Armenian, Assyrian and Hellenic Genocide News

The Banality of Indifference: Zionism and the Armenian Genocide

Posted: Tuesday, June 19, 2001 at 03:18 AM CT


The Literary Review of Canada

Yair Auron

Translated by Maggie Bar_Tura
Transaction Publishers
405 pages, hardcover ISBN 1560004126

Quest for Closure: The Armenian Genocide and the Search for Justice in Canada Lorne Shirinian Blue Heron Press
267 pages, paperback ISBN 0920266169

While indifference can indicate impartiality or neutrality, it can also connote a perverse lack of concern. When it comes to certain historical or political events, indifference can be both invidious and insidious. To be indifferent to genocide, for instance, is to exhibit a callous insensitivity for the materiality and moral implications of the subject. It is tantamount to trivializing facts and their consequences. Such indifference is often the last refuge of scoundrels.

Alas, when it comes to the Armenian genocide (appropriately called `the forgotten genocide'), the official anniversary of which is April 24, there are many scoundrels. It is expected of the Turks that they would elect to deny, falsify and suppress historical evidence of what is incontrovertibly one of the most obscene chapters of human history, when Pan_Turanism, the fore_ runner of Nazism, harnessed modern technology to mass murder. It is further expected of Turkish allies and their revisionist historians that they would acquiesce to the perpetrator's propaganda. What is unexpected, however, is the continuing indifference of the West at large (and Canada in particular) to addressing and redressing the Armenian agony.

We now know a significant amount about the indifference of the Great Powers to the actual rescue of Armenians from the slaughterhouse of Turkey during the First World War, when an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed. Diplomatic agreements between the Turks and western powers made no mention of the words `Armenia' and `Armenians,' and refugees were permitted no right of repatriation, compensation or rehabilitation. The Armenian genocide occurred with the knowledge of Turkey's allies and enemies at the time. German military commanders and soldiers witnessed and participated (however indirectly) in the genocide - their trial run for the Jewish Holocaust - while American, English, French and Russian politicians did nothing material to rescue the intended victims. There were, to be sure, exceptions: German teachers, medical officers and missionaries (such as Dr. Martin Niepage, Dr. Armin T. Wegner and Dr. Johannes Lepsius) documented some of the barbarities. Henry Morgenthau, American ambassador in Constantinople (1913-16), launched formal complaints, and shockingly lurid U.S. State Department documents were compiled in `The Blue Book' by Arnold Toynbee and Viscount James Bryce.1 There were also more than a hundred articles and items about the genocide in the New York Times. `So the world did know, and in real time,' as Israeli historian Yair Auron (a senior lecturer at the Open University of Israel) remarks in his book The Banality of Indifference, a title inspired by Hannah Arendt's subtitle `A Report on the Banality of Evil' to her Eichmann in Jerusalem (Viking Press, 1963).The banal evil that Auron sees in Israeli society of the past and present is a refusal to acknowledge the prevalence of `indifference, conformity, and opportunism' within its midst. The Yishuv (Jewish community) did not want to know about the Armenian genocide and did not protest as a group at the time. Of course, after 1916, as Auron argues, mere protest became meaningless, for by then most of the Ottoman Armenian population had been exterminated and the Armenian Plateau had been emptied of its indigenous population.

The Banality of Indifference reveals how even fellow victims of genocide, such as Zionist Jews, can be themselves guilty of indifference. Although Auron's book avoids coming to moral terms with the reactions of the Yishuv in Palestine (Eretz Yisrael), perhaps out of a deep_rooted belief in the uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust, Auron does raise prickly questions about the Jewish position. In fact, he demonstrates that there was no such thing as a single, uncomplicated position: the political situation in Palestine and contentious philosophies of competing Zionists (Chaim Weizmann, Theodore Herzl, Bernard Lazare, et al.) precluded a monotype. Auron's thrust is toward comparisons: the Armenian genocide and the Jewish one; support for the Armenians and indifference to them. Such comparisons bear rich historical fruit, although the philosophical and moral implications are not addressed as thoroughly as some of us might wish.

An Israeli historian, Auron has displayed remarkable courage in his selection of subject matter and documentation. His book will probably be vilified by some fellow Jews for whom any criticism of their motives, methods and actions is a sign of disloyalty or treachery. But Auron is not an anti_Semitic Semite, nor is he bent on sensationalism. His sincere discomfort with the evasive behaviour of various Israeli governments regarding the Armenian holocaust is a moral one. And even as he peels off layers of Zionist reticence, fervent jingoism, or rancid self-absorption and self_interest, he is never guilty of sweeping generalizations or overweening righteousness. In fact, although he thrusts forward in the direction of a universalist historical consciousness, he maintains a balanced perspective in assessing Zionist claims of altruism and self-interest, and he never loses his essentially Jewish sympathy for what I would call the `particularists' - those who argue that the Jewish Holocaust was unique or singular. So, in a sense, Auron begins his comparative study with a notable warp. Of course, there were differences between the Armenian and Jewish genocides: messianic German racism was not the same as Turkish nationalist ideology; there were differences in the social and territorial status of the Jews and the Armenians; the methods of extermination were not identical. Moreover, as Moishe Beilinson (cited by Auron as one of the outstanding leaders of the workers' movement in Palestine) pointed out correctly but hysterically: `No historical hatred followed the Armenians wherever they went. No unbridgeable abyss separated them from the nations. They were not an accursed monster, neither in the eyes of the Christians nor in the eyes of the Muslims. No blood libel hung over their heads.'

However, any genocide is unique, because it befalls a particular group and no other in the context of its time. The Amazonian Indians, the Hereros in Southwest Africa, the Gypsies, the Cambodians, etc. - all were victims, all exterminated in the complicity of silence that surrounds such obscenities. No particular group-slaughter, whatever its motives or grand design, has a privileged position in what Auron memorably terms `the arithmetic of catastrophes.' The photographs in the book show clearly that ravaged Armenian victims and survivors looked the same as Jewish victims of Holocaust. The corpses of both peoples must have reeked of the same crimes. Those Jewish historians who vehemently avouch for the uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust do so with a surprising disregard for the fact that the Armenians, more than the Jews, are Future Victims. Continued Turkish denial of that genocide and the West's indifference to the Armenian supplication for justice ensure that the Armenians cannot handle their nightmare as well as the Jews have.

Auron, however, is fair minded in his intention. His background history of the Armenians and their struggle for survival has a clarity that will prove especially useful to those who want a quick but accurate summary of events leading up to the genocide. But as the bulk of his book is really about Zionist reactions to the forerunner of the Shoah, he will possibly be regarded as a dialectical trouble maker. `Most of the Jews throughout the world, with the exception of the Jews in Russia, saw no choice but to support the country in which they resided and its allies (albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm). International Jewish organizations, which suddenly found themselves torn by a war that was not theirs, usually declared their `neutrality,' hoping thus to `bypass' the war and to continue their activity.' So writes Auron, and with the full recognition that the Palestinian Jews, like the West, were aware of the Armenian tragedy. How could they not have been? As Robert Fisk has shown in `Dead Reckoning'2 (The Independent, August 5, 2000) `the deliberate nature of this slaughter was admitted by the then Turkish leader, Enver Pasha, in a conversation with Henry Morgenthau ... Enver denounced the Armenians for siding with Russia in its war with the Turks.' Moreover, earlier Turkish pogroms against the Armenians of Asia Minor had been denounced by Lord Gladstone.

There is no question that Palestinian Jews feared that they might suffer the same fate as the Armenians, even though there was evidence to the contrary. Auron cites Meir Dizengoff's memoirs, which mention threats by Jamal Pasha and Enver Pasha during their visit to Palestine: `Zionists beware! If you oppose us we will do to you what we have done to the Armenians.' The Yishuv was also afraid that the Turks would discover the small but potent Nili, the pro-British spy network. And then there was the matter of the 1917 order issued by Turkish authorities for the deportation of 5,000 Jews from Tel Aviv to the small farming villages in the Sharon Plain and the Galilee. But Auron also describes the amazingly swift reaction to this act: `When the deportation order became known to the Nili organization, its members publicized the plan in the world press. American Jewry was shocked, and the nations fighting against Turkey released reports on Turkish intentions to exterminate the Jews in Palestine, as they had already done to the Armenians. Public opinion in the neutral countries, as well as in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was outraged and Jamal Pasha was forced to reconsider his plan of action. He promised food and medical assistance to the refugees from Tel Aviv and cancelled the other deportation plans.'

Auron points out that Yishuv fears about extermination were exaggerated. The Jewish community `fared much better than any other Asian region under Turkish control.' The consuls of the European powers were given `special authority to manage and protect the affairs of their nationals in the Mutazaraflik (autonomous division) of Jerusalem, which was roughly the equivalent of Palestine. In no other region did foreign consuls have such extensive powers and effective means of protection from local inhabitants. Their power was reduced but never eliminated altogether even during the war period.' Auron maintains that there is no evidence to show that the tiny Jewish community in Palestine was regarded as a threat. Indeed, it was seen as an `orderly and submissive' community that, at a time of wide-scale Arab revolt, did not launch a single attack on a Turkish soldier. But Auron's tone is neither accusatory nor contumelious. It has a delicacy that balances his disappointment at Zionist timidity and indifference against evidence of Jewish fear that was real but severely exaggerated.

Supporting this tone is an abundance of documentary evidence that allows Auron to make a devastating (although moderately phrased) case against Zionist indifference. During the first decade of the last century, the orientation of almost the entire Zionist leadership and activist groups (such as the `Hashomer,' the `Gidonites' and the `Tel Aviv-Jaffa Group') were pro-Turkish. (Many of the same leaders would also be pro-German during World War I.) Herzl, who tended to view the entire non-Jewish world as hostile, focused on creating ties with the sultan. His offer to mediate for the Armenians was insincere, because it was not motivated by a search for justice but for the Zionist cause alone. In seeking to preserve the wholeness of the Ottoman Empire, he hoped to achieve Zionism's goals.

Other leaders, such as David Ben Gurion and Yitzhak Ben Zvi, were essentially `local leaders' who put Zionism ahead of any other cause. Ben Gurion made only one known mention of the Armenian tragedy, and this in a letter to his father in December 1919. In fact, he made more frequent mention of the massacre of a few hundred Assyrians by Iraqis in 1933 -probably because this would lend weight to the Zionist case.

Auron maintains that Zionist and pre-state Yishuv historiography does not even touch upon the Armenian question, although he allows that `We have no way of knowing what people said in private, intimate conversation or in secret discussions,' and he gives prominence to the roles of members of the Nili - important figures such as Avshalom Feinberg, Alexander Aaronsohn and his sister, Sarah, an eyewitness to the Armenian horror, as was Eitan Belkind as an officer in the Turkish army. Auron points out in the course of his checks and balances that `Nili was an exception to the general attitude of the Yishuv toward the Armenian massacre ... Other groups, individuals, and public personalities were, for the most part, silent about the massacres apart from an expression of concern lest a similar fate befall the Jews or personal expressions of shock at the mass murders...'

Why was this so? One reason was assuredly Zionist severity about its own cause. Another was pan_Jewishness, which was marked by egocentricity and ethnocentricity projected through a tendency to stress the fierceness and uniqueness of the Jewish tragedy. Any Zionist who spoke out against Jewish moral reticence was shouted down abusively. Such was the case in 1909 over the editorial in the Hebrew daily Hatzvi titled `We,' written by Itamar Ben Avi, which blamed the Jews for indifference to Turkish atrocities committed against the Armenians even before the full eruption of the genocide. His prose rang loudly with righteous passion:

We did nothing, because we were timid, because the matter did not affect us directly, utterly. Unfortunately we had covert sympathy for the enemy of the Turkish Parliament, Abd al_Hamid II. Sympathy because we believed that Abd al_Hamid would always be our friend, our generous and merciful supporter. That is why we stood aside; that is why we chose to be, in the words of the wise commander, the rearguard; that is why we continue today,two weeks after the revolution and a week after the victory of the `Young Turks' to be indifferent. We are watching from the side and waiting. We are a peculiar people.

Yes, we!

Of course, Ben Avi was attacked, even branded a traitor, and came close to paying a blood-price. But the truly interesting aspect of this controversy and others like it was the vehement chauvinism. Rival Eretz Yisrael newspapers traded accusations and counter-accusations, and from the smoke of press warfare there rose the taint of ethnocentricity, as in Yosef Aharonovitch's claim that the Jews were the ones who were truly ignored worldwide. A radical corollary to this claim was a call to retreat from non-Jewish tragedies. Such chauvinism extended even to Palestinian literature. Auron's research finds only two Jewish novelists who dealt with the Armenian genocide in any significant fashion. Aaron Reuveni's trilogy, `Unto Jerusalem,' gave to the Armenian question an important, if not central, place, but the author was merely a marginal figure in his society, as was Shmuel Bass, whose novel Ara was organized around the eponymous character, a young Armenian survivor of the massacre. Local critics took exception to these works and to Czech-born Franz Werfel's The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Although Musa Dagh became an inspiring symbol for Jewish underground resistance fighters, Zionist reaction was dramatized in the thunder of Moshe Beilinson: I confess to a peculiar feeling when I took this book in hand, and I was already aware of its reputation, and the role it has played and will ever play in extolling the heroic struggle of the Armenian people, in creating a poetic monument to their suffering and agony, in nobly avenging their destruction. And what is this peculiar feeling? A mixture of envy and irritation - envy of one unfortunate that another unfortunate has some reward, and irritation that a fellow-Jew erected the monument to a foreign people. Have we not suffered? Have we not been persecuted? Has not the sword of destruction been laid on our heads countless times? Have we not struggled against our cruel fate? And now, when a great poet arises from our midst, known around the world and at the height of his powers, not of us does he write.

Tne book opens: `The picture of misery of the refugee children, wretched and starving, who worked in the carpet factory (in Damascus), was the decisive push to rescue from the depths of history the incomprehensible fate of the Armenian people.' Were the author's eyes afflicted by blindness? Had he traveled the face of the earth and never encountered a `picture of misery' of `wretched' children other than the Armenian refugees in Damascus? Has he descended to the depths of history and found no `incomprehensible fate' save that of the Armenian people? Indeed this is assimilation, ready to serve others.

The pathology of Zionist self_interest and ideology continued into successive generations and contaminated the modem state of Israel, which has continually refrained from acknowledging the Armenian genocide. Limitations of space do not allow for exhaustive documentation to substantiate this charge, so let me simply quote from a single paragraph from Auron: Government representatives do not participate in the memorial assemblies held every year on April 24 by the Armenians to commemorate the Armenian genocide. The public debate in the State of Israel about the attitude toward the Armenian genocide has focused on four prominent media events: in 1978 the screening of a film about the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem was canceled. In 1982., the Israeli Government intervened in plans for an international conference on the subject of the Holocaust and genocide. In 1989, the Israeli Government was apparently involved in preventing the commemoration of the Armenian genocide by the American Congress in dedicating a memorial day in the American calendar. In 1990, the screening of an American television documentary film, `Joumey to Armenia,' was canceled. In later years, a controversy also developed over teaching about the Armenian genocide and genocide, in general, in Israeli schools.

And the last sentence has a personal resonance for Auron, whose experimental course, `Sensitivity to the World's Suffering: Genocide in the Twentieth Century,' was removed from the high school curriculum.

Auron's evidence can easily be supplemented by other more recent examples. Obscene attempts to censor and manipulate the news continue in Europe, North America and modern Israel. Fisk writes that when he first started writing about the Armenian massacres in 1993, the Turks denounced hisarticle in The Independent as a lie. Turkish readers wrote to the editor to demand his dismissal from the paper. When a Holocaust conference was to be held in Israel, the Turkish government objected to the inclusion of material on the Armenian slaughter. Fisk expands on his theme: Incredibly, Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel withdrew from the conference after the Israeli foreign ministry said that it might damage Israeli-Turkish relations. The conference went ahead, but only in miniature form. In the United States, Turkey's powerful lobby groups attack journalists or academics who suggest the Armenian genocide was fact ...Scarcely a whimper comes from those who would, rightly, condemn any denial of the Jewish holocaust.

For Turkey - no longer the `sick man of Europe' - is courted by the Western powers which so angrily condemned its cruelty in the last century. It is a valued member of the Nato alliance - our ally in bombing Serbia last year -the closest regional ally of Israel and a major buyer of US and French weaponry ... While Britain's massive contribution to the proposed Euphrates dam project in southeastern Turkey was in the balance, Tony Blair was not going to mention the Armenian atrocities. Indeed, when this year he announced that Britain was to honour an annual Holocaust Day, he made no mention of the Armenians.

Although Auron does not have Fisk's explosive accusatory manner, he is an honest historian who will surely make many enemies in Israel. But his aim is not mere finger-pointing or a negotiation between conflicting tensions of universalism and particularism; rather, it is the heightening of historical consciousness beyond the emotional forces, rational and irrational, that would retard such a progression. As a historical work, his book is admirable and powerful. What it ultimately lacks, however, is a full-scale explication of its own title. In other words, it does not explore the nature of banality as it relates to indifference; nor does it add any ramifications to Arendt's radical concept.

What Auron fails to add in his conclusion is an extensive consideration of the very idea of indifference and of what is banal within it. Banality, in one of its modern meanings, connotes a lack of originality. `Banal' is really an aesthetic term rather than a moral one, and doers of the banal are ordinary humans who are neither demonic nor monstrous. But indifference is both political and moral, for the indifferent are those with specific motives of expediency, sectarianism, envy, irritation or fear. Consequently, the yoking together of the banal and the indifferent adds moral implications to politics. When a society as a whole decides it would be better to do nothing because only then can it go on surviving and flourishing, there is a moral collapse. As the 20th century showed repeatedly, evil is not just participatory; it taints those who merely stand and watch it spread. In the case of Zionist society and its reaction to the Armenian genocide, there was a deep inclination of a group not to exercise its faculties of thought and justice. Its citizens, by and large, did not ask for significance, did not create a dialogue with themselves about their own deeds as these related to the Armenians. Zionism suffered from clichés, stock phrases, standardized codes of action that subscribed to the normality of political expediency and opportunism. As such, it manifested not only a thoughtlessness, but a moral failure. Its indifference was a form of evil that in making excuses for itself allowed genocidal killers to escape retribution. Its indifference was murderous in its own banal way because silence and inaction are forms of consent to perpetuated atrocities.

In case Canadians nod their heads and cluck their tongues in stock moral disgust, it should be quickly asserted that they, no less than their more influential and politically calculating allies, exemplified a perverse indifference to the fate of the Armenians. Canada has long prided itself on being an exemplar of diplomacy and peacekeeping. However, its record in the Armenian matter is far from virtuous; it is atrocious in the way that only the invidiously indifferent can be. A recent book by a Canadian of Armenian heritage brings to light some of this record, and it does so in a tone more of deep regret than of blazing wrath. Quest for Closure: The Armenian Genocide and the Search for Justice in Canada by poet, writer and Royal Military College pro_ fessor of English Lorne Shirinian has not had the publicity it merits.

Which Armenian has ever had a political platform in our daily papers? Where are book reviews of Armenian history, culture or politics? Why does the topic of the Armenian genocide never seem to come up on talk-radio? Has the CBC ever produced documentaries on the Armenian holocaust to match its interest in the Jewish one? It is easy to do such a role call of disgraceful indifference, and I acknowledge the forum I am given here by the Literary Review of Canada, but this is an atypical forum, and I write as a member of two distinct minorities (Anglo-Indian and Armenian) who refuses the blandishments of the bland to prevent me from publicizing their moral blindness and political castration. I turn again to facts from Shirinian's revelatory book in order to define and expand the issue from a Canadian perspective.

In the first 15 years of the 20th century, the number of Armenians immigrating to Canada totalled 1,853, an extremely small percentage of the overall immigration figures. During the First World War, the number of Armenians allowed into the country was even more shocking: a mere dozen! The largest number in the next decade was 404 in 1923, including the first group of 50 young boys from a Corfu orphanage chosen to settle on a 200_acre tract of orchard land just outside Georgetown, 50 kilometres northwest of Toronto. The war and its aftermath made it easy to explain away the low figures, but what was called at the time `Canada's Noble Experiment' was a rather weak response to the vehement appeals for charity from the Most Reverend A.J. Vining, Secretary of the Armenian Relief Fund of Canada. Although Shirinian provides no statistics about the number of Armenian applications for refugee or immigrant status, the bitter truth of the matter is that the Canadian government continued to classify Armenians as Asiatics and hence not on the list of desirable immigrants.

Later, of course, power politics held sway, and successive prime ministers from Pierre Trudeau to Joe Clark to Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien showed how easy it was to disguise bias as indifference and to buy economic and political advantage under the facade of official objectivity. In the i980s, when Armenian militants made sporadic attempts to assassinate prominent Turks in Canada, this served to foment criticism of the Armenian community and alienate public sympathy for their outcries for justice. Our politicians have always shown an amazing ability to try to weasel out of actions on behalf of justice for the Armenians. After the end of the Great War, when some Canadian nationals of Armenian origin made claims for financial compensation for the seizure and destruction of real estate and personal property by the Turkish government, the Canadian Reparations Commission produced a report in 1931, which argued that `The immensity of the destruction wrought upon the Armenians does not raise the act to the dignity of either a `hostility' or an `operation of war.'' So much for crimes against humanity; so much for Canadian decency and probity! But the chronicle of shame continued. In 1985, the Canadian government said that it would not recognize events of 1915 as genocide `because it is not appropriate to give a legal connotation to an event retroactively.' No similar decree was forth- coming, however, about the Jewish Holocaust. In 1988, Jacques Roy, Assistant Deputy Minister of the External Affairs European branch, objected to the inclusion of the Armenian genocide in the new Ottawa Board of Education curriculum. He remarked in an interview (quoted by the Montreal Gazette) that `Canada should accept Turkey's claim there was no genocide, in order not to jeopardize millions of dollars' in trade contracts.' In 1994, Montreal mayor Pierre Bourque came under great pressure from the Turkish government for promising the construction of a monument honouring the victims of the 1915 genocide. After several reversals of his position, he finally unveiled the monument on April 26, 1998.

It is becoming even easier to evade the Armenian question. `The last victim of any genocide is truth,' wrote Richard Cohen in the Washington Post in 1983, after hearing the Turkish ambassador to the U.S. contend that `there never was a policy to exterminate the Armenians.' `And so year by year,' added Cohen, `person by person, the genocide blurs, doubt corrodes it, and the easy word `alleged' creeps in to mock the Armenian anguish.' And the Canadian government has frequently helped the Turkish stratagem. In 1987, Mulroney refused to accept a symbolic copy of a statue commemorating `the indestructibility of the spirit, culture and civilization of the Armenian people.' (In fact, he even refused to meet an Armenian delegation in his office, electing to see them unceremoniously in a hallway.) In 1986, Clark showed that he preferred the pragmatic to the moral route when he backed away from a commitment to recognizing the Armenian genocide. And then, of course, we have the problem of Chrétien. In 1984, as Trudeau's Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources, he negotiated with the Turkish government for CANDU sales, and although Trudeau's Cabinet rejected the deal - not on any account of a sympathy for Armenians - Chrétien has never given up on a nuclear bargain with the Turks. Because any official recognition of the Armenian genocide would jeopardize such a bargain, Chrétien's government has cultivated a moral indifference that offers great comfort to the Turks.

So Canada remains the great dissembler: a nation that manages to strike the pose of a peaceable neutrality while craftily sacrificing truth and
principle for economic and political advantage. It fails to understand that its official indifference is a silence that makes it eloquently culpable. Apart from a few members of the Bloc Québecois and the NDP, Armenians



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