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Recognizing the Armenian Genocide

avatar by Jeremy Rosen


A depiction of the Armenian genocide. Photo: Wiki Commons.

April 24th is the date of the annual memorial that Armenians observe to recall the horrific massacres carried out by the Turkish government in 1915. It was part of their policy of ethnic cleansing to remove both Greeks and Armenians because they were regarded as a threat to Ottoman dominance. The Armenian genocide might not have had gas chambers and extermination camps, but over a million and a half men, women, and children were driven from their homes, and either killed outright or starved to death simply because they were Armenians.

Current Turkish president and autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as with his predecessors for the past 100 years, has steadfastly refused to recognize the massacre as genocide, and done all he can to dissuade the rest of the world from saying so. He claims that it was a civil war in which the Christian Armenians were trying to undermine the Muslim Turkish state, so they got what they deserved.

In 2009, at Davos in Switzerland, Erdogan had the audacity to accuse Israeli president Shimon Peres of committing genocide in Gaza. Peres gently reminded him of the Turkish treatment of Armenians and Kurds. Erdogan lost his temper and walked out.

For years, the West has appeased Turkey — on the Armenian genocide and other matters — for political, strategic, and military reasons.

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Israel, too, was reluctant to offend Turkey and chose to ignore the genocide. In 2007, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert blocked a debate on it in the Knesset. Shimon Peres in 2008 helped prevent the Anti-Defamation League from supporting a Congressional debate on the subject. It was not until Erdogan’s moves to break off contact with Israel and undermine it that Israeli President Reuven Rivlin addressed the Knesset on the issue. He said, “It is my duty as a Jew and Israeli to recognize the tragedies of the Armenians and other peoples.”

Last week, professor Colin Shindler wrote a powerful, well-documented article in the Jewish Chronicle, giving an overview of the historical background to the Armenian genocide and Israel’s response.

The United Nations, and its farcical Human Rights Council, still haven’t recognized the Armenian genocide. They seem more interested in attacking Israel’s right to self-defense than in calling out genocide.

President Donald Trump, too, refused to take the matter up with Erdogan; on the contrary, Trump said what a big fan he was of Erdogan’s. So it came as a welcome surprise that this year on the anniversary of the tragedy, the American president took a moral stand, and officially declared it a genocide (something that even Barack Obama was unwilling to do).

This was President Joe Biden’s statement: 

Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring. Beginning on April 24, 1915, with the arrest of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople by Ottoman authorities, one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in a campaign of extermination. We honor the victims of the Meds Yeghern so that the horrors of what happened are never lost to history. And we remember so that we remain ever-vigilant against the corrosive influence of hate in all its forms.

There is another angle to this story. The German army was involved, as a close ally of Turkey during World War I. Its military had forged close links with the Turkish armed forces, both in armaments and advice. German generals and officers participated and oversaw the campaign against the Armenians. It is claimed and speculated that the Germans learned from their experience that it was possible to murder millions and get away with it, because the rest of the world would not take any measures to intervene.

In 2015, German President Joachim Gauck acknowledged Germany’s “co-responsibility” for the Armenian genocide. A recent article by the German filmmaker Wolfgang Landgraeber specifically reiterates earlier evidence that German companies provided the guns, and German soldiers the expert advice on how to use them. German officers also laid what Landgraeber calls the “ideological foundations” for the genocide.

We Jews are so hypersensitive because of the long history of crimes perpetrated against us, and the ongoing disease of antisemitism and anti-Israelism, that sometimes we do not pay sufficient attention to other atrocities. Religiously and morally, we are commanded to be sensitive to cruelty wherever it may be perpetrated.

Despite the immense progress, there is so much evil still going on around the world. And when we ignore evil, it comes back to bite us.

The author is a writer and rabbi currently living in New York.

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