February 23, 2020

The Armenian Genocide: Why Obama is Right — and Israel is Wrong

Friday marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, and I plan to pause for a minute or two during that day (as Israelis do during Yom Hazikaron, the country’s Memorial Day) to reflect on evil and say a prayer for the dead. Like many Angelenos, I won’t look forward to the traffic snarls on Wilshire Boulevard during the annual march near the Turkish Consulate General, but I will take consolation in the fact that the inconvenience is for a good cause — to get Turkey to officially acknowledge that their Ottoman forebears committed genocide against the Armenians of Anatolia. That it has not already done so is both shameful and reprehensible.

Much criticism has been leveled by Armenians at President Obama this week for refusing once again to use the term “genocide” in his annual message commemorating the atrocities. In doing so, he reneged on a campaign promise to use the term once he assumed office. Indeed, Samantha Powers, our current UN ambassador, once recorded a campaign promo promising Armenian voters and their sympathizers that Obama would not equivocate on this issue once in office. Be that as it may, and as incompetent as our president is on foreign policy, he did get this decision right.

Four generations after the Armenian Genocide, this country – which played no role in it, and whose Jewish ambassador to the Ottoman Empire repeatedly condemned the massacres – is being asked to infuriate Turkey, a key regional ally and fellow NATO member, at the request of Armenia and Armenian activists. While I for one would love to see the U.S. call this historical spade a spade, for the life of me I don’t see what this country owes Armenia. When has Armenia gone out on a limb for us? As far as I can tell, the country continues to ally itself with Putin’s Russia due at least in part to its poor relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan and the resulting loss of Armenian access to ports and regional trade routes. Would a definitive statement by a U.S. president put enough pressure on Turkey to get it to rethink its decades-old intransigence, ultimately leading to better Turkish-Armenian relations? Given the increasingly nationalistic bent of the Erdogan government, this is not a likely outcome.

The older I get, the more skeptical I become towards international agreements signed by the U.S. that offer great benefit to other countries and minimal benefit to ours. In recent months I’ve grown tired of hearing foreign-policy talking heads express support for the idea that a Russian invasion of Estonia would require the U.S. to go to war with Russia because of our NATO treaty obligations. While it’s easy to see why 1 million Estonians (and even some of the 300,000 Russians living in Estonia) would want to obligate NATO to come to their defense, it’s less clear why we should do so. What exactly does Estonia do for us? Would I want my daughter to die for Estonian independence? Absolutely not. And neither would you. In a similar way, while it’s easy to understand why Armenians would want to shame Turkey by having every major country denounce the Ottoman genocide against their ancestors, I don’t think that these countries should feel any obligation to do so.

With one notable exception. As a country founded in part as a haven for refugees from the Nazi Holocaust in Europe, Israel does have a special obligation to denounce genocide. I can forgive Israel for supporting apartheid South Africa in order to protect the country’s Jewish community, and I can overlook its refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in an effort not to antagonize Putin and make life harder for Russia's Jews. However, there can ultimately be no excuse for the only Jewish state to decline to recognize the genocide that was a precursor to the Holocaust. [In his statement on the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Hitler sarcastically asked who remembered the slaughtered Armenians.]

A few months after I started working at the Israeli Consulate General in Los Angeles, a group of Armenian protesters peacefully demonstrated in front of our building. They called on the government of Israel to defy Turkey and officially recognize the Armenian Genocide. As several of us looked down at the men and women 17 stories below us, a senior official at the consulate turned to me and said in Hebrew, “They’re right. Shame on us. We should all be down there with them.” I couldn’t agree more.