In the cemetery of the 1,500-year-old Armenian Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem there rises a memorial to genocide — the Armenian genocide. This horror set the stage for the Jewish Holocaust, but as a human calamity, it also stands alone.
George Hintlian, a 58-year-old Armenian historian, grew up in the quarter. He’s interviewed hundreds of exiled survivors; two are left in the quarter, he said, the oldest, is a 100-year-old woman.
“My grandfather and uncle were killed in the genocide, and so were many other members of my family,” Hintlian said.
His friends include Hebrew University professors who attend the quarter’s genocide memorial ceremony each year. They’ll be hosting a memorial conference at the university later this month, but such attention is the exception rather than the rule.
Armenians “would expect a natural alliance [with Israelis and Jews], or at least empathy,” Hintlian said. “But in the end, a kind of indifference has set in.”
There’s always been a strong Jewish angle to the story of the Armenian genocide, whose 90th anniversary is commemorated this weekend. At the beginning, Jews numbered disproportionately among those who called attention to the atrocities, among those who tried to provoke the conscience of the world.
Then, in the nine decades after, Jewish intellectuals and scholars worked to expose and commemorate this brutal episode — out of a sense of decency, of historical accuracy and also with an understanding that genocides are not a Jewish phenomenon alone, and that the tragedy of a single people is a tragedy also for all humanity.
But there’s been another quite different strain of Jewish reaction to the Armenian genocide. American and Israeli Jews also have been prominent among those who refuse to define the slaughter of more than 1 million Armenians as genocide. They refuse to blame the Turkish regime of old for the crime — largely out of respect for Turkey’s long history of protecting Jews and out of deference to the current pro-Israel Turkish government.
Turkish governments for more than 80 years have denied that any genocide took place, claiming instead that a war was on and Armenians weren’t its only victims. This view holds that Turks weren’t responsible for Armenian suffering then and certainly are not now. In its public relations battle vs. Armenians, Turkey has had no greater ally than Israeli governments and elements of the U.S. Jewish establishment, notably the American Jewish Committee.
The official Israeli line, stated most authoritatively in 2001 by then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on the eve of a state visit to Turkey, is that what happened to the Armenians “is a matter for historians to decide.”
Peres didn’t stop there. Speaking to a Turkish newspaper, Peres said, “We reject attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations.”
Hebrew University professor emeritus Yehuda Bauer, Israel’s leading Holocaust scholar, minces no words: “Frankly, I’m pretty disgusted. I think that my government preferred economic and political relations with Turkey to the truth. I can understand why they did it, but I don’t agree with it.”
Witness to History
Henry Morganthau, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey through the first half of World War I, was an early, crucial witnesses to the Ottoman Turks’ slaughter of 1 million-1.5 million Armenians, and the permanent exile of approximately 1 million more from 1915 to 1916.
In a cable to the U.S. State Department, Morganthau wrote: “Deportation of and excesses against peaceful Armenians is increasing, and from harrowing reports of eyewitnesses it appears that a campaign of race extermination is in progress under a pretext of reprisal against rebellion.”
Morganthau, one of a few Jews then in U.S. government service, also wrote that the “persecution of Armenians is assuming unprecedented proportions. Reports from widely scattered districts indicate a systematic attempt to uproot peaceful Armenian populations and … arbitrary efforts, terrible tortures, wholesale expulsions and deportations from one end of the empire to the other, accompanied by frequent instances of rape, pillage and murder, turning into massacre, to bring destruction and destitution on them.”
Years later, Prague-born Jewish author Franz Werfel immortalized the scattered, desperate Armenian acts of resistance against Ottoman marauders in his classic 1933 novel, “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.” Today, numerous Jewish Holocaust scholars, including Elie Wiesel, Deborah Lipstadt, Daniel Goldhagen, Raul Hilberg and Bauer, are among the most prominent voices calling for recognition of the Armenian genocide and Turkish historic responsibility for it.
The forces that carried out the killing included Kurds and Circassians, as well as Turks, Bauer said, but the decision-making leaders behind the onslaught were the Turkish rulers of the Ottoman Empire.
“There’s no doubt about it whatsoever — it’s absolutely clear,” said Bauer, citing “thousands” of testimonials from U.S. consuls, missionaries, social workers, nurses, doctors and businessmen present at the time, as well as thousands more from Austrian and German officials who were there. The various sources tell “the same story, and they were completely independent of each other,” Bauer said.
Decades of Denial
A post-World War I Ottoman Turk government convicted and executed many perpetrators of the Armenian massacre, Bauer added, but the Turkish leadership that overthrew that post-war government, and every Turkish regime since, has denied the genocide.
“Many of these denials say, ‘Yes, there was terrible suffering on both sides, the Turkish vs. the Armenian, these things happen in war,'” Bauer said. “But that’s nonsense. This was a definite, planned attack on a civilian minority, and whatever Armenian resistance there was came in response to the imminent danger of mass murder.”
The Turkish version has sympathizers among university historians, including UCLA’s Stanford Shaw, University of Louisville’s Justin McCarthy and Princeton’s Bernard Lewis, but they are a distinct minority.
Israel’s reaction to the Armenian genocide has become an academic focus of Israeli Open University professor Yair Auron. His books include “The Banality of Denial: Israel and the Armenian Genocide.” Israel’s Education Ministry blocked his 1990s attempt to introduce the Armenian genocide and other genocides into Israeli schools out of concern for “objectivity.”
Auron contends that the Israeli government’s abetting of Turkey’s denial is not only a “moral disgrace,” it also “hurts the legacy and heritage of the Holocaust. When we help a country deny the genocide of its predecessor, we also help the deniers of the Holocaust, because they watch what’s happening. They see that in this cynical world, if you invest persistent efforts in denial, then denial, to some extent at least, succeeds.”
But Jewish and Israeli silence is about more than a misguided attempt to preserve the Holocaust’s “uniqueness.” There’s also the pragmatic issue of Israel’s all-important military, economic and political relations with Turkey. Israeli Foreign Ministry sources, who insisted on anonymity, characterized the official Israeli approach to the Armenian genocide as “Practical, realpolitik”
Repeated requests to the Turkish Embassy in Tel Aviv for an interview went unanswered. But Turkey remains a major customer of Israel’s defense industries, and the two countries share considerable military and anti-terrorism expertise. Turkey also stands as a bulwark of moderate Islam in the Middle East, a vital regional site of U.S. and NATO military bases, as well as an ally of America and an enemy of Iran and Syria.
Then there’s Turkey’s historical treatment of Jews, beginning with the Spanish Inquisition more than 500 years ago, when it provided a safe haven for Jewish refugees fleeing murderous persecution.
Officially, Israel doesn’t use the word “genocide” to describe the slaughter of the Armenians, preferring the word “tragedy.”
In contrast to some 20 other countries, the United States also has never recognized the Armenian genocide. Congressional resolutions to that effect have repeatedly failed to pass, despite backing from Jewish congressmen such as Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Stephen Rothman (D-N.J.).
Israel and Jewish lobbyists in the United States have opposed these efforts. For its part, the American Jewish Committee has taken no official position on a proposed congressional resolution urging President Bush to use the term “Armenian genocide” in his own upcoming remarks related to the genocide’s 90th anniversary.
Barry Jacobs, director of strategic studies at the American Jewish Committee’s Washington office pointedly refused to agree or disagree with the judgment of Holocaust and genocide scholars on who was responsible for the slaughter of Armenians.
The L.A. Story
In Los Angeles, the Museum of Tolerance “has educated more people about the Armenian genocide than any other institution in America,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean at the affiliated Simon Wiesenthal Center.
The calamity is included in a map of 20th century genocides in the museum’s permanent exhibition, and the museum’s library has numerous books and videos discussing it, Cooper noted. He employs the term “Armenian genocide,” but he will not place responsibility for it on troops of the Ottoman Empire or on Turkish leaders, past or present.
Two years ago, a handful of young Armenian activists targeted the center in a six-day hunger strike, demanding greater representation of their people’s victimization. Talks between the Wiesenthal Center and Armenian community officials ended that dispute, Cooper said.
Summing up the center’s approach, Cooper said: “We try to take a stand that is true to history, but which is also true to our friends, and hopefully our Armenian and Turkish friends understand. That a genocide of the Armenian people took place is a fact, and that for hundreds of years, the Turkish people [aided Jews in danger], when Christian and Muslim nations did not is also a fact, and that Israel needs close relations with Turkey is also a fact. That’s not an easy triangulation, but it’s our responsibility to make it.”
Despite Turkish and Israeli lobbying against including any mention of the Armenian genocide, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., makes three mentions of the genocide in its permanent exhibit. One is Hitler’s infamous exhortation urging his invading troops to be merciless: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Armenian in Jerusalem
Armenian historian Hintlian takes Israeli school groups on tours of Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter. One stop is the memorial in the cemetery. It’s something he can do to keep the memory and lessons of that history alive.
Hintlian appreciates the support he gets from well-known Jewish Holocaust historians. Bauer and Auron will be among four Israelis traveling to the Armenian capital of Yerevan to participate in an academic conference on the genocide. Still, Hintlian is “distressed” at the overall Jewish response. It has regressed, he said, from Morganthau’s valiant example of 90 years ago.
“Armenians expect that Jews would have a natural sympathy for them,” the historian said. “We are two ancient nations with the same diaspora problems of survival. We’ve suffered the same kind of persecution. And fate decided that our two nations would both be victims of genocide in the last century.”