Sunday, October 21, 2007


If there’s one thing we Americans have learned in the past year it’s that not all genocides are created equal. There are awful genocides – monstrous, savage, intolerable genocides. And then there are genocides that are merely unfortunate, but not the sort of thing that should come between friends.

The big, bad genocide goes by a special name. It’s not just a genocide; it’s a Holocaust. Personally, I was steeped in it when I was five. That’s right, five. My grandmother owned a book called Hitler Terror that was published in 1933, the same year that the Nazis came to power – and, notably for the purpose of this blog post, eight years before the United States declared war against them. Only one year out of nursery school, I sat in my Grandma’s South Bronx apartment, mesmerized by photographs that have haunted me ever since. One photo shows a rabbi with blood streaming down his face after being assaulted by Hitler’s goons. Another shows a Jewish man with a Swastika cut into his hair. A third shows a boycotted store, with the inscription out front “Let the hands of the Jewish pig rot away!” Still others show a man and a woman shot to death by storm troopers. We in America – or at least in the Bronx, if that’s considered America – knew about these events in 1933, and yet we chose years later to send Jewish boats back to Germany where the passengers could enjoy the poison gas of their choice. And why? Because it was still possible back then to deny that the Nazis were really all that bad. Had their allies, “the Japs,” not attacked Pearl Harbor, who knows? We might still be denying the Holocaust.

Hitler Terror is but one of several Holocaust books that I have at home. I realize that we must never forget that awful time in history. Both of my daughters have been to Dachau; they, too, will never forget the German genocide against the Jews. And whenever they encounter anyone who does deny the Holocaust, they, like other decent Americans, will recognize them as being exemplars of evil. Take, for example, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. When, in December 2006, he held his famous conference designed to scientifically study the existence of the Holocaust, well-meaning people throughout the world were aghast. What kind of creature, we asked, would question such a thing? Isn’t it patently clear that six million Jews and countless millions of others were brutally slaughtered by a small cadre of genocidal maniacs and a whole army of banal henchmen (who were “just following orders”)? Isn’t questioning such a fact merely another way of adding insult to the tragic injury that has already befallen the Jewish people? I, for one, had eight great uncles or aunts only three of whom survived Hitler’s genocide, and my family was more the norm than the exception. Ahmadinejad spits in my face every time he dares to question whether we’ve all just blown the Holocaust way out of proportion.

I congratulate the Jews who came before me for ensuring that the Nazi genocide got its own special name. The Armenians, by contrast, were not nearly as adroit. Being a “child of genocide” (or more specifically, a “great nephew” of genocide), I have been aware for a long time that nine decades ago, the Turks slaughtered well over a million Armenians in what can only be described as a genocide. But that’s the problem – it has only been viewed as genocide – or, more specifically, “the Armenian Genocide.” It has never received a special name of its own that has entered the consciousness of Grant Wood’s America. Many Americans probably couldn’t even tell you what continent Armenia is in, let alone that during World War I, the Turks set out to systematically slaughter the Armenian people.

Recently, many Democrats in Congress, seeking to do something, anything with respect to the Middle East other than restrict the prosecution of the Iraq war, began hammering through a non-binding resolution regarding the Armenian Genocide. Specifically, the resolution would condemn Turkey’s treatment of the Armenians during WWI as genocide. The resolution sailed through at the committee level, and the Speaker was looking forward to getting it passed by the entire House. That would seem sensible enough, right? We Americans aren’t like Ahmadinejad. Scholars accept that the Turks perpetrated genocide – maybe not the genocide of genocides, but clearly it counts. No American scholar has come to the fore lately to debate that fact. So how could we justify not proclaiming it as such? Isn’t our failure to do so, after nine decades, not much different from denying the Holocaust? How can we criticize Ahmadinejad one moment, and ignore the Armenian Genocide the next? The next thing you know, we’ll be engaging in, I don’t know, the torture of prisoners ... Not here, not in America.

When I first heard about the resolution to condemn the Armenian Genocide, my immediate reaction was “it’s about time.” Apparently, though, I wasn’t sufficiently schooled in Machiavelli. One editorialist and opinion writer after another has come out against the resolution, pointing out the absurdity of angering our good friends in Turkey just at a time when we need them to help us in Iraq. Then, this past Friday, I read an article in the New York Times entitled “Armenian Issue Presents a Dilemma for U.S. Jews.” It appears that Jews, see, don’t like genocide. (It’s true!) But we love Israel, and Turkey is one of Israel’s closest friends in the world. The Turks really, really don’t want anyone to call what they did to the Armenians “genocide.” I guess they look at the systematic extermination of more than a million people because of their race as something else – a butt-kicking perhaps. Well, that term is just speculation on my part. You’d have to ask our friends, the Turks, to find out how they officially characterize what happened during the Great War. But suffice it to say that the Turks would like us all to get over that little time in history and think about the present – friendship with Israel, support for American warplanes. And they are threatening that if we pass the resolution, we – like the Armenians before us – will be very, very sorry.

If I may stop dripping with cynicism for a moment, I actually do understand the point of those who condemn the resolution. Now wouldn’t appear to be the ideal time to wake up to the Armenian Genocide. Things are a tad combustible in the Turkish sphere of influence. But … and it’s a BIG but … why have we waited ninety years to take action? Other countries haven’t had a problem labeling the Turkish conduct as genocide? Where have we been? Do we really think that killing one million is OK – just don’t multiply that figure to six or more?

I’m sure Mr. Ahmadinejad has his own real-politic reasons for questioning the existence of the Holocaust, I mean the “Jewish Genocide.” I’m sure he, too, has friends who would like to deny it, and he values his friendships as much as we do. Is the lesson from all this that we should welcome him as a fellow traveler in an increasingly Machiavellian world? Or are we somehow more morally advanced than he is?

I’d like to think we are. But with the passage of time, the lines seem to blur more and more, don’t they?

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