Open letter to Mr. David Harris, Executive Director at AJC Global Jewish Advocacy

Dear Mr. Harris,

I am making this appeal to you in an open letter to draw your attention to the fact that during the recent months articles inciting and propagating hatred towards Armenia and the Armenian people, and to me, as the leader of the Jewish community of Armenia, are published regularly in Israeli newspapers by a number of so called analysts – Arye Gut,  Alexander Murinson, Maxime Gauin (e.g. Baku to the future: Azerbaijan, not Armenia, is Israel's true ally , Anti-Semitism in Armenia.)

Biographies of the aforementioned authors and the content of the articles prove that they try hard to set public opinion and, particularly, the Jews, against the Armenian people, casting shadow on the centuries-old friendship of the two peoples.

Especially worth mentioning is Arye Gut’s latest brainchild – an article built on overtly false facts and attempts of manipulation.

A former citizen of Azerbaijan (he is Jew, not an Azeri), Gut, whose Facebook account provides ample evidence of his attempts to ensure the approval of the Azerbaijani authorities, speculates and manipulates data, positioning himself as allegedly “impartial” analyst.

In this article Gut yet again endeavors to convince the readers of the existence of anti-Semitism in Armenia and Diaspora. It is worth mentioning that Gut, Murinson and Gauin have already written nearly a dozen of articles, trying to provide proof of supposedly numerous cases of anti-Semitism in Armenia. Nevertheless, the examples they cite are either false or distorted. No representative of any political force, political party or NGO in Armenia has ever uttered any anti-Semitic remarks.

Rights of the Jewish community have never been questioned here. The Armenian people always have respected the Jews and admired the rich history of our people. Since time immemorial the Jewish community of Armenia has found favourable environment for free existence and enrichment of their culture on this land of rich culture.

The evidence of the Jewish presence in Armenia is a medieval Jewish settlement and cemetery, both preserved due to Armenian government’s and people’s care for it.

Not only does Arye Gut ignore it all, but also dares to voice poignantly indecent expressions addressed to me and the Jewish community of Armenia which is nothing but an example of anti-Semitism in itself.

As Michael Chlenow, Vice-President of the World Jewish Congress, stressed during the recent Global Forum “Against the Crime of Genocide” held in Yerevan a couple of weeks ago, “Even if the Jewish community of Armenia is small, it is well-organized and proud, and through its activity contributes to both enrichment of the Jewish culture and strengthening of centuries-old friendship of the two peoples.”

Armenia has never denied the Holocaust. This year on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day President Serzh Sargsyan addressed the Jewish community in a statement. During his visit to the USA in May, the President of Armenia also visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Armenia is the only country in the region where school curriculum includes direct reference to the Holocaust; moreover, according to various assessments, from the point of view of the awareness of the Holocaust, the Armenians are amongst the best-informed people in the world.

In his article Gut once again tries to use to his advantage the fact of cooperation between some representatives of the Armenian Diaspora and the Nazis during WWII. It is a historical fact that the Armenian legion did not take part in the combat operations and was stationed in the rear – mainly in France, Holland and Poland. The Nazi leadership never trusted the Armenian legion. On December 12, 1942 Hitler said that “…In spite of all declarations from Rosenberg and the military, I don't trust the Armenians”. The members of the Armenian Legion never missed a chance to revolt against the Nazis and join the resistance groups. The Armenian POWs played important role in the liberation of South France, while another group of Armenian POWs revolted in Holland.

Most probably, Arye Gut is also aware that the Azerbaijani legion in the German Armed Forces was four times larger than the Armenian one. The Azerbaijani legion participated in a range of massacres of the Polish and the Jews (particularly, 40.000 people were annihilated during Volyn massacre). The former President of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan (1918-1920) Mamed Rasulzade, who nowadays is glorified in Azerbaijan, spared no effort to recruit the Azerbaijani prisoners of war to the ranks of the Nazi army.

As for the Armenians, they fought against the Nazis in the frontlines of the Red Army, as well as in Diaspora. More than half a million Armenians fought in WWII, and only half of them returned home. Armenian soldiers fought in all the bloody battles, liberating from the Nazi yoke numerous peoples, including Jews.

As if following a the long-standing tradition, Gut’s article ‘circulates’ the theses of Azerbaijani-Turkish anti-Armenian propaganda, i.e. the blatant denial of the Armenian Genocide and the repetition of the official Baku’s assessment of events in Khojaly in 1992. What is more, all this is by no means done in a professional manner. In reality, Mr. Gut would rather quote the then President of Azerbaijan Mutalibov on the events in Khojaly, who inadvertently exposed the masterminds and those who even today use these clichés for propaganda purposes.

I was raised in a Jewish family. From the very first days of war my father joined up and reached Berlin. He was given numerous military awards and decorations. Together with her parents and my elder brother, my mother was evacuated three times. My husband’s ancestors, Armenians, suffered the Genocide in the Ottoman Empire and a considerable part of the family was annihilated.

My family spares no effort to strengthen the friendly ties between Armenia and Israel. We wish peace and prosperity to the two countries, and, of course, all the people on Earth. Unfortunately, shameless liars and provocateurs like Mr. Gut accuse me of “complicity in Nazism, Fascism and anti-Semitism”.

They must have forgotten that people should think twice before they utter such remarks – one could be detained for that.

It is inconceivable that leading newspapers and journals publish rubbish, without thinking of their own reputation.

Dear Mr. Harris, your organization has always emphasized the importance of strengthening of tolerance between peoples and fight against hate speech.

Authors of articles, pointed out by me, try to manipulate the Jewish media and the Jewish community in their dirty and unacceptable propaganda stunts.

I am grateful to you and proud that for years I have been invited to participate in the American Jewish Committee Annual Forums, which always pay a great deal of attention to strengthening of tolerance and fight against inter-ethnic hatred.

I am full of hope that you will share my concern and together we will be able to exert joint efforts to resist such provocative behavior.


Rimma Varzhapetyan-Feller,

President of the Jewish Community of Armenia


Springtime for Talaat Pasha

In 1967, barely twenty years after Nazi officers faced an international military tribunal for crimes against humanity, a Jewish-American comedy writer made his directing debut with a film lampooning the Third Reich. “The Producers,” by Mel Brooks, was, upon its release, alternately praised for its hysterical performances and panned for its insensitive premise: the staging of “Springtime for Hitler,” a tasteless musical intended by its deranged author “… to show the world the true Hitler… the Hitler with a song in his heart.”

As decades passed, sentiment toward the film became overwhelmingly positive, leading to a Tony-winning theatrical adaptation in 2001 and a film remake in 2005. Brooks's intervening rise to fame aside, the film's roundly-embraced resurrection followed five decades of processing the atrocities of World War II—possibly the ultimate proof that comedy is tragedy plus time. By the end of the 20th century, Brooks's zany fuehrer and goosestepping chorus girls were no longer “too soon,” freeing audiences to laugh at the petty scheming, craven opportunism, and unintended satire by Bialystock and Bloom.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia from 2009 through 2012, I cited “The Producers” during a cross-cultural seminar with Armenian trainers about working with Americans. Our discussion had turned to difficulties Volunteers might face when talking about the atrocities of World War I, when more than one million Armenians perished under the Ottoman government in Turkey. Although the Turkish government today acknowledges the relocation campaign and its deadly fallout, it comes short of admitting to ethnic cleansing by the state. Counting Turkey as a crucial political ally in the region, the United States government toes this line, with the U.S. president avoiding the word “genocide” in official declarations.

This policy was very much in evidence during Peace Corps trainings with U.S. Embassy workers who, serving at the pleasure of the Oval Office, refused to use “the g-word” during Q&A sessions with Volunteers, most of whom, perhaps reflexively, sympathized with Armenians. The dynamic was a microcosm of attitudes in the U.S., where a majority of states acknowledge the Ottoman treatment of Armenians as a genocide even though the federal government does not.

During the training seminar, I explained that the Holocaust is a touchstone for most Americans in understanding genocide. In contrast to the Armenian case, Hitler's crimes had long ago been acknowledged and addressed, permitting the balm of humor to facilitate cultural healing. Scores of films had been made about Young Turk leaders like Talaat Pasha, who oversaw the decaying Ottoman Empire and commissioned Armenians' lethal deportation; but how many had been comedies? Everyone in the room agreed the notion was inconceivable.

My point was not that Armenians should make fun of the Young Turks like Jews and others have mocked Nazis. Rather, my goal was to illustrate the difference between Americans' and Armenians' paradigms for relating to genocide. For Americans, it could be difficult to comprehend how raw the genocide continued to be for Armenians nearly 100 years later. For Armenians, it was surprising how—and how soon—an American Jew could joke about a monster like Hitler.

At the time of this seminar, I had lived in a small Armenian village for roughly one year. Whenever the Armenian genocide came up in conversation—which was seldom—villagers often asked about recognition by the U.S. government. Like the proverbs Armenians invoked about denial (“To have the genocide denied is to die twice”), American presidents' avoidance of the word “genocide” in recent years was common knowledge among villagers.

“Why doesn't Obama call it a genocide?” they would ask me. “Presidents always promise they will when they are running for office, so Armenians will vote for them. But once they are elected, they forget.” When I explained the dodge as a diplomatic move to stay in Turkey's good graces, villagers would nod their heads knowingly. They didn't ask because they didn't understand; they asked because they were hurt.

With thousands around the world commemorating the centenary of the Armenian massacres this year, that hurt and resentment continues to cast a shadow over remembrance and mourning. The U.S. government's continued lack of formal recognition may be politically savvy in the short term, but it is certainly an obstacle to achieving psychological closure. As noted by Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer whose creation of the word “genocide” in 1944 was largely inspired by the suffering of Ottoman Armenians, “Genocide is a wound against all humanity. It is denial which ensures the wound can never heal.” As “The Producers” reminds us, humor can help that healing, but like any path to recovery, the first step is acknowledgment.

Chris Edling is a comedy writer living in New York City. From 2009-2012, he served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia.

We should speak out for HR 106

Notably absent from the disagreement over whether Jewish organizations should support HR 106, the congressional resolution recognizing the genocide of almost 2 million Armenians in the early 20th century, is any debate about the truthfulness of the resolution. Virtually every historian acknowledges that this genocide is an irrefutable fact. Instead, the controversy swirls around the question of whether it is in the interest of the Jewish community to take a position that might provoke anti-Semitism in Turkey or harm Turkish-Israeli relations.

HR 106 already has 227 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and is supported by a majority of Jewish senators and congressmen across the nation, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys), Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Jane Harman (D-Venice). Most of the Jewish organizational establishment, however, is either waffling or desperately trying to avoid the issue. The facts are embarrassing.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, initially declined to take a position on whether the Armenian genocide occurred. When the ADL’s executive director in Boston publicly criticized the refusal to acknowledge the Armenian genocide and called it “morally indefensible,” Foxman fired him. Shortly thereafter, two ADL board members resigned in protest.

As a result of the ensuing criticism, Foxman modified his position to acknowledge that “there was an Armenian genocide,” but continued to refuse to support the congressional resolution that “there was an Armenian genocide.”

His rationale was that the congressional resolution is a “counterproductive diversion” that would offend Turkey’s government and people, which could lead to violence against Turkish Jews and damage to Turkish-Israeli relations.

The ADL is not the only Jewish organization that has vacillated or is paralyzed by fear of exacerbating anti-Semitism. The reason these organizations have chosen to remain silent has nothing to do with the merits of the congressional resolution. It has everything to do with their being intimidated by anti-Semites, in this case Muslim extremists.

It is a tragic truth of Jewish history that there is nothing unusual about the inclination of Jewish leaders toward such appeasement. In the years leading up to and during World War II, the Jewish establishment – led by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise – refused to protest the Roosevelt administration’s failure to take action to rescue the Jews of Europe.

They castigated and marginalized as extremists Jewish activists, such as Peter Bergson and Ben Hecht, who publicly demanded that the government take action to stop the ongoing Holocaust. The Jewish establishment was fearful that it would make things worse to antagonize the Nazi leadership and to embarrass the American government by publicizing the terrible events unfolding in Europe.

In the 1970s, when the oppression of Soviet Jewry became an issue of moment, the Jewish establishment again demonstrated its lack of nerve. Most Jewish leaders were fearful of participating in large public demonstrations and eschewed taking a position on the Jackson-Vanik legislation that was designed to punish the Soviets unless they relaxed their restrictions on Jewish emigration. The rationale was that aggressive action would inflame Soviet anti-Semitism. Once again the policy of timidity was proven to be wrongheaded.

More recently, Jewish, Israeli and American leaders opposed implementing federal law requiring that the U.S. Embassy in Israel be moved to Jerusalem because of fear of provoking Arab terrorism. Despite this capitulation to Muslim pressure, both Israel and the West have experienced a dramatic increase in terrorism.

If a Christian leader were to refuse to acknowledge the Holocaust out of fear of antagonizing Germany, Jews everywhere would justifiably be outraged. We would reject as unacceptable the excuse that “the Holocaust is only a Jewish issue.”

The failure of the Jewish establishment to support congressional recognition of the Armenian genocide is similarly shameful. Given our history, the Jewish people should be in the forefront of speaking out against genocide.

Jewish leaders should refuse to be blackmailed by Muslim extremism. Turkish threats of retribution against Israel and Turkish Jews must be confronted and condemned.

History teaches that flinching in the face of anti-Semitism is cowardly, unprincipled, ineffective and dangerous. As Winston Churchill observed, “Those who appease the crocodile will simply be eaten last.”

Steven M. Goldberg, an attorney, is vice chairman of the board of the Zionist Organization of America, Southern California Region.