One-and-a-half million innocent individuals were murdered. Women were raped and children were tortured. The survivors are few, the pain is great. But even ninety years after the Armenian Genocide, in which Armenians were systematically murdered at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, many ignore or deny the tragedy; many, but not all…
On 2 May 2005, the Hebrew University Armenian Studies Program, under the auspices of Professor Michael E. Stone, brought the massacre to the forefront of the thoughts of Israelis in a commemorative evening, one week after the 24 April official day of remembrance of the genocide. There was laughter, there were tears, and despite the pain of the speakers (who presented materials in English, Hebrew, Armenian and Russian), they offered sentiments of empowerment, outlooks of hope. His Beatitude Patriarch Torkom II, the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, was present. Steven Kaplan, Dean of the Department of Humanities at the Hebrew University, attended, as well. Mr. Tsolag Momjian, Honorary Consul of the Republic of Armenia, inspired the crowd with his personal story. And leading scholars in the field of genocide, including keynote speaker Professor Israel Charney and Armenian Studies Program Director Professor Michael E. Stone, offered educational and inspirational lectures.
The evening was not a small feat for the Hebrew University; despite an Armenian-Israeli population of 25,000 and aside from scattered Israeli politicians who support genocide commemoration and study, the Jewish State has refused to recognize the Armenian massacre. The country’s reasons are twofold. First of all, Israel has few allies and is afraid to harm its relations with Turkey, a perpetrator who has still not taken responsibility for its crime. Second of all, there is a hesitation among the Jews to give credence to other genocides, so as not to detract from the world’s focus on the Nazi Holocaust, in which some six million Jews were murdered. While the former may be a viable reason for Israel’s stance, according to Monday’s keynote speaker Professor Israel Charney, the second reason is totally unfounded.
Said Charney, “We have an absolute moral responsibility to recognize the Armenian Genocide… Respecting and honoring the memory and history of each and every genocide is the first essential step towards creating new means of preventing genocide to all people in the future.”
And there might be some truth to Charney’s statement. The Armenian Holocaust of 1915 occurred less than half-a-century before the Jewish Holocaust. Adolf Hitler was aware of how the world almost instantaneously ‘forgot’ about the Armenians. In one of Hitler’s many speeches he recognized the Armenian Genocide, drew comparisons between it and the acts he plotted to carry out, and used it as a means to encourage his followers. He said, “I have issued the command – and I’ll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by a firing squad – that our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness… with orders for them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space… we need. Who after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
MAKING THE CONNECTION THEN
As the statement by Hitler alludes, there is a deep connection between the Armenians and the Jews. But the histories of the two peoples connect more extensively than one might imagine. Senior lecturer at the Open University of Israel and the Kibbutzim College of Education, Professor Yair Auron, has dedicated himself to bringing to light the connection between the Armenians and the Jews, their trials and tribulations. In his book The Banality of Indifference: Zionism and the Armenian Genocide (Transaction Books, 2000), which was published this year in Hebrew in honor of the 90th anniversary, he writes: “At the time of the Armenian genocide, the possibility of its extension to include the Ottoman Jews was just barely avoided. One cannot help but be reminded that between the two world wars, when the fate of the Armenians became the forgotten genocide, European Jewry failed to heed the clear early warnings of Hitler’s final solution.”
Auron devotes the major portion of his study to the fate of the Armenians and the Jews under Turkish rule during the twilight of the Ottoman Empire, from the beginning of the twentieth century, to the rebalancing of world power in the Middle East after World War I.
He proves that the Jews of the Yishuv were well aware they were next in line for a Turkish genocide. Indeed, during the spring of 1916, the order for expulsion of the Jews from Jaffa was a distinct possibility. The intervention of the US and German consuls with the Turkish government in Jerusalem proved to be decisive in helping the Jews avoid the fate that befell the Armenians.
Ironically, it was Henry Morgenthau, a Jew and the American ambassador to Turkey during World War I, who became the first whistleblower in what he described as the murder of a nation. In September 1915 Morgenthau requested emergency aid from his government, and in the same year the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief (ACASR) was established. In 1916, assistance efforts, under the auspices of Congress, were reorganized as the ‘Near East Relief (NER), which collected and distributed substantial sums from private and government sources. Through these projects, tens of thousands of Armenians were saved. However, more were murdered than saved; according to Professor M.E. Stone, head of the Hebrew University Armenian Studies Program, the amount of Armenians murdered by the Ottoman Empire totaled more than 1.5 million, virtually wiping out the Turkish-Armenian population.
Ambassador Morgenthau was also effective in rescuing Jews, saving leaders such as David Ben Gurion and Yitzhak Ben Tzvi, later prime minister and president of Israel, respectively. Both men were avidly pro-Turkish. Indeed Ben Gurion had tried to organize a Jewish corps in support of the Ottomans, but when his name appeared on a Zionist list he was jailed and charged with treason. On arriving in Alexandria he was jailed again by the British, and then evacuated to New York. In both instances, he was saved thanks to the intervention of Ambassador Morgenthau.
Auron argues that Ben Gurion knew of the murder the Turks were capable of. Auron writes, “Whatever Ben Gurion’s strategy may have been, he wrote privately to his father in 1919 that ‘Jamal Pasha [then Turkish military ruler in Palestine] planned from the outset to destroy the entire Hebrew settlement in Eretz Yisrael, exactly as they did the Armenians in Armenia.'”
The murder of the Armenian political, cultural and business leadership in Constantinople in April 1915 marked the beginning of full-scale genocide. One month prior, Ambassador Morgenthau made arrangements through his friend Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy, to have the USS Tennessee evacuate a number of Jews from Palestine to refugee camps in Alexandria, Egypt. On the eve of World War I, there were some 85,000 Jews out of a population of 700,000 in the area of Palestine west of the Jordan River [modern day Israel]. Half of the Jews were part of the “Old Yishuv” and half were part of the “New Yishuv,” immigrants who had arrived at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth.
As noted, evidence suggests the Jews knew what was happening to the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
“The Yishuv knew about the fate of the Armenians, and feared a similar fate,” Auron writes.
Interestingly, it was Mordecai Ben-Hillel HaCohen, a Jewish journalist in the Yishuv and the uncle of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who became the first publicist to report the chain of events affecting the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire. This was as early as 1916.
Likewise, the first book to document the plight of the Armenians, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh: Symbol and Parable, was also written by a Jew, Franz Werfel, and published in Germany in 1933. Translated into Yiddish and Hebrew, Franz Werfel’s novel influenced Zionist youth movements in Palestine in the 1930s and the resistance movements to the Nazis throughout occupied Europe.
When Hitler’s plans began to come to fruition, it was Morgenthau’s son, Henry Morgenthau II, the treasury secretary under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who became the only member of the American government during World War II to campaign for the creation of a World Refugee Board to save the remnants of European Jewry. He was always quoting the cables sent from his father, which warned of the Armenian genocide during his time.
Making the Connection Now
One might assume these parallels, especially those between the tragic events themselves, would lead the Jewish people to both identify with and recognize the Armenian Genocide. This is especially since the Armenian community has been in Jerusalem and the Holy Land since the fourth century (more than 1,700 years). However, his is not the case; as mentioned, Israel does not officially recognize the Armenian Genocide. But it is also not accurate to say that the facts have gone unnoticed by everyone. Five years ago, for example, then Israeli Minister of Education Yossi Sarid became one of the first Israelis to take a stance against denial of the Armenian Genocide when he participated in that year’s memorial event. During his speech he said, “The Armenian Memorial Day should be a day of reflection and introspection for all of us, a day of soul-searching. On this day, we as Jews, victims of the Shoah [Holocaust], should examine our relationship to the pain of others. The massacre, which was carried out by the Turks against the Armenians in 1915 and 1916, was one of the most horrible acts in modern times…”
Sarid even recommended that the state implement a new history curriculum that would include a central chapter on genocide, and within it, an open reference to the Armenian genocide. (Since Limor Livant took over as education minister, this idea has been dismissed.)
While few other politicians have followed Sarid’s lead, educated historians and professors, like Auron, have for a long time taken a stand. As Director of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem, Charney lectures regularly about the significance of Jewish recognition of other people’s tragedies.
“Denying that there was an Armenian genocide, or any other genocide, is the same as someone saying there was no Holocaust of the Jewish people,” he said.
During the aforementioned 02 May memorial event, Charney noted that there has been decisive progress against denials, but that there is still much work to be done.
Stone, also, has extensively written and lectured about the similarities between the atrocities committed against the Armenians by the Ottomans and those committed against the Jews by the Nazis. He said, “In my view they are the same sort of event. The Holocaust was simply ‘bigger and better’ because the Nazis had a much more organized state and much more advanced technology.”
But Stone has taken it all a step further. It is through his work that the Armenian Studies Program has come alive in the last ten years; Stone plays a critical role in the education of Israel about the genocide, but also Armenian history, culture and art.
“It is vital that we not only focus on the horrible effect of genocide or the one-third of the Armenian people that were wiped out,” said Stone, “but also focus on rejuvenating the culture and history that the Ottomans attempted to eradicate.”
In his short but poignant remarks last Monday, Stone declared that his work in general, and the memorial event in particular, are not solely about remembering those needlessly murdered, but serve the purpose of creating positive results from evils that have occurred.
Echoing the Jewish message that as terrible as the pain could be, the happiness can be even greater, Stone said, “From evil, make good.”
And that is what the Armenians plan to do…
David Bedein contributed to this article.