Armenian Genocide and Israeli recognition

By Harry Hagopian
30 May 2011

In her piece in the Jerusalem Post on 18 May 2011, Rebecca Anna Stoil wrote the following attention-grabbing and perhaps somewhat unanticipated news item: 'Knesset moves toward recognising Armenian genocide'. [1]

It read: MKs [Members of the Knesset] voted by a unanimous vote of 20-0 following the hearing to refer the subject for a further hearing to the Knesset’s Education Committee, a hearing that will also be broadcast, at least via the Internet. In contrast, any previous discussions concerning the genocide had been held exclusively behind the closed doors of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

“I am certain that as Israelis, who have heard so many times people attempting to deny the horror that was brought upon our people, it is impossible for the Knesset to ignore this tragedy,” said Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin.

“The historical facts supporting it are solid and well-based. There is still an argument between the Turkish nation and the Armenian nation, but this argument cannot justify even a sliver of denial regarding the Armenian people’s tragedy. We find it difficult to forgive other nations who ignore our tragedy, and thus we cannot ignore another nation’s tragedy. It is our moral obligation as human beings and as Jews.”

In fact, writing in Haaretz.com only a day later under the title 'Knesset to discuss Armenian Genocide amid deteriorating Turkey ties' [2], Jonathan Lis explained how the former Meretz parliamentarian Haim Oron had repeatedly attempted to raise the issue of the recognition of the Armenian genocide at the Knesset (Israeli parliament) Education Select Committee, but with government officials always moving in to cancel the debate.

Does this not remind one of the various battles for recognition in the USA too, where successive Administrations have moved in at the last minute to 'kill' any motions for recognition on the Hill?

Anyway, in his Haaretz piece, Lis added that Meretz MK Zehava Gal-On, who replaced Oron following his retirement, also pursued the same course and declared to the Knesset assembly her belief “that it was the duty of the Israeli Knesset to make a clear stance on this issue, especially in face of the thundering silence of past Israeli governments over so many years.” She segued, “It is important to stress - the moral obligation to recognise the Armenian Genocide is not a left or right issue.”

As a matter of fact, I would go further back to 24 April 2000, when I recall standing next to Yossi Sarid, the then Israeli Minister of Education, in the courtyard of the Armenian Patriarchate in Jerusalem. Sarid spoke at the commemorative event of the 85th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide by referring to The Forty Days of Musa Dagh whose Prague-born Jewish author Franz Werfel had published his harrowing story about the Armenian victims of the genocide in German in 1933 when Adolf Hitler had just come to power (the book was translated into Hebrew in 1934).

Sarid stated in front of Armenian Patriarch Torkom II and an assembly of Armenians and non-Armenians: ”As Minister of Education of the State of Israel, I will do whatever is in my capacity in order that this monumental work The Forty Days of Musa Dagh is once more well-known to our children. I will do everything in order that Israeli children learn and know about the Armenian Genocide. Genocide is a crime against humanity and there is nothing more horrible and odious than genocide. [...] We, Jews, as principal victims of murderous hatred are doubly obligated to be sensitive, to identify with other victims.”

But despite such well-intentioned exhortations, is it not quite likely that we are witnessing another déjà-vu in Israel in 2011? Indeed, I am not too comfortable that the way in which the Armenian Genocide is being traded by Israeli politicians in geopolitical markets is quite ethical.

Could it be that Israeli lawmakers are using this emotive issue as a way of expressing their displeasure at Turkey - and almost spiting it - since inter-state relations sank to their nadir following the MV Mavi Marmara flotilla affair of May 2010? Would this discussion really have happened if the political and military alliance between Turkey and Israel had been as strong today as it had been a mere few years ago?

While some Israeli political parties, such as the leftwing Meretz Party, have consistently supported recognition, it is an open secret that the shrewd president of Israel, Shimon Peres, as well as past and present politicians or parties the likes of the ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu Party or Tzipi Livni and her Kadima Party, have opposed such recognition and will in all likelihood pool their efforts again to ensure that this latest motion never sees the light of day.

Actually, Danny Ayalon, Deputy Foreign Minister, reacted to such recognition earlier this week by saying that it will never happen since it will ruffle relations between Israel and - wait for it - not Turkey but Azerbaijan now!

However, sheer political interests being structurally different from ethics, it would be a huge moral, let alone political achievement if Israel, the central hub of the horrendous ha-Shoah (Jewish Holocaust), were to recognise at long last this Armenian chapter of genocide. Writing in the JPost.com on 24 December 2010 under the title 'Keep Dreaming: This Week in Armenia' [3], after he had returned from a visit to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, to attend a conference on Diasporan communities, David Breakstone (Chair of the World Zionist Organisation and member of the World Jewish Executive) stated unequivocally (and I quote two of his thoughts):

We cannot right the wrongs of the past, but we can recognise them. Doing so would go a long way toward healing an open wound.

My visit to the genocide memorial in Yerevan dispels any doubt that this holocaust was every bit as ghastly as that experienced by the Jews a few decades later.

In fact, a Russian-language Israeli website [4] recently held an inquiry to clear up the attitude of Israelis towards the recognition of Armenian Genocide. According to the results, an overwhelming 90 per cent of the inquired users answered “yes” to the question “Should Israel recognise Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Empire?”

I understand that the debate is meant to be televised live this time round and that would render the deliberations less furtive or opaque. I also understand that the geopolitical dynamics affecting recognition are different today. So perhaps we should all watch this space, but let me also recall an article by Raffi Hovannisian, a friend who was the first Prime Minister of an independent Armenia in 1991 and now represents the Heritage Party in the Armenian Parliament. Under the title Turkey, 'Israel and the moment of truth' [5] on 14 May 2010, Hovannisian wrote (and I quote again two excerpts):

The Armenian Genocide must never be allowed to become a political football for selective use by two erstwhile allies to sort out their relations and the contents of their closets.

Recognition should not be a favour, nor an instrument of self-serving leverage, but a matter of truth and equity - simple, overdue, unrequited - and nothing more.

If the motion for recognition in the Israeli Knesset were successful this year despite my misgivings, then I - alongside scores of other Armenian and non-Armenian scholars, activists, sympathisers and grassroots - will rejoice this moral and equitable achievement. And in this case, my word of thanks would go to all those Israelis and non-Israelis - individuals and organisations alike such as Israel Charny, Yair Auron or the International Association of Genocide Scholars. They are not only righteous in the original sense of the word, but are khaverim … collegial friends … too.

Conversely, if this much-touted initiative fails again, I pray that Armenians will not experience waves of despair, rage, blame, invective, rhetoric or hatred. After all, we as a people surely do not need Israel or any other country to tell us that our forbears underwent this Armenian holocaust?

Do I need to remind myself that Armenians actually survived this heinous crime and in fact triumphed because we overcame a project that strove to annihilate us? We are now a robust people with all the fortes and foibles of many other peoples. Let us remember that we vanquished death with life, so do we desperately need the imprimatur of other countries for us to realise that we defied the angels of death in the late 1800’s as well as from 1915 to 1923? [6] I think not, since our very celebration of life will be the strongest riposte to those who tried to get rid of us - as will also our unflinching solidarity with all other victims of genocide world-wide.

References

[1] www.jpost.com/DiplomacyAndPolitics/Article.aspx?ID=221187&R=R1
[2] www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/knesset-to-discuss-armenian-genoc...
[3] www.jpost.com/Opinion/Columnists/Article.aspx?id=200734
[4] www.newsru.co.il
[5] www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-EdContributors/Article.aspx?id=178351
[6] ‘Our Lives Commemorate Their Deaths - The Armenian Genocide’ , by Dr Harry Hagopian: http://www.crag.org.uk/articles/article38.html

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK) and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net

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