Reviving Morgenthau’s memo: The Armenian genocide in Israeli politics

Published in The Jerusalem Post Magazine on January 12, 2012

In July 1915 the US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire down at his desk in the second story of the large white neo-classical embassy building in Istanbul, to compose a memo to the Secretary of State in Washington. In composing his urgent memo, Morgenthau first wrote “confidential” but must have thought better of it and crossed out the word. What he wrote next has remained one of the most significant documents relating to genocide in the 20th century.

Ambassador Morgenthau

Ambassador Morgenthau

“Deportation of and excesses against peaceful Armenians is increasing and from harrowing reports of eyewitnesses it appears that a campaign of race extermination is in progress under a pretext of reprisal against rebellion,” he wrote.

Morgenthau concluded his memo by noting that the US should inform other foreign missions that only “force” would prevent the Turkish actions. At the bottom he signed his note, “American Ambassador, Constantinople,” using the old Western name for the then-capital of the Ottoman Empire.

Morgenthau, who was often photographed wearing his fashionable pincenez glasses, is remembered as one of the major figures to passionately chronicle the early events of what is often referred to as the Armenian Genocide. He was a passionate defender of Turkey’s minorities, including the Pontic Greeks and Assyrians. After America’s entry into the war Morgenthau became involved with a controversial mission alongside Felix Frankfurter to persuade the Turks to sign a separate peace treaty.

What is interesting is that Morgenthau became a fervent critic of Zionism, seeing it as “a surrender, not a solution, of the Jewish question.” At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference he signed an anti-Zionist petition, hoping that the conference would repudiate the Balfour Declaration.

The Armenian Genocide is in the news lately because of a decision to hold a discussion about the events of 1915 in the Knesset’s Education committee. Unlike in previous years where Israeli politicians eschewed mentioning the word “genocide” for fears of harming relations with Turkey, politicians spanning the political spectrum have now agreed that it is time for official Israel to start talking about the genocide.

Morgenthau figures as an important part of this historical discussion because many Jews see him as representing a moral beacon of outrage over genocide, an outrage that is solidified by the fact that in 1939 Hitler used the example of the Armenians to justify why no one would recall Nazi crimes: “Only thus shall we gain the living space which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Armenians hung by the Ottomans during the war as part of the wider genocide

Armenians hung by the Ottomans during the war as part of the wider genocide

Raphael Lemkin, coiner of the term genocide, referenced the Armenians and Morgenthau when he sought to understand the mass killing of the Holocaust.

The Turkish government, Turkish and non-Turkish scholars and many Turkish people have maintained over the years that what happened to the Armenians in 1915 should not be defined as a genocide, a term which has legal, as well as historical, importance. They argue that scholars must decide for themselves what happened and that in general the events should be understood in the wider context of the suffering of many people in the region during the war, including many Turks who died in the conflict.

GEORGE HINTILIAN, scholar, prominent member of Jerusalem’s Orthodox Armenian community and a sort of roving spokesman on the importance of the genocide, brought up Morgenthau’s name in a recent interview.

“We come from Cappadocia or what was also called Caesarea in central Turkey. When the deportations of Armenians began my father was forced to walk the whole way [to the Holy Land].”

The memo Morgenthau wrote

The memo Morgenthau wrote

Hintilian sips from a small cup of coffee as he explains what befell his family in 1915. “The women were raped and taken away. When the survivors got to Aleppo in Syria there were open-air refugee camps where epidemics raged. They whipped and shot the people. My father’s brother died because he drank muddy water. My grandfather was axed to death. Five hundred thousand Armenians were left to die in the deserts of Syria. It was the bad luck of the Turks that there were American consuls like Morgenthau to record what happened.”

Hintilian speaks quickly and over a wide range of subjects. He is happy to host people to show them around the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City, which is the center of life for around 2,000 Armenians who live in Jerusalem today.

In the aftermath of 1915 many Armenian orphans found their way to Jerusalem. Hintilian takes me to the Armenian Museum, which is temporarily closed for renovations.

“Look here on the walls, you can see where the orphans scratched their names.” He points to a name scratched out of the soft Jerusalem stone. “This one says that the boy was from the province of Van in eastern Turkey, from the village of Bezd. He was born in 1909, was an Armenian scout and was from the Ararat orphanage. He wrote a small biography, it is all he had as an orphan.”

All the names were carved in 1922 when the orphans were housed in the large building. The boy would have been 13. Later many of the orphans moved on, settling in the Middle East, France, the US and even in Ethiopia, where one of them became the author of Ethiopia’s national anthem.

The records of the orphans are just one of the physical pieces of evidence linking Jerusalem to the genocide. But as Hintilian describes it, the struggle to get Israeli society to recognize what happened in 1915 as a genocide has been a long one. “Our generation has to finish this whole thing. We are motivated. Enough of the lying by Turkey, it is a losing battle for Turkey and a losing battle for the Israeli Foreign Ministry [which seeks to block recognition and discussion of the genocide]. You must see what a miserable situation the Foreign Ministry was in at the Knesset, they were apologetic and were shouted down. It is so unpopular these days to come and defend Turkey.”

Hintilian argues that what is most important, outside of what is taking place in the Knesset, is that the “silent majority” of Israelis recognize the horrors that befell the Armenians. “Eighty percent of Israelis now see it the same way. However, in the foreseeable future… there will be no official decision by the Israeli government to recognize the genocide. Turkish-Israeli relations are like a shipwreck but Israel can’t give up the official view; there won’t be recognition. It has nothing to do with the importance of the Holocaust, it is a diplomatic legacy from the day that Turkey recognized Israel [in March 1949, the second Muslim country to do so].”

Hintilian sees the victory over denial of the Armenian Genocide as stemming not only from the public but also from the Israeli media and academia embracing the issue.

“The media has now brushed aside all this old terminology [such as “Armenian massacres”]. Academics and the media now use the word ‘shoah’ [to describe the Armenian Genocide]. I care deeply about Israeli society and today there is a de facto recognition, but I don’t care about de jure. Even in the US you won’t see that. When I was invited to the Knesset over the years I went to see my friends, like [former MK and justice minister] Yossi Beilin, who were fighting this campaign [for recognition] for many years.

But in my opinion, a recognition today can’t be negotiated or requested, it must be spontaneous. Already there are 25 countries that recognize the genocide – Israel should have been in the first 10. “If it comes spontaneously then ‘shukran’ [‘thank-you’ in Arabic], but when you have the public it isn’t important.

Today it is an internal Israeli problem, we were frustrated in the past and today we are waiting to see if Israeli society will prove itself.”

Hintilian believes one must look at the long arc of Israeli history to understand the country’s odd relationship with the Armenian Genocide.

“In the time of the British Mandate many Jews used to read The Forty Days of Musa Dargh in school.”

The novel was written by Austrian-Jewish author Franz Werfel and tells of heroic Armenians who resisted the Turks in the face of massacre and deportation. “In that novel there was this idea of not going to die like a sheep.”

In this Hintilian connects the novel to the way Zionists felt about the Holocaust and the need to be heroic in the face of persecution. So he sees a long Israeli connection to the Armenians. “Turkey squeezed Israel for many years to get to Washington, but now they have their own connections. There is no chemistry anymore between the countries. Turkey wants to be popular in the Arab world; Israel is at the bottom of the list.”

THE TURKISH government takes state recognition of the Armenian Genocide extremely seriously. Unfortunately, by press time the second secretary to Turkey’s Charge d’Affaires in Tel Aviv was unable to provide us with a statement.

When the French parliament brought up a bill to make denial of the genocide illegal Turkey recalled its ambassador. Turkey has already withdrawn its ambassador to Israel over the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in 2010. The country has persecuted its own academics and intellectuals who have written on the genocide.

One of those who fell afoul of the authorities is Taner Akçam, an associate professor at Clark University. Born in 1953 in the village of Ölçek in Eastern Turkey, he gravitated toward leftwing activism, opposing the Turkish invasion of Cyprus and the government’s treatment of the Kurds. A graduate of Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara, he was sentenced to prison for 10 years for his politics in 1977 but escaped from prison and fled to Germany.

“I was naïve and when I began working on this [genocide] topic, I had no idea that it was so politicized and such a contested subject…. Once I had experienced how dangerous it was, I might have yet changed subject areas. I continue for three reasons: fear, stubbornness and anger,” he writes in an e-mail exchange.

The erudite academic explains that he publishes his work in Turkish to raise awareness. “This is particularly important to me and I try to make a point of not publishing something in English before it’s been published in Turkish.”

He argues that the Turkish government position, that the genocide is up for academic debate, is false. “There is no ‘scholarly’ or ‘academic’ problem regarding the Armenian Genocide. It is only an issue of power and power relations. You have a very politically strong-willed country, Turkey… [which] spends hundreds of thousands of dollars (if not millions) in order to create public opinion, particularly in the US. Turkey’s actions aren’t simply limited to just this. Genocide denial is an industry and a top-level state policy.”

When it comes to Israeli recognition of the genocide, he sees it as similar to the tightrope the Americans have walked in not using the term “genocide.”

The question America asks is, ‘If we say it is, will we be able to continue to use the Incirlik military air base?’ I believe the situation isn’t that different in Israel. What you’ve got is a game, one that’s begun to resemble a bad comedy, caused by the political, military and economic powers of a bunch of countries. As academicians we are, in a word, sick and tired of this comedy.”

He believes that Turkey is entering a period where denial will fade away. The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, called the genocide “a shameful act,” the title of one of Akçam’s books.

“With the coming of the AKP [the Islamic party that governs Turkey], the control of the state by the military-civilian bureaucracy was broken. The Ergenekon and Sledgehammer arrests [of military officers who plotted a coup] should be considered an important blow against the Unionists [pre-Ataturk] tradition.

With the entrance of the AKP, Turkey has entered a new period of democratization. Compared with the past, the subject of genocide is discussed more openly and freely in Turkey. I retain a hope that the AKP will change the ‘classic denialist’ policy as we move toward 2015 [the centenary of the genocide]. Or that the subject will cause a real fissure within the party.” But Akçam is still deeply opposed to the denial coming out of Ankara. “The real question is; are you going to remain passively on the side… are you going to support that regime or are you going to stop supporting it? The rest is just empty words.”

To understand how academia understands the Turkish relationship it is worth turning to the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Ofra Bengio, one of Israel’s foremost scholars on Israel-Turkish relations, is a soft-spoken woman who speaks helplessly about the decline in contacts with Turkey as one might speak about a relative whose health is inexorably deteriorating.

“In the past there were great relations between us and Turkey. We had conferences on Turkey. Many of our students were being sent to Turkey and they were going to Bilgi University in Istanbul and METU and enlarging their knowledge of Turkish culture and history. Right now in our center, we have two Turkish interns who are studying Turkish Jews and other subjects. So we have this ongoing study, in spite of the not very good relationship. On the scholarly level there are ties.”

She speaks about the limited academic ties as a lone light in a time of “tense” relations. For instance, there are two Turkish language classes being taught to around 15 students. In discussing the Armenian issue Bengio’s views dovetail with the long-held Turkish government position that academics should decide for themselves what was “genocide.”

“I think academics need to deal with this issue, not the government or parliament. A university has to teach and study whatever subject it wishes to. It is important to look at this, the big question; can the Turkish government show all the documents? They say that the Armenians hide a lot of documents. There is a lot of controversy.”  Bengio argues that the issue of semantics, whether to speak of “genocide,” “massacres” or an “Armenian holocaust” is something that comes up in the media due to the political tensions.
“Whenever it becomes an issue in the Knesset you hear these words. There is an attempt to talk about it because Turkey talks about the Palestinians.

Because of the political tensions, there is more interest in using the issue of the Armenians. This use of ‘Armenian holocaust’ is something many [Jewish] people would not accept. There are many differences [between the Holocaust and what happened to the Armenians], even if the Armenian lobby is pushing for it [recognition].”

AT THE political level in Israel the leftleaning Meretz Party has pushed for recognition of the Armenian Genocide for many years. Zahava Gal-On, who is one of three Meretz MKs, describes her involvement in the issue of the Armenian Genocide as stemming from the party’s history. “It is a continuation of our attempts to gain recognition which began in the 1990s and continued under Yossi Sarid [a former education minister] and Haim Oron [the current party chairman]. They tried to open these discussions in committees but it was rejected by the government.” Gal-On describes the issue as a personal one as well. As a daughter of Holocaust survivors she believes in recognizing and speaking out about genocide. “It is not only limited to the memory of our Holocaust… we have a moral obligation to commemorate.” Gal-On also recalls that one of the problems with public opinion not recognizing the issue in Israel is that it was rarely raised in the media until recently.

“There was always an understanding and recognition by people who read and learned about the problem. Those who read about Turkey over the years had to be [inhuman] not to feel sympathy over the crimes that were committed.”

It is interesting that she mentions the media blackout that used to exist on the topic, since Hintilian also recalls that he was once interviewed for a documentary for Israeli TV.

“I was making a film for [producer] Micha Shagrir and Turkey threatened Israel over it. There was discussion in the Knesset and the Turks requested that it be shelved because it had a tiny bit about a survivor of the genocide. This was in 1976-77.”

Hintilian recalls that great pressure was brought to bear by Turkey, which brought up the fact that Turkey was helping smuggle Jews out of Syria in the 1970s and that “it could be bad for the Jews in Turkey.”

Gal-On, like Hintilian, also believes that what is happening in the Knesset is a symbolic recognition, not an official policy change.

“It was not put up for a vote. The only vote that was taken was on having the discussion in the Education committee. It came before the Knesset plenum and they voted for having this discussion. The committee didn’t vote for recognition of the genocide, it has no formal authority to recognize a historical event. It only serves as a declarative issue, this is the main achievement,” she explains.

One issue that has come up recently is the fact that the recent discussions in the Knesset have received support from centrist and right-wing politicians, some of whom in the past argued that for pragmatic reasons Israel should shelve the Armenian issue in favor of close relations with Turkey.

In a December 27 editorial, the Haaretz newspaper argued that “Israel must not politicize the Armenian Genocide…. For Israel to make this recognition at a time that is politically convenient to it, as part of a tit-for-tat and as a means to provoke Turkey, is light years away from the recognition the Armenian people deserve.”

Here Gal-On disagrees.

“We feel this discussion should be held separate from the current diplomatic relations. The relations are bad due to current politics, not because of how we commemorate the genocide. We believe that despite any risks for further deterioration [of Israel-Turkish relations] it [the pragmatic view] has turned out not to work very well, since the relations deteriorated anyway. The other thing is that we can’t hide behind pragmatic political issue when we talk about a moral issue.”

Gal-On’s spokesman noted her office was disappointed with the editorial and that “what we are seeing here in the Education Committee is something far more substantial that has long-term affects. The fact that this [Israeli governing] coalition allowed for this to take place may emanate from their own negative opinions of Turkey, but for us we should capitalize on this because previous governments prevented discussion.”

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