Rattling the Cage: Playing politics with genocide


April 21, 2005
Source: Jerusalem Post (Israel)

By Larry Derfner

"And the world stood silent." This is one of the most indelible Jewish memories of the Holocaust, and one of our most bitter accusations.
On Sunday, in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, the 90th anniversary of the Armenian genocide – the slaughter of at least 1 million Armenian civilians by the Turkish Ottoman regime – will be memorialized.

What does the State of Israel and many of its American Jewish lobbyists have to say about it, about this first genocide of the 20th century? If they were merely standing silent, that would be an improvement. Instead, on the subject of the Armenian genocide, Israel and some US Jewish organizations, notably the American Jewish Committee, have for many years acted aggressively as silencers. In Israel, attempts to broadcast documentaries about the genocide on state-run television have been aborted. A program to teach the genocide in public schools was watered down to the point that history teachers refused to teach it.

In the US Congress, resolutions to recognize the genocide and the Ottoman Turks' responsibility for it have been snuffed out by Turkey and its right-hand man on this issue, the Israel lobby.

Jeshajahu Weinberg, founding director of the US Holocaust Museum, wrote that when Armenians lobbied to show the genocide in the museum, Turkey and Israel counter-lobbied to keep out any trace of it. The museum decided to make three mentions of the genocide, including Hitler's call to his troops to be merciless to their victims: "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

Over 125 Holocaust scholars – including Elie Wiesel, Deborah Lipstadt, Daniel Goldhagen, Raul Hilberg and Yehuda Bauer – have signed ads in the New York Times demanding acknowledgement of the Armenian genocide and the Ottoman Turks' culpability for it. Wiesel testified in Congress on behalf of such a resolution. The International Association of Genocide Scholars – which, by the way, is studded with Jewish names – holds the same view as a matter of course.

In the face of all this, Israel's position, as articulated by then-foreign minister Shimon Peres before a 2001 visit to Turkey, says the Armenian genocide is "a matter for historians to decide."
The American Jewish Committee's position is that of "the US government, the government of Israel, and the Turkish Jewish community: that this is an issue best left to historians, not politicians," says Barry Jacobs of the AJC's Washington office.

Off the record, a Foreign Ministry official describes Israel's approach to the issue as "practical, realpolitik. Whoever sees our position in this region can understand how important our relations with Turkey are."

And that's what determines the Israeli and US Jewish establishment stand on the Armenian genocide – Israel's crucial military, economic and political ties with Turkey.

Then, along with the "realpolitik" considerations, there's the Jewish people's weighty moral debt to Turkey, a safe harbor for Jews since the Spanish Inquisition over 500 years ago.

Finally, on a petty level, there's the worry that letting the Armenian genocide out of history's closet might diminish the "uniqueness" of the Holocaust in people's minds.

"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."

That's Yehuda Bauer talking. He's Israel's leading Holocaust historian, an Israel Prize winner, and now academic adviser to Yad Vashem. He began studying the Armenian genocide about 25 years ago as a natural outgrowth of his study of the Holocaust.

For 80 years, says Bauer, Turkey has been "denying the genocide... saying, 'Yes, there was terrible suffering on both sides, the Turkish versus the Armenian, these things happen in war.' 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."

To Turkey's claim, backed by Israel and its Washington lobby, that there's no conclusive proof of a Turkish Ottoman order for the mass murder of Armenians, Bauer says, "Oh, there's no doubt about it whatsoever. It's absolutely clear." He cites "thousands" of testimonials from US, German and Austrian officials who were in Turkey and what is now Armenia when it happened.

One of the most important of those witnesses was US ambassador to Turkey Henry Morganthau – a Jew, incidentally. He 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."

Israel and the Israel lobby fully acknowledge that the Armenians suffered a terrible "tragedy." A Foreign Ministry statement even notes that "the Jewish people have a special sensitivity to the murders and human tragedies that occurred during the years 1915 and 1916."

They just won't say who was to blame, or whether Turkey bears historical responsibility. Mention Wiesel and all the rest of the Holocaust and genocide historians, and the Israeli and US Jewish officials come back – off the record – with the renowned Bernard Lewis. Along with a few other American historians, Lewis says it wasn't a genocide at all, that World War I was going on and Armenians were fighting with Russia against the Turks, and that you can't blame Turkey for what happened, not then and certainly not now.

Thus the official Israeli/Jewish line: "It's a matter for historians to decide."

Fair enough. Even though Lewis's side is terribly outnumbered among Western historians, let's say the burden of proof lies with Wiesel, Bauer, Lipstadt et al, who say the Ottoman Turks ordered the massacre of 1 million-1.5 million Armenians. Let's say Israeli and US Jewish leaders aren't competent to judge who's right and who's wrong.
And let's even give their declared neutrality the benefit of the doubt because of Israel's relations with Turkey, and Turkey's long history of welcoming Jews in distress.

The point is this: Israel and the US Jewish establishment may say they're neutral over what happened to the Armenians 90 years ago, but their actions say the opposite. They've not only taken sides, they're on the barricades. They've done everything they can to cover up what the great majority of historians, including the entire community of Holocaust scholars, say was a clear-cut case of genocide.

Jews shouldn't do this – for any reason. Ninety years after the Armenian genocide, there is a decent Jewish response to the sickening behavior of the State of Israel, the American Jewish Committee and other US Jewish organizations:

Not in our name.