Knesset speaker calls to rethink stance on Armenian genocide

Referencing Holocaust, Yuli Edelstein slams ambivalence, says Israel ‘cannot afford to remain silent’

May 12, 2015
Source: The Times of Israel

By Jonathan Beck and Marissa Newman

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on Tuesday said Israel should reexamine its official position on recognition of the Armenian genocide, two weeks after Israeli officials shied away from using the term at commemorations marking 100 years since the massacre.

Israel has refrained from formally recognizing the atrocity as “genocide” amid vehement opposition to the term by former ally Turkey.

President Reuven Rivlin, who was one of the most outspoken advocates for recognition of the genocide during his time as Knesset speaker, skirted the term during the recent centenary commemoration, disappointing Armenian leaders. He used it, however, several weeks earlier at a different event).

On Tuesday, Edelstein spoke out against Israel’s “ambivalent” stance, terming “too hesitant, too restrained.”

“This is one of the most despicable and most dramatic incidents that happened in the beginning of the last century,” Edelstein said. “It is no secret that the State of Israel has until now taken an ambivalent stand on the Armenian genocide. A thicket of constraints, diplomatic and other, created a state of affairs in which the Israeli position was too hesitant, too restrained, and as a result – it appears to have diminished the importance of this powerful event.”

Israel once enjoyed strong ties with Turkey, which vehemently opposes recognition of the genocide, and has in recent years tried to rehabilitate its relationship with Ankara despite a number of setbacks.

Though ties between Jerusalem and Ankara are at an all-time low, recognizing the Armenian genocide would likely further distance any prospect of reconciliation.

Referencing the Holocaust, Edelstein said Israel “cannot afford to remain silent.”

“The State of Israel must thoroughly examine its official position, since history, as we know, cannot be changed,” he said.

Following Edelstein, several other Knesset members also voiced support for the initiative.

Meretz leader Zahava Gal-on said the issue “cuts across political positions. It is not a political but rather a human issue.”

“Regrettably, for too many years this issue was a pawn in the hands of Israeli foreign policy, which chose to sacrifice truth and memory at the altar of interests,” she said.

Last month, MKs Nachman Shai (Zionist Union) and Anat Berko (Likud) represented the Knesset in Armenia during events marking the centennial of the mass killing. It was the first time Israel had sent an official delegation to the commemoration ceremonies.

Speaking at the Knesset on Tuesday, Shai said: “At the official ceremony in Armenia they also mentioned the Holocaust. There is no place where people discuss the Armenian genocide that our Holocaust does not get mentioned.”

“There are similarities and there are differences between the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide, and we don’t mix the two. What happened in Armenia is genocide; we have come to the conclusion that after 100 years the time has come for humanity to wake up,” he added.

Berko said that “the Armenian tragedy is not like Holocaust of the Jews of Europe and there is no place to compare the conflict between the Armenians and the Turks with the Holocaust of the Jews of Europe. As we stand facing the Armenian historic memory we still feel that the wound is wide open.”

Edelstein’s call is not the first time Israeli lawmakers have urged Israel recognize the Armenian genocide.

Rivlin used to be known as one of the country’s strongest advocates for the unequivocal recognition of the genocide, said Georgette Avakian, a member of the Armenian Case Committee in Israel.

“Today, he is the president of the state and things aren’t exactly as they once were,” she told The Times of Israel. “He didn’t use the word ‘genocide.’”

Israel’s ongoing denial of the Armenian genocide has thus far survived several debates in the Knesset and even efforts by a former education minister to add the topic to school curricula.

“Israel’s position hasn’t changed,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said in an interview last month. “Israel and the Jewish people are showing solidarity and empathy with the Armenian people and government in light of the profound tragedy they endured during World War I.”

Marissa Newman is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.