Israel and Armenia Share the Pain of Genocide

July 22, 2012
Source: Al Monitor

By Eldar Beck

It is a mandatory visit for every Israeli. Overlooking the snow-capped summit of Mount Ararat, several dozen kilometers from the [Armenian] border with Turkey, there stands the national monument erected in memory of the million and a half victims of the Armenian Genocide. This commemoration site, whose construction was completed 45 years ago under the Soviet regime, is modeled in a simple, clean style: a cone-shaped obelisk made of dark basalt stones towering to a height of 44-meters (around 144 feet). It defiantly points upward to the sky, as an unequivocal statement, claiming the lost national territories, on which the Turks perpetrated the ethnic cleansing and which are currently under control of the hostile neighboring state. The tall obelisk symbolizes the rebirth of the Armenian nation following that atrocious genocide. At the foot of the obelisk, there is a dome made up of 12 inclined slabs positioned in a circle, shielding an eternal flame that burns in memory of the massacred.

The Armenian Genocide commemoration site, which is located on the outskirts of the Armenian capital city of Yerevan, includes a small museum consisting of three modest exhibit halls. The plain and simple architecture enhances the heavily-laden atmosphere of the site, which is shrouded in deep gloom. The photographs of the mass graves, the shriveled bodies of the hunger victims and the freight trains loaded with the deportees expelled from their land, are shockingly similar to those documenting the Holocaust of European Jewry.

As a matter of fact, it seems that the Germans, who allied with the Turks during the First World War, used the [Armenian] Genocide,which had taken place some 20 years prior to the Holocaust, as a model for imitation. Referring to that genocide, Adolf Hitler allegedly told senior officers of the German army: "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

The Israeli Parliament (the Knesset) has recently devoted a plenum debate, the first in its history, to the Armenian Genocide. It is rather doubtful whether such a debate would have been held hadn't it been for the realization in Israel that the crisis in its relations with Turkey is too deep to be resolved. A few days before the Knesset debate, I was invited to attend an independently held memorial ceremony organized by a group of Israeli women at the Armenian Genocide Museum. The event was sponsored by Magma, an Israeli company [specializing in adventure and field trips] that organizes challenge trips to Armenia. Additional memorial ceremonies organized by Magma are to be held at the Armenian Genocide commemoration site in the coming weeks. Most of the women who took part in the ceremony are of the opinion that Israel has a moral obligation to acknowledge the tragedy of the Armenian nation, regardless of any political considerations. At the same time, some of them insist on drawing the line between the Armenian Genocide and the Jewish Holocaust, maintaining that the two are not comparable.

"I see no justification for talking of the Armenian Genocide and the Jewish Holocaust in the same breath, although the two have some common attributes," says Hanny Shavit, a native Israeli whose parents fled from Poland to Russia upon the invasion of the Nazis, while their families, who were left behind, did not survive. "I believe that the Jewish Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide should each be considered separately; after all, you would not bind together the Armenian Genocide and the victims of the Darfur Conflict. However, I do believe that Israel should acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, as we too are relentlessly struggling to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive and fiercely campaign against the Holocaust deniers. One should not ignore genocide, any genocide, whoever the victims may be, as tomorrow you yourself may be the victim. Such atrocities are liable to happen anytime, anywhere in the world." Dorit Ya'acovi and Shoshana Magen, who join our talk, agree, "We should acknowledge the Armenian Genocide the same way we want others to remember our Holocaust."

The Jews and Armenians Share a Similar Fate

The simplicity of the Armenian Genocide Museum is a painful testimony to the continuing Armenian tragedy. The exhibits, for the most part, are designed to convince visitors that the Armenian Genocide has indeed occurred. In three years, the Armenians are going to mark the 100th anniversary of the genocide of their people and they are still struggling for international recognition of their national tragedy. The Turks, who categorically deny the claims that an organized genocide actually happened, are exerting heavy pressures on countries the world over not to grant legitimacy to "the false Armenian version." Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has already announced that "Muslims are incapable of perpetrating genocide."

At the entrance to the commemoration site, several rows of young trees have been planted. Israel has not planted a tree there yet. Nevertheless, Jewish delegations and Israeli visitors are coming to pay tribute in growing numbers, and in an unprecedented official gesture on the part of the Israeli government, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Orit Noked recently visited the site and laid a wreath in honor of the Armenian victims. However, official Israeli recognition of the Armenian Genocide is still held as hostage of the problematic relationship between Jerusalem and Ankara. And even though Israel is ready to play brinkmanship with Turkey, whose foreign policy is based on the denial of the Armenian Genocide, the Netanyahu government is so far reluctant to make a move that would officially nail down the lid on the relations between Israel and Turkey.

"It would be really banal if I said that I expect Israel to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide," Dr. Hayk Demoyan, Director of Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan, noted in an interview to the Israeli daily Yedioth Aharonoth. "Condemnation [of the Armenian Genocide] by the Israeli Parliament would also be in honor of the Jewish Holocaust victims. We are on the same front. I would rather not use the worn-out rhetoric according to which both Jews and Armenians went through a lot of suffering. But this is just the case. An attitude of double standards with respect to the Armenian Genocide is bound to detract from the memory of the Holocaust as well. I simply cannot put up with it [the denial of the Armenian Genocide], the same way that I cannot tolerate any person who denies the Holocaust. The denial of the Holocaust is tantamount in my eyes to the denial of the Armenian Genocide."

I toured the museum accompanied by Suran Georgian, a 34-year-old Armenian. Although he is engaged in the tourism business, he had visited the place only once before, a visit that left him so deeply depressed that he avoided further visits to the museum. Israeli recognition [of the Armenian Genocide] would be highly significant, in his opinion. "You, more than any other nation in the world, experienced suffering of the kind that we were subjected to," he says. "True, the Jewish Holocaust was on a larger scale, and the genocide was carried out in an organized, systematic manner. However, you alone can understand what we really went through."

Dr. Demoyan is rather skeptical about the belated interest official Israel is showing in the horrible tragedy that befell his people. "If moral considerations and values are at the base of the debate [held in Israel on the issue], then why is it held only now? If the Knesset debate has to do with your relations with Turkey and the Marmara affair, then it is not what we wish for." Demoyan plans to arrive in Israel shortly and visit Yad Vashem [Israel's official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust], in preparation for the expansion of the Armenian commemoration site. "We would like to learn from the Israeli commemoration experience and look forward to cooperating with you," he says, adding: "If you recognize the Armenian Genocide, all other countries in the world will follow suit."

And as [British-Guyanese poet, novelist and playwright] Fred D'Aguiar says [in his first, award-winning novel The Longest Memory],"Memory is pain trying to resurrect itself."