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Cries Unheard

In his roundup of Mid-East news yesterday, Avi referred to David Remnick’s profile of Avraham Burg in the latest New Yorker, in which the former Knesset speaker lamented the fact that, as he sees it,

"We confiscated, we monopolized, world suffering. We did not allow anybody else to call whatever suffering they have ‘holocaust’ or ‘genocide,’ be it Armenians, be it Kosovo, be it Darfur. In the last years, Israeliness has confined itself for itself only and lost interest almost for what happens in the world. For me, Israel is shrinking into its own shell rather than struggling for a better world."

I am not qualified to comment on the latter contention, save to observe that in a nation assailed, as Israel is, from all sides – both existentially and, in the court of world opinion, politically – a degree of introspection is perhaps understandable, whatever the rights and wrongs of Israeli policy. But Burg raises an interesting point in the first part of the above extract. For the members of Israel’s Armenian population, the indifference of successive governments to calls for Turkey to acknowledge the Armenian genocide of 1915-6 is a matter of continuing anger and resentment.

Walking through the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem some years ago, I kept seeing crude photocopied posters on archways and walls, depicting a map of eastern Turkey overlaid with place names and figures which, I eventually worked out, represented casualty statistics for each Armenian community in those areas of the Ottoman empire where they had been rounded up, send on horrendous forced marches over the Anatolian plateau, or simply shot and dumped into mass graves. Estimates as to the number of dead vary from 750,000 to 1.5 million, the uncertainty due not least to the Turkish government’s continued adherence to the “shit happens” defence that it was a time of war and lots of people died on all sides: a defence which is maintained by extensive, and expensive, lobbying in the corridors of power, not least Washington (about which Michael Crowley wrote an outstanding piece in The New Republic* recently, though sadly behind a subscription wall it requires free registration to read).

Any government or national assembly that passes a motion that so much as acknowledges the fact of the Armenian genocide will draw a swift rebuke from the Turkish government, normally interwoven with dark threats of diplomatic repercussions, cancelled contracts and the like. Despite the intensive lobbying of the Armenian community in the US, Washington continues to softpedal this issue; Turkey has huge strategic importance to the USA, not least due to its proximity to Iraq, and no one wants to rock the boat over a nearly century-old dispute. European parliaments have been a little bolder, but motions and resolutions on the topic have often been used as cover for governments nervous about Turkish entry to the EU for wider reasons. And of course in Turkey itself, it is unwise to proclaim your concern at the fate of the Armenians too loudly, as both Orhan Pamuk and Hrant Dink found in their different ways. As an aspirant member to the European club of nations, Turkey is the only country where it is genocide affirmation, and not denial, that is the crime.

For Western governments to indulge in realpolitik is one thing, however; for the government of Israel, of all places, to try to hush talk of genocide is quite another. And yet this has been a constant theme in recent years; though some Israeli politicians, such as former ministers Yossi Beilin and Yossi Sarid, have been happy enough to lend their backing to calls for Israel to recognise the Armenian genocide as such, the official position has always been to ignore the issue and hope that it goes away, for fear of upsetting Israel’s only ally in the region. Shimon Peres, no less, was quoted a few years ago as having said the following:

"We reject attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. It is a tragedy what the Armenians went through but not a genocide."

Pressed for clarification by Armenian activists in the US, the Israeli consul in Los Angeles released a statement that said:

"This issue [of the Armenian Genocide] should be dealt with by historians and not politicians. We do not support the comparison of the Armenian tragedies to the Jewish Holocaust. Israel will not take a historical and political stance on the issue."

One has only to imagine the reaction if a European government said something similar about the Holocaust, or asserted that because both Germans and Jews died in the war there was no need to point fingers, to appreciate the shocking nature of this statement to Armenians, particularly those living in Israel (some ten thousand in all). In some ways, Armenians feel a sense of betrayal: both peoples are used, historically, to living as minorities in foreign lands, both have been persecuted throughout their history, and both fell victim to shocking crimes in the twentieth century. But the reaction of Israeli officialdom remains cool at best, and the impromptu reminders put up by Jerusalem’s Armenian community tend not to last long before the authorities pull them down again, citing some municipal regulation or other.

Hitler once infamously reassured an aide nervous about his plans for European Jewry, “Who now remembers the fate of the Armenians?” It seems, sadly, that the answer is, increasingly: not very many. Israeli diplomats protest that these are exceptional circumstances; that in a region full of hostile Muslim neighbours, secular Turkey is an indispensable ally, and that it would be madness to drive them away over such an arcane issue. One can see their point; but for many, such cold and calculating denial leaves a nasty, sour taste in the mouth. Nor is it necessarily simply a matter of hard-headed politics. Some Armenians claim that Israeli reticence about discussing the Armenian genocide stems from a deeper issue; the need to preserve the Holocaust as a historical crime different both in scale and kind from any other is a theme which reappears again and again in writings on the subject by scholars of all backgrounds. To reduce the Final Solution to the status of mere primus inter pares might be a difficult step for many Jews to take; at any rate, these are dangerous waters, in which there is certainly little incentive for the government to dabble.

And so the Armenians of old Jerusalem continue to paste up their posters and watch them get ripped down, and their calls for acknowledgement of the crimes done to their ancestors fall on deaf ears. And they ask themselves: if not Israel, who? And if not now, when?

* Yup, not The National Review

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