Denying the undeniable

April 29, 2006
Source: Haaretz (Israel)

By Yossi Sarid

"The Banality of Denial: Israel and the Armenian Genocide"
By Yair Auron, Transaction Publishers.
(The Hebrew version has been published in Israel by Maba: 308 pages, NIS82.)

Only after Yair Auron's book appeared in English in America and Britain was the Hebrew version published here. Perhaps this is no coincidence. Israel, which officially denies the Armenian genocide, also officially denies its documentation.

Auron extensively discusses Israel's attitude to genocide in general, and the Armenian genocide in particular. The appearance of the word "denial" in the book's title is no happenstance. We Jews are the first to express shock and outrage when our Holocaust is denied, overtly or covertly, yet we turn our backs on the catastrophes of others. Unfortunately, even the Israeli academic community is not strenuously trying to increase knowledge of other people's genocides. Is this because it does not want to augment pain in the world?

The history of humanity's inhumanity along the path to hell is strewn with instances of genocide. In the last century alone, more than 140 million human beings were murdered, and the thirst for human blood has yet to be satisfied. As these lines are being written, genocide is being committed in Darfur, in western Sudan, and the world goes about its business without even a murmur of protest, as if complicity in these atrocities paralyzes it. However, as in the story of Cain and Abel, the blood that has been shed cries out. But even here in Israel, nobody is apparently listening. We may be Jews but our ears are uncircumcised (metaphorically).

We need not compare holocausts or genocides to understand, and identify with, the suffering of other nations. The Jewish Holocaust was so satanic that it allows - even obligates - us to share the suffering and pain of others, but it does not allow us any monopoly on genocide. Even if we share others' suffering and pain, we will still have heavy surpluses left over.

My teacher and mentor, Prof. Yehuda Bauer, one of the greatest contemporary Holocaust scholars, makes precise distinctions and definitions in a letter he wrote me following a recent article of mine that appeared in Haaretz:

"I believe there is no contradiction between the Holocaust's unprecedentness and its universal implications. I am not saying the Holocaust is unique because if it were, we could not study it, because it would be beyond the realm of human history. It would be an unrepeatable event that occurred because of suprahuman or subhuman forces at work in history. Nonetheless, the Holocaust was unprecedented; that is, it can serve as a precedent. That is precisely what happened, even if only partially, in Rwanda.

"This unwieldy word 'unprecedentness,' although nonexistent in Hebrew or English, is a more precise term for describing the Holocaust's nature. We can define the Holocaust as the 'genocide committed against the Jewish people by the Germans and their collaborators during the Second World War.' To call another nation's genocide a 'Holocaust' would place all instances of genocide under the rubric of the Jewish catastrophe and such an act would contribute nothing to the clarification or commemoration of each specific genocide or to attempts to prevent such events. I believe one universal sign of any genocide is the targeting of a specific, unique group for mass murder. This targeting is itself universal in every genocide. Thus, I object to giving one nation's genocide the same name as that of another's. 'Genocide' encompasses all instances of such mass murder. The Holocaust is the most extreme case of genocide so far, but there is no guarantee that a case equally or more extreme will never occur. As the most extreme case, it could serve as a paradigm for future genocides. That is the thinking of the International Task Force for Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research, jointly sponsored by 24 nations, and that is how the Holocaust is perceived by the group I head, a team of activists committed to preventing genocide that has prioritized Darfur in its agenda because today a horrific genocide is taking place there." This is the core of Prof. Bauer's letter, which contains many important insights and clarifications.

More acts of genocide and politicide were committed in the 20th century than in any other, and it is sometimes called "the century of genocide" or "the century of violence." The first known instance of genocide in the previous century was in Namibia, but it has been largely ignored, almost forgotten. The second was the genocide committed against the Armenians by the Turks, and its memory persists despite all Turkey's efforts to make the world forget.

One person who is among the leaders in the struggle to prevent the world from forgetting is Prof. Yair Auron. He is also one of the few Israelis who have redeemed the Jewish people's and Israel's name, although Israel is so fearful of offending Turkey that it is willing to bend fundamental principles in order not to displease the Turks. For interests of realpolitik, Israel is guilty of complicity in denying the Armenian genocide. Thus, how can we accuse other nations of debasing themselves by denying the Holocaust for reasons of realpolitik? Despite the admitted importance of Israel's relationship with Turkey, it is regrettable and depressing that it forces Israel to adopt a policy of official denial that could backfire on us one day, when other nations do unto us what we are doing unto others, and which we hate so much. Genocide must never be denied, no matter what the reasons or the identity of the murderers and their victims.

One could argue that, had the world not adopted a policy of "back to business" in the face of the Armenian genocide, turning its back and closing its eyes, the Jewish Holocaust might never have happened. The German National-Socialists derived much encouragement from the complacency, indifference and silence of the world's nations, and decided that the world would not excessively protest or be overly shocked or outraged if, after the Armenians, the next genocidal victim would be the Jews, whose blood is no redder. In one famous speech, Hitler himself referred to the Armenians' fate as he hinted what the Jews could expect. Ignoring one genocide will bring on another, and the murderers usually emerge from the dark, foul-smelling cave their predecessors inhabited. Those who have thus far not understood that point - and many Israeli leaders belong in that category - will certainly understand it after reading Auron's book. One cannot warn humanity of tomorrow's genocide without exposing yesterday's and recognizing it and its atrocities.

For Armenians everywhere, Israel's and the Jewish people's attitude toward their catastrophe is crucially important. They need our recognition because we are genocide's natural, historical victims and because it is vital in their struggle to perpetuate their genocide's memory and implications. They seek Jerusalem's leadership; yet that city, which envelopes itself in a silence that speaks volumes, is surrounded by hills of indifference.

Perhaps today, with the world more open to the Jews' suffering, we ourselves can open up more to the Armenians'. In September 2005, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously resolved that January 27 would be the day of international commemoration of the Holocaust and its victims. The world's nations will henceforth annually observe that date, the anniversary of the Red Army's liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. I am certain that the day is not far off when the Armenians' tragedy will similarly be internationally recognized. I want to see Israel champion that cause.

"The Banality of Denial" is not just a fascinating, informed research document; it also challenges all genocide-deniers. It is a credit to its author and his colleagues who refuse to accept the denial policy of Jerusalem, whose walls are now sadly being guarded by the blind, the deaf and the mute.

Yossi Sarid's latest book "Papiczek: He Didn't Know His Name" has been published in Hebrew and English by Yad Vashem and Yedioth Ahronoth/Hemed Books.