That other genocide

February 20, 2003
Source: Haaretz (Israel)

By Ronie Parciack


Mishnei Evreha Shel Makhloket Beinleumit
By Taner Akcam, translated into Hebrew by Erga Heller with an introduction by Yair Oron, Babel, 167 pages, NIS 53
(English edition: "Across an International Divide: Essays Toward a Turkish-Armenian Dialogue," Zoryan Institute, 2001, 101 pages)

Let it be said loud and clear: This book is an event, and on more levels than one. It tells the story of the historical atrocity perpetrated by the Turks against the Armenians and seeks to pull the veil off what has become a forgotten genocide - what Yair Oron, in his introduction, calls the "pact of forgetfulness," and Taner Akcam calls "collective amnesia." But that is not all. The book goes beyond the Turkish-Armenian conflict to touch on some of the basic premises of Israeli culture. It reexamines and questions these premises, and at the same time, attempts to awaken historical awareness - and morality - from their slumber.

In effect, the Hebrew edition of "Across an International Divide" is composed of two complementary parts: One is a collection of brief essays by the human rights activist and academic scholar Taner Akcam that addresses the Ottoman government's genocide of the Armenians in World War I and analyzes why it is difficult but imperative to implement Turkish-Armenian dialogue; and the other is a comprehensive introduction by Yair Oron.

Although the title of the book refers to Akcam's essays, structurally they are really secondary to Oron's contribution. The division is not just a formal one. While Oron offers a sweeping historical introduction that makes Akcam's work more accessible, it is much more than a crutch for readers who are not sufficiently acquainted with the historical particulars. His work serves as a cultural anchor and an impetus for getting Israeli readers to look at basic concepts in their culture and achieve insights about their own nation and its relationship with other peoples - past and present.

But first, a word on the main animus of this book - the Armenian genocide. In effect, two histories unfold in the work of Oron and Akcam. One is a horrifying, blow-by blow account of what happened in those years - 1915-1917 - that the world has tried so hard to block out.

Here are some of the facts presented by Oron: More than half the population of the Ottoman Armenian empire was wiped out (with the assumption being that there were 2-2.5 million Armenians at the time), and the rest were forced to leave the historic homeland where their ancestors had lived for nearly 3,000 years. The killings and deportations were carried out by the sovereign government of Ottoman Turkey as the diplomatic representatives of its allies - Germany and Austro-Hungary - looked on.

Hidden, haunting history

These horrors, only a tip of the iceberg, lay the groundwork for what came next: a hidden history that haunts the present and unconsciously determines it - a history of silence and denial. In this book, several channels of denial are laid bare: the constant haze surrounding the actuality of the event, the official government claim that there was no deliberate policy to exterminate the Armenians, the relatively limited international recognition of Armenian genocide and, on the other hand, the erasure of all memory of the Armenians and Armenian history in Turkey today. Who knows, for instance, that Anatolia was once called the Armenian highlands?

Beyond the disclosure itself, the book dwells at length on the implications of this repression. One of the leading arguments is that "the absence of real dialogue between the Turks and the Armenians, of open discussion about genocide and recognition that it took place, are genuine obstacles in the democratization process of Turkish society." The issue is a sensitive one that supersedes the psychological and pragmatic concerns of the Turkish nation (demands for compensation, territorial compromise, being voted out of the European Union, etc.), and touches on the roots of the debate on nationalism - or, to be more precise, the roots of the uniqueness and exclusivity upon which national identity is built.

Akcam brings the pain of a national trauma as an example: "Pain is the most powerful element of collective memory. That is why it is very easy for the nation state to structure its history around the theme of collective pain and remembrance. Whenever one attempts to rewrite history based on this collective memory, it is almost necessary to omit other nations and redefine them as the other."

In other words, building up nationalism is accomplished by the symbolic division of the world into "self" and "other," a division that stands out all the more in traumatic historical contexts. Views that are perceived as threatening the symbolic borders and self-images that unify and protect the nation are rejected out of hand, thereby destroying the basis for any coexistence of history and the other, i.e., the pluralism which serves as the bedrock of democracy.

Democracy depends on the concurrence of different narratives, and that is what makes recognition of the Armenian genocide so imperative. As Akcam puts it: "Instead of imagining the same period according to the needs of the nation state and instead of writing it as the histories of two rival nations, is it not possible to reread the history of 1915-1917 with a common historical perspective?"

Moral validity

In a broader sense, this brings us to fundamental questions that lie at the very core of Israeliness - and that is where Oron's essay comes in. Considering the solidarity that would seem to be par for the course between peoples who have undergone systematic genocide, and considering the centrality of the Holocaust in Israeli discourse, one might expect the Armenian genocide to have real resonance in Israeli culture. Surprisingly, however, the State of Israel has consistently ignored it. Representatives of the state do not participate in memorials held by the Armenians every year on April 24; the subject is rarely broached in public; TV documentaries exploring this topic have been kept off the air; and very few books have been published (one exception being Franz Werfel's novel "The Forty Days of Musa Dag").

What explanation can there be for Israel turning a blind eye to the trauma of the Armenians? Is it connected to the unique status of the Holocaust and the way this event colors Israeli nationalism, with its inherent sense of victimhood? In what way does this "handcuff" Israel? Does it also radiate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its trauma?

Writing with skill and the sensitivity of a person who knows something about national trauma and the weight attached to them by his readers, Oron makes a strong and broadly argued case that assumes even more moral validity by being published now.

At a time when the voice of the intellectuals has grown inaudible and weak, when national crisis has led, understandably, to a mad dash toward the protective shield of consensus, which only intensifies the preoccupation with nationalism, the publication of this book in its current format is a courageous political act - or better still, an act of true intellectualism.

Ronie Parciack is studying for her Ph.D. in philosophy at Tel Aviv University.