National Jewish organizations in the United States have played a dangerous game for decades, giving safe harbor to denial of the Armenian genocide. As its 100th anniversary arrives on April 24, there is an opportunity to turn the page on a dismal chapter of Jewish American history.
The bar is set higher now than simply uttering a particular word or posting a statement to a website. Jewish leaders and organizations have to demonstrate that they recognize the humanity of Armenian people who still live in the long shadow of genocide. These families have been robbed of everything they built and earned in centuries of cultural continuity. Their injuries are compounded by Turkish denial and the complicity of those who could be allies, including ourselves.
Over the past three decades, various national Jewish leaders have urged Armenians to address their need for validation by taking up the matter with the Republic of Turkey itself. Imagine Jews being told to do the same with Germans. Jewish leaders have made public comments that deliberately provide cover for those who willfully undermine the truth; and in our name, they habitually advocate against congressional efforts to acknowledge the genocide. Some even take steps to exclude the Armenian story from genocide education curriculums and Holocaust commemoration events.
The reasons provided to support these choices?
First, Turkey is an important ally to Israel and Jews cannot afford to risk provoking their anger by telling the truth. In addition, Turkey has been tolerant toward Jews within its borders and we owe them a debt of gratitude. Paradoxically, we are also told that Jews in Turkey will not be safe if Jews in America speak plainly about the Armenian genocide.
Second, we are told that Armenian advocates might use the designation of “genocide” and any platform we give them to make comparisons and connections to the Holocaust that advance their own cause of recognition. We should not support the Holocaust being used for this kind of purpose.
No advocate for this position has been more outspoken than Abraham Foxman, longtime National Director of the Anti-Defamation League. He has hardly lacked for company among the most prominent professional and volunteer leaders within the ADL and in other national Jewish organizations.
Eight years ago the Jewish community in Greater Boston made a very different choice. I was Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League there at the time. Our diverse Jewish community chose to publicly acknowledge that the events beginning in Constantinople on April 24, 1915, were indeed genocide, and that a congressional resolution saying as much was in order.
Those involved in the Boston decision and those who supported it were not poorly informed, nor did they take the challenges of Jewish and Israeli security lightly. It would also be inaccurate to say, as Mr. Foxman did shortly thereafter, that we were prioritizing an Armenian cause above concern for Turkish Jews or Israel or that our judgment was clouded by assimilation and intermarriage, charges he also made via the media. In fact the decision to acknowledge the Armenian genocide was a matter governed by the facts as well as they could be understood. I believe that the frustration Mr. Foxman directed at the Boston Jewish community was based on its refusal to defer to his judgment and the commitments he may have made on the community’s behalf.
Since the episode in Boston, some of the most prominent national Jewish organizations have followed suit in one way or another, using the word genocide with varying degrees of sincerity and candor and virtually no follow-through. Nevertheless, the dystopia our leaders had long forecast if the taboo were to be broken has not come to pass. And the treasured Israeli alliance with Turkey turned out to be weaker than imagined, falling apart over the Gaza War in 2014. If Jews in Turkey are less safe now than they were a few years ago, it is not because some of us are using the “g-word.”
Unfortunately, there is still not a perceptible increase in direct Jewish engagement with Armenian Americans in the places where we both live and contribute to the vibrancy of pluralism and democracy. I am not sure there is even much greater awareness of the specific facts of the genocide itself. What explains the slow growth in outreach to the Armenian American community to build on the cautious statements that national leaders have finally begun to make? If it is simply a lack of leadership then the job again falls to the community to demand the agenda it wants.
The American Jewish community would be wise to retire two morally and strategically bankrupt imperatives that have contributed mightily to this morass.
The first of these feckless imperatives is that anything said to be necessary for Israel’s safety and Jewish security can be justified without rigorous and transparent analysis. The days of deference to the individual judgments of national leaders on issues of strategic importance have to end, no matter how experienced those leaders are. Recent examples of the new landscape where individuals and communities make up their own minds and adopt a wide array of opinions are Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge in Gaza and the recent Israeli elections.
A second imperative we must fully let go of is that the Holocaust has to be insulated from comparison and even commemoration alongside other catastrophic crimes like the Armenian genocide. As media outlets have reported, the Anti-Defamation League has for decades had a policy prohibiting its regional offices from participating in Holocaust-related events jointly with organizations focused on the Armenian genocide. If the ban has been lifted, there is certainly no evidence of the organization moving beyond it today. Holocaust museums and genocide-studies programs have crossed this bridge already. They have rigorous methods for managing the analysis responsibly, and there is no sign of damage to any of the important histories that need to be remembered.
The occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide calls for a new commitment by the American Jewish community to acknowledge the experience of that catastrophe for Armenians and to validate the further destruction caused by its denial. Jewish organizations should also go further and indicate support for Armenian efforts to seek reparations and the recovery of stolen property, not unlike our community has pursued in the wake of the Holocaust. This should also be the moment we commit at the local level to deeper engagement with Armenian Americans. The burden is on us to reach out with sincerity and patience. We can start by listening to their story.
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