Some ‘Profiles in Courage’

The past two weeks have offered insight, as few times do, into whether our leaders and opinion molders can set aside personal and political agendas in the face of adversity and crisis
and be willing to do the right and courageous thing.

Locally, the closing of King-Harbor after a scathing federal report on its tragic shortcomings offered all the local players who have talked for years about King-Harbor or its predecessor, King-Drew, an opportunity to “do the right thing.” It provided a moment when they could either transcend their prior rhetoric and recognize the gravity of the situation and the need for leadership, or return to the tired positions of earlier days.

As anyone who has followed the issue knows, the stage had been set long ago; the “Killer King” moniker was not a new one on the streets of South Los Angeles. A Los Angeles Times series pointed out nearly three years ago that King-Harbor has long had serious, deep-seated problems for which there was more than enough blame to go around.

Yet one could almost write the script: Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn decried the County Board of Supervisors for spending money on consultants and advisers who didn’t save the hospital from failing its accreditation tests — it was the board’s fault. Columnist and activist Earl Ofari Hutchison bemoaned the “lack of resources” that the hospital was forced to deal with and ascribed its failings to it being short-changed. Los Angeles Times columnist Erin Aubrey Kaplan assailed the “black middle class” for abandoning King-Drew and contributing to its demise. Each viewed the same stark facts through their individual, well-worn prisms.

To each of their assertions one can only ask: For Councilwoman Hahn was the answer for the supervisors to give up three years ago after and numerous well-documented incidents had pointed up how profound the problems were, rather than pursue every avenue to remedy a manifestly desperate situation? For Earl Hutchison, was the answer to ignore the facts that King-Drew spent more per patient than 75 percent of the public and teaching hospitals in California (according to a 2002 state audit), or ignore that it spent $685 per patient more than County-USC and $815 more than Harbor-UCLA (in 2002) or that in 2003 it billed 299,804 hours of overtime — 61 percent more than Harbor-UCLA, which has some 400 more workers and took in 91 percent more patients? Or for Erin Aubrey Kaplan, was the answer for middle-class blacks to put their lives at risk to evidence “solidarity” with King-Drew when even the disadvantaged folks who live in the neighborhood (not the “middle-class blacks” that Kaplan derides), when given a choice, went somewhere else. Births at King-Drew in 2005 were 15 percent of the total a decade before. Given that women have nine months to plan where to give birth, they had ample time to pick anyplace but King-Drew to have their babies. Who could blame them, except Erin A. Kaplan?

Amid all the blame casting, there was scant attention paid to the courage that surfaced during the King-Harbor controversy. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky withstood being called a racist to lead the Board of Supervisors’ to deal with what had been treated for decades as a sacrosanct part of another supervisor’s domain and “racial spoils.” Yaroslavsky made a very tough, but ultimately critically important decision. He forced change at virtually no political gain to himself — few outside South L.A. were animated about this issue and there were virtually no voices that praised his commitment to make things right.

Nor was much written or said about the Los Angeles Times’ willingness to do an in-depth study of the hospital and its shortcomings. They too were (and are) accused of being racists and even assailed as the “cause” of the hospital’s demise. Knowing the flack they would receive, they still chose to do a huge public service by publishing their expose (and win a Pulitzer Prize) at the risk of local attacks questioning their motivations and intent.

Honesty and an opportunity for courage arose for the Jewish community as well over the past week. It had its own melodrama centering on legislation pending in the Congress.

H.R. 106 may be voted on this fall in the House of Representatives. It would recognize as genocide the massacre by the Turks of hundreds of thousands of Armenians from 1915-1918. Several major Jewish organizations have refused to support the resolution (many of these organizations, ironically, have full- fledged Holocaust education programs).

Over the past week, the disconnect between rhetoric and actions came to a head in Watertown, Mass., where the City Council and a large Armenian community chose to sever ties with an Anti-Defamation League “anti-hate” program in which it had participated. Their condition for participation: an ADL endorsement of HR 106.

The ADL has explained its reluctance to endorse the resolution as being animated by concerns for the security of the Turkish Jewish community and the strategic relationship between Israel and Turkey. An ADL national spokesperson opined that the genocide question should be resolved by historians.

Alan Dershowitz wrote in response to the controversy:

“The matter [of the Armenian genocide] is not subject to interpretation…. For any organization or official to believe that there are differing sides to the Armenian Genocide is as much an outrage as it would be for Germany to say that the work of Jewish scholars, witnesses and victim testimonies represented merely the ‘Jewish side of the Holocaust.’ To deny genocide victims their history and suffering is tantamount to making them victims again.”

And yet denial, for seemingly well-motivated reasons, is precisely what has taken place.

The New England ADL regional board took issue with the national policy and the ADL regional director, in an act of personal courage and in the interest of truth, publicly questioned the national ADL position. He was promptly fired.

In light of this week’s controversy, the ADL has now, belatedly, decided to acknowledge that the Armenian massacre over 80 years ago was, in fact, a “genocide.” It still refuses to endorse the congressional resolution (HR 106), which memorializes that fact.

The Subbotniks: an Armenian community on the fringe of extinction

A community of rural residents in the former Soviet Union, descended from Russian peasants who converted to Judaism two centuries ago, may soon be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Mikhail Zharkov, the 76-year-old leader of Armenia’s tiny Subbotnik community, said only 13 of the 30,000 people living in his small alpine town of Sevan are Subbotniks. There are three men and 10 women, and all are nearing the age of 80.
The community in Sevan is part of an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Subbotniks spread across the former Soviet Union. Zharkov, a retired welder who is wiry and full of energy, estimated that about 2,000 Subbotniks lived in Sevan during the community’s zenith in the 1930s.

Located at an altitude of 6,000 feet, Lake Sevan’s turquoise waters were seen as a vast exploitable natural resource. After Armenia became a Soviet republic in the 1930s, the lake fell victim to disastrous Soviet planning and industrial expansion.

During Soviet rule, the Subbotniks’ religious freedom, which had helped preserve their identity for almost two centuries, vanished, along with their prime waterfront real estate.

According to Zharkov, Soviet authorities confiscated the Subbotnik synagogue in the mid-1930s. It has since been privatized, and the building no longer belongs to the community.

An unknown number of Subbotniks from elsewhere in the region immigrated to Israel after the fall of the Soviet Union, but community members in Sevan never dreamed of leaving for Israel. In Sevan, Soviet repression, combined with Armenia’s difficult economic conditions after the fall of communism 15 years ago, tore into the fabric of the community.

“My son, who is 48, and daughter, who is 36, are in Moldova. And of course, they have been baptized,” Zharkov said. “They did it without consulting me or my wife. My daughter had to. She married a Russian Orthodox man.”

Zharkov’s family situation is mirrored in the rest of the community. Sevan’s Subbotniks have dispersed all over the former Soviet Union and offer no financial assistance to their parents, Zharkov said.

“We lead a simple life, but life has become very expensive. Without the aid of the Jewish community, we would have a very tough time,” he said. “Our pensions are meager, not even enough to cover utilities.”

The Armenian office of Hesed Avraham, a welfare center sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, periodically provides the Subbotniks with food packages.

The Subbotniks’ mysterious 19th century conversion to Judaism, strict adherence to the Torah and staunch refusal to convert back to Christianity exposed them to repression and persecution. During the rule of Czar Alexander I in the first quarter of the 19th century, Subbotniks were deported en masse to remote parts of the Russian empire.

According to Michael Freund, founder of Shavei Israel, an Israel-based organization that reaches out to “lost Jews,” the Subbotniks are spread out in small pockets across remote corners of the former Soviet Union. Sevan’s Subbotniks do not know what part of Russia their ancestors came from or what prompted them to convert to Judaism.

“Maybe they thought it a purer form of religion,” Zharkov speculated.
Subbotniks derived their name from their observance of the Sabbath on Saturday — Subbota in Russian — rather than Sunday. Most Subbotnik communities practice circumcision, but otherwise, the Subbotniks do not differ in outward appearance from other Russian peasants.

The women wear head scarves and long skirts; the men dress in simple slacks and shirts. They do not observe kashrut or Jewish dietary laws, and their melodic Shabbat prayers, chanted in Russian, could be mistaken for Russian folksongs.
According to Gersh-Meir Burshtein, who heads a small Chabad-sponsored synagogue in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, the fact that the community owned two Torah scrolls is proof that Sevan’s Subbotniks once were well-versed in Hebrew.

Some years ago, one of the old Torah scrolls was taken to the Yerevan synagogue, where it remains to this day. The other was stolen from the small community. Sevan’s Subbotniks now sing and read out of their own Torah-based Russian-language prayer book.

“Maybe at some point one of their elders realized that the community was losing its Hebrew knowledge and adapted the Torah into a Russian-language prayer book that they use now,” Burshtein said.

Jewish Split Marks Armenian Genocide


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.”


On What It Means To Be Armenian in America

About a decade ago, I was interviewing Professor Richard Hovannisian, the eminent UCLA authority on modern Armenian history.

He lamented the state of the Armenian Diaspora in Los Angeles, with its infighting and confrontations between church leaders, and its American-born generations forgetting the mother tongue and marrying out at an alarming rate.

“Hey,” I said, “that sounds exactly like the Jews.”

“Yes,” responded Hovannisian, “except you’ve got your country, and we haven’t.”

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Armenians, proud of the oldest civilization in Christendom — always conquered but never vanquished — have finally regained their own country.

But, judging by Leslie Ayvazian’s play, “Nine Armenians,” at the Taper Forum, the redeemed portion of the ancestral land is not a happy place.

Embroiled in constant warfare with its Moslem neighbor, Azerbaijan, and bedeviled by a stagnant economy, the Armenia presented to us is a country bereft of basic amenities, a place where starving citizens have burned their trees and furniture for some spark of warmth during the harsh winters.

As the fate of Israel and the memory of the Holocaust pervade the consciousness of American Jews, so do Armenia and the genocide of 1.5 million of their ancestors permeate the consciousness of American Armenians.

These twin markers of the Armenian experience are a constant underlying presence in the play, with the remembrance of the genocide as a festering wound. The scar has never healed, because the Turks have never acknowledged their guilt and the world — in contrast to the Holocaust — still largely ignores the deep tragedy.

Playwright Ayvazian and director Gordon Davidson work hard to show that, otherwise, the three-generation clan of the play’s title leads a warm, haimish, American family life.

There is the normal quota of affection, bickering, humor, death and growth, and an extraordinary amount of hugging and yelling — apparently, two Armenian ethnic traits.

Yet, with all this, few of the characters are developed fully and deeply enough to warrant the full engagement of the audience or to transmit a distinctly Armenian persona and distinctiveness to the non-Armenian.

A laudable exception is the family matriarch, Grandmother Non, portrayed by Magda Harout. Whether imparting Old World wisdom, showing her granddaughter how to really express suffering, or leading a lively regional dance, Harout infuses her role with warmth and élan.

“Nine Armenians” ends on Aug. 31. For tickets and times, call (213) 628- 2772.