The role of the Righteous is a vitally affirmative part in any history of mass-violence. In the Holocaust the place of the Righteous is well documented at the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem where the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations was inaugurated in 1962. A memorial of trees with plaques honors non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
While rescue is one of the noblest acts of courage in histories of genocide, other kinds of righteous action in the aftermath of genocide can also be of vital importance. In the case of the Armenian genocide this has had a distinctive meaning because the aftermath of the extermination of the Armenians has been marked by an aggressive state-sponsored assault by the Turkish government on the historical truth of the Armenian genocide. Scholars, writers, filmmakers, editors, curators, journalists, and others who have engaged with the history of Ottoman Turkish government’s extermination of the Armenians in 1915 have played a particularly important role in redressing Turkey’s denial.
So continuous is Turkey’s pressure on institutions outside of its own country to suppress the Armenian genocide that in 2008 Turkish diasporic organizations mounted a campaign to stop the Toronto school board from including the Armenian genocide in a human rights curriculum. In 2007, Turkey demanded that the Rwandan government scrap a presentation on the Armenian genocide at a panel on genocide at the United Nations. In 2010, the Turkish government was successful in demanding that the British government order the Tate Gallery to remove the word genocide from the wall text of the exhibit of the work of Armenian genocide survivor Arshile Gorky.
In confronting Turkey’s refusal to accept the history of the Ottoman government’s eradication of the Armenians and their 2,500-year-old culture, many Jewish voices have been eloquent and pointed. The distinguished Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt’s statement reminds us what a morally important issue denialism is for both Jews and Armenians: “Denial of genocide whether that of the Turks against the Armenians, or the Nazis against the Jews is not an act of historical reinterpretation … but an insidious form of intellectual and moral degradation.”
Jewish witness to the Armenian genocide goes back to Henry Morgenthau, Sr., the U.S. ambassador to Turkey (1913-16) who had the courage to confront the Turkish leaders about the massacres of the Armenians and implore the U.S. government to intercede and stop what he called “a campaign of race extermination in progress.” After he lost his job because of his outspokenness, he wrote an acclaimed memoir, Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story, which contained the first full narrative about the Armenian genocide in English.
In 1934, Franz Werfel, the Austrian Jewish novelist who escaped Hitler’s death list by a hair, wrote the first major novel about the Armenian genocide, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, which depicted Armenian resistance to the massacre in a small mountain village, and in the narrative he also embedded warnings to the Jews of Europe about what could happen to them soon. The Nazis banned and burned the book in 1934.
Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish legal scholar who coined the word genocide, also noted in his autobiography Totally Unofficial that the destruction of the Armenians during WWI was instrumental in his developing the concept of genocide as a crime in international law. It was Lemkin who first used the term Armenian genocide in the 1940s. As he put it on CBS TV in 1949: “I became interested in genocide because it happened so many times. It happened to the Armenians. And after, the Armenians got a very rough deal at the Versailles Conference, because the criminals, who were found guilty, were not punished.”
The Israeli government has not been able to pass an Armenian genocide resolution, which is to say, to make an official gesture of redress to Turkish denial.
In recent decades, the contributions to the understanding of the Armenian genocide made by Jewish scholars both in Israel and worldwide have been extraordinary. The list is long and includes Elie Wiesel, Deborah Lipstadt, Robert Jay Lifton, Robert Melson, Irvin Staub, Jay Winter, Yehuda Bauer, Israel Charny, Donna-Lee Frieze, Colin Tatz, Yair Auron, documentary filmmaker Andrew Goldberg, and many others. In the United States, the Center For Jewish History, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum, the Houston Holocaust Museum, the Illinois Holocaust Museum, and the Museum of Tolerance have all made a difference in giving space to program Armenian genocide events over the past two decades.
Notwithstanding the deep involvement and commitment of Jewish intellectuals to the Armenian plight and discourse, the Israeli government has not been able to pass an Armenian genocide resolution, which is to say, to make an official gesture of redress to Turkish denial. In recent years, the Israeli government has reiterated at times some of the Turkish government’s propaganda. For example, several years ago Foreign Minister Simon Peres stated, “We reject attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. What the Armenians went through is a tragedy, but not genocide.” Until recently Turkey has been a friendly Muslim ally in a hostile region. In their trade relationship Turkey is a key supplier of water to Israel, and Israel supplies Turkey with high-powered weapons, and the lucrative military manufacturing deals are important to Israel’s economy. But in recent years the alliance between Turkey and Israel has eroded. The Turkish flotilla incident of 2010—when Turkey sought to bring relief to Palestinians in Gaza and were met with gunfire by Israeli forces that killed several Turks—created a significant rupture. And a new wave of anti-Semitism has erupted in Turkey, and now Hamas has its headquarters in Istanbul. Recently, President Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of surpassing Hitler’s “barbarism” for its military actions in Gaza.
At the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide might this be a time—when the ironies of history have surfaced, especially in the wake of the collapse of Israeli-Turkish relations—for Israel to rethink the moral concession it has made in this ethical arena? Not as revenge against Turkey, but as thoughtful reflection on painful truths.
Given Turkey’s relentless campaign to deny the Armenian genocide and insinuate its own extreme national narrative into democratic societies around the world, Israel’s call for the genocide’s proper and long-overdue recognition would have important ethical meaning. It would, among other things, be a redress to genocide denial in general. As scholars have noted, denial is the final stage of genocide. Deborah Lipstadt has written that “denial of genocide, whether that of the Turks against the Armenians or the Nazis against the Jews … strives to reshape history in order to demonize the victims and rehabilitate the perpetrators.” And, as Pope Francis made clear in his recent address about the Armenian genocide, “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it!”
In officially recognizing the Armenian genocide Israel would embrace the deeply rooted relationship between Jews and Armenians in the modern age. When Hitler exhorted his military advisers eight days before invading Poland in 1939: “Who today, after all, speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?” he made it clear that he was both inspired by what the Young Turk government had done to the Armenians in 1915 and also noted that because the memory of what had been the most well-reported human rights catastrophe of the first quarter of the 20th century had been washed away, it was easier to commit genocide again.
Hitler learned a good deal from the genocide of the Armenians because Germany was Turkey’s wartime ally, and there was a great deal of documentation from German foreign officers and other German personnel in Turkey at the time. There are, of course, parallels—in bureaucratic organization, killing squad implementation, race ideology and more—between the two events. Yet what ties Jews to Armenians even more deeply is the powerful role Jews have played in bearing witness to and later defining Turkey’s genocide.
Given this long-standing record of Jewish engagement and intellectual achievement concerning the Armenian genocide and the deep ties between the two cultures—it would seem an organic thing for Israel to finally say: The game is over. The truth of history, the meaning of genocide, the importance of ethical memory is a defining part of Jewish intellectual tradition and identity. And, in the Armenian case, the two genocidal histories commingle in deep and historical ways. As for fear of Turkey? The other 22 countries (including Argentina, France, Italy, Sweden, Poland, Greece, Canada) that have passed Armenian genocide resolutions have witnessed Turkey’s initial diplomatic anger, an ambassador recalled for a short time, etc., and then it’s been back to business as usual—proving that the hysteria passes and life goes on.
The Israeli government could recognize the Armenian genocide by honoring the words of the great founding genocide scholar Lemkin—a Holocaust survivor who lost 49 members of his own family to the Nazis. In August 1950 Lemkin wrote to a colleague: “Let us not forget that the heat of this month is less unbearable to us than the heat of the ovens of Auschwitz and Dachau and more lenient than the murderous heat in the desert of Aleppo which burned to death the bodies of hundreds of thousands of Christian Armenian victims of genocide in 1915.”
The depth of Jewish engagement with the Armenian past in all forms and genres and especially in the face of Turkish efforts to pressure Jewish museums when they program Armenian genocide events recalls the importance of the Jewish values of tzedakah and tikkun olam. Tzedakah is the Hebrew word that signifies righteousness, justice, and fairness; and tikkun olam embodies the notion of repairing or healing the world. In the Jewish response to the injustice of the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the continual wound of Turkish state denialism for the past 100 years, these humane values have been wedded to intellectual and ethical work of an uncommon kind by Jewish voices worldwide and remind us how much scholarly and cultural work can also make an ethical difference.
Amos Elon, writing in Haaretz about the “hypocrisy, opportunism, and moral trepidation” of Israeli collusion with Turkey, put it well when he asked: “But where is the boundary between the natural chauvinism of exploitation and the cheap opportunism of hypocrisy? What happens when the survivors of one Holocaust make political deals over the bitter memory of the survivors of another Holocaust?” For Israel, colluding with a denialism is too ironic, and it is a fitting moment for the Israeli state to follow the lead of Jewish intellectual and cultural leaders.
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Peter Balakian, Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities at Colgate University, is the author of Black Dog of Fate (PEN/Albrand Prize for memoir) and The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and American’s Response winner of the Raphael Lemkin Prize; and 7 books of poems including the forthcoming Ozone Journal and the forthcoming Vise and Shadow: Essays on the Lyric Imagination, Poetry, Art, and Culture.
Peter Balakian, Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities at Colgate University, is the author of Black Dog of Fate (PEN/Albrand Prize for memoir) andThe Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and American’s Response winner of the Raphael Lemkin Prize; and 7 books of poems including the forthcomingOzone Journal and the forthcomingVise and Shadow: Essays on the Lyric Imagination, Poetry, Art, and Culture.