Saturday, May 30, 2015

Time to Stop Denying

Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil and Bulgaria have recognized it, but not Belarus.   Arizona, Alaska and Arkansas have recognized it, but not Alabama.   Slovakia, Sweden, and Switzerland have recognized it.  Hell, even Syria recently joined their ranks.   

In total, it has been officially recognized by 28 countries and 44 of the 50 United States of America.  Famously, it was recognized by Presidential Candidate Barack Obama but not by President Barack Obama or the government that he now leads.  Nor has it been recognized by Israel – the nation created largely in response to the atrocities committed by the Nazis.   But most importantly, it has never been recognized by Turkey.  And because it is not recognized by Turkey, the vast majority of nations similarly refuse to acknowledge its existence.   They wouldn’t want to antagonize such an important geopolitical player as the land that lies strategically in between Europe and Asia.  

Genocide is a serious charge, one that is not made lightly.  Rape is bad.  Murder worse.   Mass murder, still worse.  But there is no human crime worse than genocide.  It refers to the systematic massacre of a large segment of a particular ethnic, religious, national, or racial group.   It is akin to removing a species of animal from this earth – only in this case, we are talking about a sub-species of the human animal.  Those who perpetrate genocide represent evil to the extent that word has any meaning.  And that is precisely why the descendants of the perpetrators would desperately like to avoid using the word “genocide” in reference to the conduct at issue.

Ironically, we Jews don’t like to use that word to refer to the extermination by the Nazis of our own ancestors in the 1940s.  We prefer to call that “The Holocaust” – suggesting that it was one of a kind, not merely genocide, but THE genocide, one deserving of its own term.  And indeed, I know of no slaughter of a particular ethnic group that compares to ours from a strict numbers standpoint. 
Like most Jews, I reserve a particularly cold place in my heart for those who deny the Holocaust.  This is one reason for the intensity of the enmity between my people and the Government of Iran.  In 2006, Iran held a “scientific” conference in which the Holocaust deniers gathered to hear Mahmoud Ahmadinejad refer to the Nazi extermination of Jews as a “myth.”  For all but the most self-hating of Jews, that conference was viewed as the epitome of depravity.  

Jews know what it’s like to live in a world where a number of people refuse to recognize the genocide that has been perpetrated against us.  Fortunately, the nation most responsible for our genocide has been willing to recognize it as such.  That has proven invaluable in healing our wounds.  

With that in mind, it is hard for me to believe that the nation known as the “Jewish State” refuses to recognize the genocide perpetrated by the Turks against the Armenian people beginning in 1915.  Nobody in a position of leadership in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem could seriously doubt the existence of that genocide.  Israeli officials have made enough statements over the years to indicate that they understand what happened to the Armenians in the final days of the Ottoman Empire.  The Israeli Government simply lacks the courage to identify that genocide for what it was – the extermination of as many as 1.5 million Armenians for the crime of simply being Armenian.  That, my friends, is known as genocide.   

In April 24, 2014, the Times of Israel reported the following rationalization for Israel’s silence: "Israel is a small country in a hostile neighborhood that can't afford to antagonize the few friends it has in the region. Even more powerful states refuse to employ the 'genocide' term for fear of alienating Turkey...."   I certainly understand the first of those two sentences.  But by invoking the point that even more powerful states are similarly denying this particular genocide, the writer begs the real questions.   Isn’t the raison d’etre of the Jewish State to ensure that there is a place where Jews are safe to live as Jews – meaning a place where Jews can practice their faith?   And isn’t it imperative for Jews when they practice their faith to speak out vociferously, passionately, and uncompromisingly against genocide?  And isn’t it the case that when Jews cite pragmatic parochial considerations to avoid recognizing a genocide, they start to resemble those Germans during the Holocaust who closed their eyes to what their countrymen were doing because it wasn’t in their own personal interest to get involved?    

Israel has a term for the non-Jews in Germany and other nations who risked their own safety to defend the rights of Jews during the Holocaust:  they are known as “righteous gentiles.”  If that is an apt moniker, then those Israelis who’ve refused to recognize a different genocidal episode in history merely because of selfish reasons might want to think of themselves as “non-righteous Jews.”  The Jewish State can and must do better.

Just as Israel has no excuse for burying its head in the sand, neither does the government of the United States of America.  We like to call ourselves the leader of the free world.  By that, we don’t just mean the supreme economic power or military power, but also the moral leader.  We often act as the world’s policeman.   And this role is very much at play today.  We’re not willing to put our own ground troops in harm’s way, but we are willing to use drones to take out people in foreign lands, and that includes the inevitable “collateral damage” of innocent victims.  It takes a lot of chutzpah to implement a policy like that one and yet continue to make speeches about our commitment to democracy, human rights, international law, and all the other traditional American mantras.

We’re not a small, isolated country like Israel.  We’re the 800-pound gorilla.  We can afford to call a spade a spade, even if it antagonizes another regime.   If President Obama were to repeat what Candidate Obama said and recognize the Armenian Genocide, does anyone seriously think that would be an existential threat to our existence?  Or that it would significantly threaten the security of American civilians?   I understand that an alliance with Turkey offers strategic advantages to our ability to fight wars in the Middle East, and I don’t want to trivialize those advantages.  But are they really worth our silence?   We call ourselves the land of liberty and free speech.  Why then are we so afraid to tell the truth about what happened to the Armenian people 100 years ago?  And if we are ruled by that fear, how can we possibly claim the moral authority to act as the self-appointed policeman of the world?  

So yes, I am disgusted by the positions of Israel and the United States when it comes to recognizing the Armenian Genocide.  But my deepest disgust is reserved for the government of Turkey.  As Turkey is the nation that bears the responsibility for the genocide itself, its people are the ones who most need to come clean.  Just imagine what we all would think of the Germans if their government consistently denied that their nation perpetrated genocide against the Jewish people.   That’s what the Turks are doing to their national reputation by failing to give a measure of closure to the descendants of the Armenian victims.  

I have seen different dates given for when the Armenian Genocide ended.  But suffice it to say that we have finally reached a point in history when there likely isn’t a Turk alive who was personally responsible for slaughtering Armenians.   Hopefully, then, contemporary Turkish leaders can look at this matter with a bit more objectivity than their predecessors.  But this also means that they have less of an excuse for continuing the whitewash.  Those who speak for that nation today have a fateful decision to make.  They can continue business as usual and treat the Armenians like an invisible people.  Or, they can stand up for the principles of truth, justice, reconciliation, compassion, peace, and human dignity … and turn the page, as the Germans have done.

Really, all of us have a decision to make.  For we have the opportunity to speak out and attend rallies on this subject, and put pressure on our politicians to do the right thing and not the expedient thing.  The question is simple, really: does protecting the good name of the perpetrators and currying the favors of their descendants mean more than protecting the good name of the victims and treating their descendants with a modicum of respect?   I realize that there are pragmatic reasons to continue to look the other way, but when it comes to denying genocide, pragmatism should have its limits.

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