by Jeff Fleischer(World Jewish Digest, November 2007)
The term “genocide” didn’t exist until 1943, when scholar Raphael Lemkin coined it when describing the crimes of the Nazi Holocaust. But the concept of systematically killing a specific people has a centuries- old history; the first example in the 20th century was carried out in 1915 by the Ottoman Empire against its Armenian population.
On April 24 of that year, the Ottoman government, under its Young Turk leadership, arrested more than 200 Armenian intellectuals who were soon executed. Days later, the government began a campaign of forcibly relocating the Armenians to camps near the country’s border. Estimates of the dead vary, but up to 1.5 million Armenians, out of a population of about 2 million, died during this violent, forced deportation, with many bodies buried in mass graves. Smaller numbers of Assyrians and Pontic Greeks were massacred as well.
The Turkish government has always denied that the massacres constituted a genocide, claiming that the deaths were not part of an organized campaign. However, then-U.S. ambassador Henry Morgenthau Sr. and The New York Times described the ongoing killings as a policy of extermination. The campaign even inspired Adolf Hitler who, in a 1939 speech, used it to justify the planned brutality of his imminent attack against the Poles: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
After a decades-long push by the Armenian community, governments and organizations are today talking about that annihilation. Twenty-one countries – including Greece, Canada, Russia and Italy – have officially recognized the genocide, with France even criminalizing denial in 2006. The issue is currently a source of debate for both the United States government and America’s Jewish community, especially in light of a recent controversy involving the Anti- Defamation League (ADL).
The ADL, whose national leadership only recently acknowledged the murder of Armenians as “genocide,” will discuss at its annual board meeting this month whether to support a congressional resolution formally recognizing the same. The national organization has repeatedly declined to back that resolution – which ADL National Director Abraham Foxman has called “counterproductive” – as well as similar efforts in the past.
The resolution, which the U.S. House of Representatives introduced as HR 106 in January, was passed by the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Oct. 10 and is expected to come to a House floor vote before Nov. 14, despite heavy lobbying by Turkey to prevent its passage.
“It’s enormously important for the Congress and the administration to speak plainly when it comes to genocide” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told World Jewish Digest. “When we’re unable to do that because we’re afraid of offending an ally, it hurts our credibility. It allows others, like the government of Sudan, to say, ‘The U.S. will only criticize genocide when it’s done by a weak state like ours and not by a powerful ally.'”
A number of Jewish organizations across the political spectrum, including the American Jewish World Service, the Union for Reform Judaism and the Zionist Organization of America, have thrown their support behind HR 106.
“We believed we should tell the truth about a piece of history,” says Morton Klein, president of the New York-based Zionist Organization of America. “We don’t look at it as a Jewish/non-Jewish issue. This is an issue of an actual event in history, and we should acknowledge that it happened because it’s a fact of history, not for any other reason.”
“It’s as simple as this: ‘never again’ is intended to mean ‘never again’ for all people,” adds Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Progressive Jewish Alliance, which backs recognition. “We of all people obviously understand what genocide is. President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s attempts to deny or challenge the veracity of the Holocaust is something that, quite correctly, cuts us to the bone. The Armenian community has endured similar attempts to minimize, redefine, deny or marginalize their experience of genocide. As a Jewish community, we feel we have an obligation to stand up and say, ‘No, we’re not going to be silent when that kind of thing happens.'”
But the ADL has yet to sign on to the legislation and only officially recognized the genocide for the first time in late August, after a month of controversy over its position.
In July, the large Armenian community in the Boston suburb of Watertown urged the town to pull out of its “No Place for Hate” program – part of an ADL-sponsored nationwide effort designed to fight discrimination and promote diversity – unless the organization recognized the genocide. Within days, Watertown’s town council sided with the protestors, voting unanimously to pull out of the program.
Up until that point, the ADL’s Foxman had consistently declined to take a position on the genocide, telling the Boston Globe in August that he did not know if the massacres constituted genocide and that he did not want to be “the arbiter of someone else’s history.”
So, on Aug. 16, the ADL’s New England regional chapter chose to break with its national leadership by recognizing the genocide, and Regional Director Andrew Tarsy publicly said so. The next day, the national ADL responded by firing Tarsy, stating in a letter that regional leaders should not differ from the national organization publicly. The letter also said that, while the ADL wanted Turkey “to do more to confront its past,” it worried about the effect of formal recognition on Jews living in Turkey and on the Israeli-Turkish alliance. Tarsy’s firing only sparked more conflict, as two other members of the regional board resigned in protest, and leaders in the local Jewish and Armenian communities called for his reinstatement. Against this backdrop, Foxman issued a statement Aug. 21 in which he called the massacres of Armenians “genocide” for the first time.
“In light of the heated controversy that has surrounded the Turkish-Armenian issue in recent weeks and because of our concern for the unity of the Jewish community at a time of increased threats against the Jewish people, ADL has decided to revisit the tragedy that befell the Armenians,” Foxman wrote. “We have never negated but have always described the painful events of 1915-1918 perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenians as massacres and atrocities. On reflection we have come to share the view…that the consequences of those actions were indeed tantamount to genocide. If the word genocide had existed, then they would have called it genocide.” Foxman discussed his decision with Elie Wiesel and other historians who supported recognition, and on Aug. 27, he reinstalled Tarsy as regional director.
“I think the change is very important because of the role the ADL has played in this particular matter,” Sokatch says. “Foxman said many times ‘this is not a matter for legislators to decide but, rather, historians,’ which suggests there is some question to the historicity of the Armenian genocide. Imagine how we in the Jewish community would feel – and indeed do feel – when similar claims are made about our Holocaust. I think it’s very important that they’ve come out and reversed that, saying it was a genocide. It’s an important first step.”
The ADL will consider supporting the congressional resolution at this month’s national board meeting after the New England regional board placed it on the agenda.
Worries about the effects of recognition are not unfounded, as Turkey does have a history of repressing discussion of the genocide. It has long maintained a closed border with Armenia and refuses to engage in any form of diplomacy with its neighbor. Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, a Nobel Prize winner, was prosecuted for “public denigration of Turkishness” after criticizing the 1915 killings in a 2005 magazine interview. Charges against him were eventually dropped, but the same law has been used to imprison others who spoke out. Also prosecuted under this law was outspoken journalist Hrant Dink, a Turk of Armenian ancestry, who was later gunned down in front of his Istanbul office last January by a Turkish nationalist.
Within days of the ADL’s announcement recognizing the genocide, Turkish government officials publicly urged Israel to change the New York group’s perspective. Turkey’s ambassador to Israel cut short a vacation to immediately register his government’s anger, while the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling the ADL’s new position “an injustice to the unique character of the Holocaust, as well as to the memories of its victims.” Jewish organizations in Turkey also issued statements urging Jewish groups in America not to support congressional recognition, citing concerns about possible retribution.
“Turkey should recognize this dark chapter in its past, and we should be able to recognize it as well,” Schiff says. “It doesn’t do our alliance much good when we’re unable to speak honestly even to our friends. And we should resist any attempts by Turkey to apply pressure to the Jewish community in Turkey or to Israel. We shouldn’t allow Turkey to deny its past by using its relationship with Israel as leverage.”
Turkey has also tried pressuring Congress to withdraw the resolution. It has paid millions to former representatives like Bob Livingston and Dick Gephardt to lobby against its passage. In addition, it threatened to prevent the U.S. from using its border with Iraq and its strategically important Incirlik air base, a threat that prompted both the secretaries of State and Defense to come out against the resolution. Moreover, on Oct. 10, President Bush came out against the congressional resolution, saying it would damage the country’s relationship with a key North American Trade Organization (NATO) ally.
But while the risk of Turkish reprisal is real, resolution supporters see it as a case of moral imperative outweighing issues of realpolitik.
“If the United States, as the leader of NATO and of the world’s democratic nations, is itself on the record as recognizing that the events that gave birth to the idea of genocide should be regarded as such, this would enable, among other things, for Israel to do so much more easily,” says James Russell, the Mashtots professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University. “Israel is not in a position to go it alone on this issue.
“Turkey’s an important ally,” he continues, “but, at the same time, for Israel and for the Jewish community, this is a disturbing issue. Having to toe the line with an ally that’s committed a crime; the kind of crime the Jewish community knows much too well. It would certainly enable Israel to act as most Israelis, I think, want to. And perhaps this would also enable people within Turkey who are pressuring for democratization of its society to continue their efforts with a little more confidence.”
In the meantime, those in favor of recognition will continue to enlist the help of Jewish organizations and believe the ADL’s recognition of the genocide can help rally support.
“All nations that have experience with genocide have special credibility in asking Congress to condemn past genocides or to fight genocides taking place today in places like Darfur,” says Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Washington-based Armenian National Committee of America. “Whenever a community that’s been impacted so horribly by genocide speaks, they carry special weight and bring a lot of experience to their advocacy.
“Somehow, we’re taking the very evil that was visited upon us and trying to turn that into somehow making the world a safer place from genocide. Armenians and Jews and Cambodians and Rwandans and the people of Darfur today, they bring a special voice to efforts to fight genocide.”
Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for publications including Mother Jones, the Sydney Morning Herald, The New Republic, the Chicago Daily Herald, Chicago Magazine and Mental Floss.