Last Shabbat, 24 April, was the annual day of remembrance of the Meds Yeghern — the “great evil crime” of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. While it often merits a throwaway comment in speeches during Holocaust Memorial Day, it is doubtful whether it earned a mention during the many services in Jewish houses of worship last week.
In contrast, President Biden used the occasion to become the first US president to describe the events of 1915 as genocide, something George Bush and Barack Obama never dared to do. In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Netanyahu remained silent while the Foreign Ministry put out a respectful statement, but one which happened to omit the crucial word — genocide.
Yet Israel’s President Rivlin has been continually outspoken in drawing attention to “the first mass murder of the twentieth century”. Ten years ago, as the Speaker of the Knesset, he told his largely silent parliamentary colleagues that, “it is my duty as a Jew and Israeli to recognise the tragedies of other peoples”.
The International Association of Genocide Scholars estimates that well over a million people perished. While the Turks put the figure at 500,000 and say that there was no systematic attempt to kill Armenians, two leading Israeli academics, Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, have demonstrated that there was an intentional effort to eliminate Anatolia’s Christian population — Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians — over a 30-year period between 1894 and 1924. They wrote: “While the Nazis used guns and gas, many of the murdered Christians were killed with knives, bayonets, axes and stones; thousands were burned alive (the Nazis burned corpses); tens of thousands of women and girls were gang-raped and murdered; clerics were crucified; and thousands of Christian dignitaries were tortured — eyes gouged out, noses and ears cut off…”
This long, harrowing passage from Morris and Ze’evi’s book, The Thirty Year Genocide, shockingly concludes: “In terms of the behaviour of the perpetrators, on the level of individual actions, the Turkish massacre of Christians was far more sadistic than the Nazi murder of the Jews.”
Jews and Armenians — as dispersed peoples — found that their paths often crossed. It was during World War I that the Armenian James Malcolm worked with Chaim Weizmann to abort a clandestine attempt by the Americans to remove the Ottoman Turks from the war through negotiation.
Malcolm was friendly with the JC editor of the time, Leopold Greenberg, who introduced him first to Weizmann and Sokolov, which led to a meeting with the politician and diplomat Sir Mark Sykes.
Sykes, who was deeply involved in Middle East politics, believed that an “Armenia for the Armenians, Arabia for the Arabs and Judaea for the Jews” would prevent German penetration in the area. This was part of the political process which manifested itself in the Balfour Declaration of November 1917.
While it is well known that the British allowed Vladimir Jabotinsky to create a Jewish Legion to fight on the side of the allies, they also permitted the formation of an Armenian Legion under French command. The Armenians fought in Palestine under General Allenby at the battle of Megiddo (Armageddon) in September 1918.
While President Rivlin has proved to be that rare exception on the Israeli Right to promote the memory of the Armenian genocide, other Likud politicians such as Yitzhak Shamir regarded it as “not our business”. There was also an element of Menahem Begin’s general disdain — “goyim kill goyim and the Jews are blamed!” It was significant that those who had served in Yitzhak Rabin’s administration and those from the left wing Zionist Meretz party were the most vociferous in their demand for Israeli recognition for the Armenians.
In the 1950s, Ben-Gurion’s government instituted “the doctrine of the periphery”. This meant strategic alliances with the non-Arab states of the Middle East, including Ethiopia, Iran — and Turkey.
Haile Selassie was deposed in Ethiopia while Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution took root in Iran, leaving only Turkey. In 2003, Recep Erdoğan of the Islamic AKP party took power in Ankara. Regarded at first as a conservative — to the extent that he received a ‘Profile of Courage’ award from the American Jewish Congress in 2004 — Erdoğan emerged as an authoritarian figure, imprisoning his opponents and bent on resurrecting Ottoman imperialism.
Erdoğan saved his animus for Israel. He made a key error when he accused the Jewish state of acts of genocide in 2014 during Operation Protective Edge. This faux pas emanated from the lips of a man who had devoted considerable resources towards preventing any international recognition of the Armenian catastrophe.
Marc David Baer’s book, Sultanic Saviours and Tolerant Turks, was published last year. Baer, an American Jewish professor at LSE whose expertise is Turkish studies, forensically deconstructed the mythical relationship between Turks and Jews that had been propagated. The chapter titles, Grateful Jews and Anti-Semitic Greeks and Armenians, 500 Years of Friendship and Whitewashing the Armenian Genocide with Holocaust Heroism testify to years of misleading Turkish propaganda.
Baer was particularly critical of the old guard leadership of the Jewish community in Turkey, whose role was to lobby US Jewish organisations in order to prevent any mention of the fate of the Armenians.
Baer quotes an aide to President Carter, Stuart Eizenstat, who reported that the Turkish ambassador to the US, Şükrü Elekdağ, warned that if the then-newly established Holocaust Museum in Washington mentioned the Armenians, Turkey might not be able “to guarantee the safety of its Jews”.
As evidenced by the silence in Jerusalem today, Western governments and Israel found themselves in a moral dilemma, in that Turkey was a member of NATO and the first line of defence against hostile forces. Militant Armenian organisations made a bad situation worse by systematic assassinations of Turkish diplomats.
In 2007, the then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert intervened on the advice of his Foreign Ministry to block a discussion about the Armenians in the Knesset. A year later, President Peres persuaded the Anti-Defamation League in the US to reverse its support for a congressional initiative to debate the fate of the Armenians.
Since then, the voices of dissent in Israel have grown louder because of the deteriorating relationship between Israel and Turkey.
In October 2019, President Trump suddenly withdrew US troops from the Turkish-Syrian border and left the Kurds open to annihilation by Turkish forces. Many were outraged by this move, since the Kurds had been valiant fighters against ISIS and good friends of Israel. Even Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in Congress and a serial apologist for Trump, was publicly critical of the move.
A few weeks later, Erdoğan visited the White House and Trump declared himself “a big fan” of the Turkish president. For Congress, enough was enough — it then unanimously recognised the mass murder of the Armenians as an instance of genocide.
During World War I, the Nili espionage team of early Zionist pioneers in Zikhron Ya’akov supplied information about the Turks in Palestine to the British. Their great fear was that the Turks would do to the Jews what they had done to the Armenians.
Avshalom Feinberg, a Nili member, sent an intelligence report to his British handler. In the depths of the Armenian tragedy, he asked himself if he was living instead in the brutal time of Titus and Nebuchadnezzer: “And I, a Jew, forgot that I am a Jew. I asked myself whether I have the right to weep ‘over the tragedy of the daughter of my people’ only — and whether Jeremiah did not shed tears of blood for the Armenians as well.”
Feinberg did not live to either bear witness to the Shoah nor see the rise of a state of the Jews.
He was murdered aged 27 by Bedouins, but his question has come down to us across the decades. It is a pertinent question which goes beyond national interests.
We ignore the universalism within Jewish tradition at our peril.
Jewish Chronicle 30 April 2021