Armenian, Assyrian and Hellenic Genocide News

The Dark World of the Armenians

Posted: Monday, May 24, 2004 at 09:52 PM CT


Bearing vigilant and constant witness and fighting Holocaust denial are part of the Jewish responsibility to history. Yet today, we are accomplices in the denial of an earlier genocidal chapter - the Armenian Genocide.

Between 1915 and 1916, some 1 million Armenians were systematically massacred by Ottoman Turkey; between 200,000 and 500,000 more would be exterminated between 1917 and 1922 by the revolutionary Young Turks. Dehumanization, death marches, and massacres targeted this Christian population. Vivid testimony was recorded by an American Jew - Henry Morgenthau, who was U.S. ambassador to Turkey: "When the Turkish authorities gave the orders for these deportations they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race; they understood this well and in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal the fact." Morgenthau writes of a death march to Aleppo. Of some 18,000 who set out, 150 women and children arrived. "All the rest," he writes, "were dead."

Deborah Lipstadt argues that "denial of genocide is the final stage of genocide; it is what Elie Wiesel has called 'a double killing.'" Yet the government of Turkey has been waging a campaign of denial involving threats, political bullying, coercion, and an unabashed assault on truth. The campaign has been effective. Successive administrations of the United States have succumbed to pressure preventing the passage of legislation referring explicitly to the Armenian Genocide and calling on Turkey to take responsibility for this blemish on humanity.

Tragically, the organized Jewish community continues to remain silent, and even to appease the Turkish government. The Turkish Daily News has reported with evident satisfaction that "the American Jewish Committee, member of the influential Jewish lobby in the U.S., has sent a letter to the Senate calling on the senators to exclude references to the alleged genocide out of the [2004] budget bill." The reference is to the State Department Authorization Bill, to which a rider referring explicitly to the Armenian Genocide has been attached by some 33 senators, reaffirming support of the Genocide Convention. They will seek a vote in September.

Adolf Hitler relied on the silence of history to wage a genocidal campaign. On August 22, 1939, only days after the Nazi conquest of Poland, he asked, "Who after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" Today, we are commanded by history just as we are by words of Torah, v'dibarta bam - that you shall speak of them - not only of the destruction that befell us, but the annihilation that befell them.

Fortunately, some have refused to be silent. On June 9, 2000, 126 Holocaust scholars published a petition in The New York Times affirming "the incontestable fact of the Armenian Genocide" and urging "Western democracies to officially recognize it." In March this year, Dr Yair Auron, an Israeli scholar of genocide, wrote in a newspaper article, "Israel has systematically avoided the Armenian issue." The Israeli and larger Jewish response "desecrates the memory of the Holocaust and its significance," Auron comments, and concludes poignantly: "As an Israeli Jew, I can only ask the forgiveness of every member of the Armenian people and assure them that there are people in Israel who will not give up until their state changes its immoral and anti-historical attitude toward the genocide suffered by another people." Some 15 Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish World Service, the JCRCs of Greater Boston and Palm Beach, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and the Union of Orthodox Rabbis have also breached the wall of silence. The rest of us must also begin to commemorate the Armenian Genocide and give whole-hearted support toward the passage of the Genocide Resolution.

In 1992, on a tour of the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, I noticed shards of glass jutting out of the upper walls on either side of us. Our guide reminded us that Palestine had been under the rule of the Ottoman Turks and the Armenians lived in constant fear here too. The glass was to prevent the Turks from scaling the walls. "Notice too the size of the windows," continued the guide, "almost miniature, to prevent outsiders from breaking in. Imagine how dark their world must have been." Those words have become a part of my Jewish soul. Let us imagine how dark the world must still be for the Armenians when people refuse to acknowledge their past.

To remain silent or indifferent is to display, in Abraham Joshua Heschel's moving words, a tragic lack of "moral grandeur." Worse yet, to remain silent is to admit that genocide can and will happen again.

AUTHOR: Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz is senior rabbinic fellow for the Jewish Theological Seminary's KOLLOT: Voices of Learning Program.



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