occupation of Northern Cyprus in violation of international law and its international campaign to falsify the history of its genocide of the Armenians in 1915, and the ironies multiply.
While there remains a narrative among opinion-makers like New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman that frames Turkey as an exemplary friend and a real democracy, Jews should wrestle with some truths about past and present realities. Jews, like Christians, lived as designated infidels under the Ottomans, often under harsh and repressive laws; Zionists were jailed and killed outright by the Turkish government through the end of World War I (Palestine was under Ottoman rule then). The U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 1913 to 1916, an American Jew, Henry Morgenthau, said more than once that he feared that the fate of the Armenians at the hands of the Turks awaited the Jews next. It remains uncomfortable for Jews to recall that Turkey supplied the Nazis with large amounts of chromium during World War II, a mineral that was used, among other things, for killing in concentration camps. And today a virulent anti-Semitism has spread throughout Turkey so that recently a banner of the Islamic Saadet Party read: “Legendary leader Hitler, our patience is running out, we need your spirit.”
It’s a strange irony that in recent decades Israeli and Jewish diasporan groups have colluded with Turkey’s aggressive policy of denying and rewriting the history of the Armenian Genocide. In this equation the Armenian past has become a bargaining chip between Turkey and Israel, which have a regional partnership based on reciprocal needs. Turkey is an important source of Israel’s water supply and at least until recently, had been a friendly Muslim ally in a hostile region. Israel supplies Turkey with high-powered weapons, and the lucrative military manufacturing deals are important to Israel’s economy.
In 1982—by threatening the lives and livelihoods of Jews in Turkey—Turkey pressured the Israeli government to stop a genocide studies conference in Tel Aviv, at which a group of scholars were giving papers on the Armenian Genocide. As a result the Israeli government pulled out its support, Elie Wiesel decided he could not participate, and the conference was moved to an out-of-the-way location and was greatly diminished. In the 1990s, two Armenian documentaries that were to be aired on Israeli TV—one of them about the Armenian community of Jerusalem—were canceled at the last minute because of Turkish pressure. From 1989 on, Jewish-American organizations have worked at Ankara’s request to help stop a simple, non-binding Armenian Genocide resolution from passing in the U.S. Congress. When former Israeli Education Minister Yossi Sarid declared 10 years ago that he wanted to institute a new history curriculum with a chapter on genocide that would have “a broad reference to the Armenian genocide,” he was rebuked by his government and shortly thereafter left office.
In recent years, the Israeli government has mimicked at times the Turkish government’s propaganda about 1915. Shimon Peres, then Israel’s foreign minister, went as far as to say: “We reject attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. What the Armenians went through is a tragedy, but not genocide.” Peres’ crude denial elicited angry responses from Israeli scholars, and Israel Charny, the director of the Institute on Genocide in Jerusalem, crystallized the anger of many when he replied: “As a Jew and an Israeli I am ashamed of the extent to which you have now entered into the range of actual denial of the Armenian Genocide, comparable to denials of the Holocaust.”
The question remains: Is aiding Turkey’s denial of a genocidal past something Israel can continue to do? And at what cost? Amos Elon, writing in Haaretz about the “hypocrisy, opportunism, and moral trepidation” of Israeli collusion with Turkey, put it well when he asked: “But where is the boundary between the natural chauvinism of exploitation and the cheap opportunism of hypocrisy? What happens when the survivors of one Holocaust make political deals over the bitter memory of the survivors of another Holocaust?”
While political events provide opportunities for moments of reform, change, or introspection, it is not crass opportunism, I believe, that should dictate a change in Israeli policy on the Armenian Genocide. Rather, might this be a time—when the ironies of history have surfaced in the wake of the flotilla episode—for Israel and some Jewish diasporan organizations to rethink the moral concession Israel has made in this ethical arena—not as revenge against Turkey, but as thoughtful reflection on painful truths?
Given Turkey’s relentless campaign to deny the Armenian Genocide and insinuate its own extreme national narrative into democratic societies around the world, Israel’s call for the genocide’s proper and long overdue recognition would have important ethical meaning. It would, among other things, be a redress to genocide denial in general. As scholars have noted, denial is the final stage of genocide. The distinguished Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt has written that “denial of genocide, whether that of the Turks against the Armenians or the Nazis against the Jews … strives to reshape history in order to demonize the victims and rehabilitate the perpetrators.”
Recognizing the Armenian Genocide would allow Israel to embrace the deeply rooted relationship between Jews and Armenians in the modern age. When Hitler exhorted his military advisers eight days before invading Poland in 1939, “Who today, after all, speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?” he made it clear that he was both inspired by what the Young Turk government had done to the Armenians in 1915 and also noted that because the memory of what had been the most well-reported human rights catastrophe of the first quarter of the 20th century had been washed away, it was easier to commit genocide again.
Hitler learned a good deal from the genocide of the Armenians because Germany was Turkey’s wartime ally, and there was a great deal of documentation from German foreign officers and other German personnel in Turkey at the time. There are, of course, parallels—in bureaucratic organization, killing squad implementation, race ideology, and more—between the two events. Yet what ties Jews to Armenians even more deeply is the powerful role Jews have played in bearing witness to and later defining Turkey’s genocide.
Ambassador Henry Morgenthau’s life remains a crucial part of the history of rescue and resistance during the Armenian Genocide. As U.S. ambassador to Turkey, he had the courage to step outside his prescribed role as ambassador and confront Pashas Talaat and Enver—the two major architects of the plan; he implored both the U.S. and German governments to intercede and stop the mass killing of the Armenian population; and he was a primary force in helping to organize the first major relief campaign for the Armenians in the United States.
In the end Morgenthau would lose his job because of his stance on the Armenians. After leaving Turkey in 1916 and noting that it would remain “a place of unutterable horror” for him, he included in his acclaimed World War I memoir of 1918, Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, the first full narrative about the Armenian Genocide in English.
Franz Werfel, the Austrian Jewish novelist who escaped Hitler’s death list by a hair in 1934, wrote the first major novel about the Armenian Genocide, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, which depicted Armenian resistance to massacre in a small mountain village; it was also a novel that was a specific warning to the Jews of Europe about what might happen to them. The Nazis banned and burned the book in 1934, but the novel would inspire Jewish resistance during the Holocaust and became an important text in the educational curriculum for Jews in Palestine and then Israel.
Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish legal scholar who coined the word genocide, was the first to use the term Armenian Genocide in the early 1940s—noting that it was the precise term for intended group destruction of the Armenians in 1915. He underscored that the concept “genocide” derived from his understanding of the acts committed against the Armenians in 1915 and against the Jews in the 1940s: “Examples of genocide,” he wrote in 1949, “are the destruction of the Armenians in the first World War, the destruction of the Jews in the second World War.” He also noted in his autobiography that his study of the Armenian massacres was a turning point in his life’s work.
In the modern era, the contributions to the Armenian Genocide discourse made by Jewish scholars both in Israel and worldwide has been extraordinary, and a list would be long and include Elie Wiesel, Robert Jay Lifton, Deborah Lipstadt, Robert Melson, Jay Winter, the documentary filmmaker Andrew Goldberg, Israeli scholars Yehuda Bauer, Israel Charny, and Yair Auron, who wrote The Banality of Denial: Israel and the Armenian Genocide. Recently, the Center For Jewish History and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York put on brilliant exhibitions on the lives of both Raphael Lemkin and Henry Morgenthau—in which the Armenian genocide figured significantly.
Given this long-standing record of Jewish engagement and intellectual achievement concerning the Armenian Genocide, and the deep ties between the two cultures—it would seem an organic thing for Israel to finally say: The game is over. The truth of history, the meaning of genocide, the importance of ethical memory is a defining part of Jewish intellectual tradition and identity. And, in the Armenian case, the two genocidal histories commingle in deep and historical ways. As for fear of Turkey? The other 20 countries (including France, Italy, Sweden, Poland, Greece, and Canada) that have passed Armenian Genocide resolutions have witnessed Turkey’s initial diplomatic anger, an ambassador recalled for a short time, and then it’s been back to business as usual—proving that the hysteria passes and life goes on.
The Israeli government could recognize the Armenian Genocide by honoring the words of the great founding genocide scholar Lemkin—a Holocaust survivor who lost 49 members of his own family to the Nazis. In August 1950, Lemkin wrote to a colleague: “Let us not forget that the heat of this month is less unbearable to us than the heat of the ovens of Auschwitz and Dachau and more lenient than the murderous heat in the desert of Aleppo which burned to death the bodies of hundreds of thousands of Christian Armenian victims of genocide in 1915.”
As for Armenians, in the midst of this, they look on with bewilderment, anger, bitterness. For the sizable meaning and historical significance of the genocide committed against them, they feel endlessly embattled in the effort to preserve the truthful memory of what happened to them. It seems to most Armenians that the accurate memory of their history is an ethical necessity, a minimal thing to ask others to affirm in the face of the continued assault on historical truth by Turkey. Israel’s affirmation would be of distinct ethical importance given the common experience the two peoples have shared. For Israel, colluding with a denialism is too painfully ironic.
Peter Balakian, the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities at Colgate University, is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, among other books.
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