The politics of the Armenian genocide in Israel


“Israel is one of the only democratic countries in the world, if not the only one, to deny the genocide and support Turkey’s stubborn policy of denial,” wrote Yair Auron in the Israel daily Haaretz.  He claimed that in 2015 opposition political parties had attempted to get the genocide recognized by the education ministry and that the “concept of ‘genocide’ has become politicized.” In the most Isralocentric comment int he article he claimed that “If Israel recognizes it, US President Barack Obama won’t be able to continue to remain on the sidelines either.”

The sudden interest in pushing for recognition of the genocide in Israel has little to do with justice and morality, and more to do with politics.  For years those on the left in Israel didn’t support recognition when their political party ran Israel and they favored relations with Turkey.  Then the right wing came to power and suddenly it was important to recognize. Every time Israel has bad relations with Turkey, the right will say “recognize”, and the left will say “no”, and then the situation reverses itself. It is about Israel’s internal politics and rarely has much to do with moral norms.

A history of recognition

Israel isn’t the only country where national parliaments are called upon to recognize what happened to the Armenians in 1915 was a genocide.  Germany recognized it in June and France’s parliament passed a resolution in 2010.  Many Western countries now recognize it in one form or another.

I’ve been writing about this issue for more than a decade.  In 2007 when the ADL decided to struggle against recognition of the genocide, I called the decision “rotten.”  Abe Foxman said the “jury” was still out on recognition.   In 2012 I wrote a major piece about the issue in Israel and also the historic Jewish connection to recognizing suffering of Armenians.

But the debate in Israel tends to have a cycle to it and a very unique focus.  For years the Labor Zionist left dominated Israel’s politics and did not recognize the genocide.  This was carefully constructed in order to maintain relations with Turkey.  But it wasn’t merely pragmatic, like all government-sponsored ideologies, it had to be ideological as well.  When I was studying for my PhD at Hebrew University one academic told a class the “Armenians should get over it.”  The mainstream left and its intellectual colleagues refused to recognize.

That began to change as the right wing came to power in Israel.  Suddenly the left, no longer shouldering the burdens of power found the genocide to be a way to critique the government and accuse Israel of being immoral.  In 2000 Yossi Sarid of Meretz attended the 85th Armenian genocide memorial events in Jerusalem.”I join you, members of the Armenian community, on your Memorial Day, as you mark the 85th anniversary of your genocide. I am here, with you, as a human being, as a Jew, as an Israeli, and as education minister of the State of Israel,” he said.


Armenians commemorate the memorial day in 2015 in Jerusalem. Where are all the Israeli activists who supposedly care about this issue? (Seth J. Frantzman)


Since the Mavi Marmara affair in 2010 and the breakdown of relations with Turkey, the issue comes up every few months in Israel, usually relating to those relations with Turkey or Azerbaijan.  Some commentators such as Benny Ziffer oppose recognition, claiming it is a form of “victimization”.  In 2010 the Knesset debated recognition at the suggested of Yisrael Beitnu’s Alex Miller. At the time the left complained about such recognition. “For many years, Israel’s government has refused to recognize the genocide for cynical, strategic and economic, reasons, connected to its ties with Turkey,” said MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz). “Now, given the state of relations between the countries, I can’t rule out the possibility that the Foreign Ministry is exploiting affairs.”  Turkey was being “goaded”, claimed Haaretz.

In 2015  the Knesset did send two representatives, Nahman Shai (Zionist Union) and Anat Berko (Likud) to the official memorial events in Armenia.  The Jewish Council for Public Affairs also resolved to recognize it. In May the ADL recognized the genocide.

A Jewish issue

In Israel the issue of the Armenians has nothing to do with Armenians or the justice of recognition of the genocide. It is mostly about an internal debate about Zionism, Judaism and Israel. Rachel Elboim-Dror, an academic at Hebrew University, claims Zionist leader Theodor Herzl “sold out the Armenians.”  How did he do that?  Because he was discussing Palestine with the Sultan Abdul-Hamid II between 1980 and 1901. This was the period of the Hamidian massacres of more than 100,000 Armenians. How this makes Herzl responsible for “selling” them out is unclear, Herzl had no influence over Palestine (the sultan rejected his offers), nor over Ottoman policy. But it’s convenient to imagine a nefarious “Zionist” behind the Armenian suppression, rather than blame the sultan, who at the time was called “the butcher” in Western press.  Of course overly critical Israelis would find a way to blame Israel for massacres in 1894, because it is about condemning Herzl, not about helping Armenians.

Louis Fishman wrote in April that it was a moral responsibility for Israel to care about the genocide. “April 24, has passed without Israel issuing a statement of official recognition. As a country that inherited the legacy of the European genocide of Jews — the Holocaust — its recognition of the systematic killing of Ottoman Armenians would not only amount to a historically just move, but would also be an important step in promoting the study of comparative genocides.”  But Fishman’s piece was tinged with it’s clear agenda blaming Israel and “Jewish lobbies” for somehow “blocking” recognition of the genocide. “U.S. Jewish lobbies had already opted out of taking their usual role in blocking Armenian Genocide recognition, and the Knesset debated the matter,” he wrote.

Yair Auron, who continually speaks out on behalf of recognition, also has his own agenda.  He has written on the “banality of genocide denial: Zionism and the Armenian genocide.” The use of the word “banality” in the title is a clear reference to Hannah Arendt’s ‘Banality of evil’ in which she claimed that Nazis were merely cogs in the machine, but that Jewish collaborators played an active role in the Holocaust.  Now the collaborators have been re-cast as part of Zionism “denying” Armenian suffering.  Auron’s views are well known when it comes to the Holocaust and Israel as well.  He has accused Israel’s method of teaching the Holocaust as being “racist” and “perpetuating victimization and isolation,” according to an article in Haaretz.  Meanwhile Fishman claims that “Even if they are different in scope, it can be argued that Israel has adopted Turkey’s stance of denial as a model toward the Palestinian Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from the land.”

It’s all about Israel

If you follow the logic here, it is that Zionism “denies” the genocide, Herzl “sold out” the Armenians to advance a Jewish state, only if Israel recognizes the massacres of Armenians then Barack Obama will recognize it, and that Israel is “racist” for focusing on Jewish suffering in the Holocaust, and that Israel is like Turkey in denying the Nakba.  And don’t forget, “Jewish lobbies” are behind genocide denial, and that when Israel does seek to recognize the events, then it is “offending Turkey” in a “cynical” political ploy.

It’s all about Israel. When writing about the genocide of Yazidis, I’ve received comments about “why doesn’t Israel recognize the Armenian or Yazidi genocide,” as if the “real” problem is Israel, not the genocides themselves, not the perpetrators. One gets the feeling that if Israel just disappeared or didn’t exist, all the supposed “activists” for recognition, would no longer care, because their activism isn’t about Armenians or the genocide, it’s about Israel.  Israel is the problem.  Zionism is the problem.  Jewish “ethno-centric” history of the Holocaust is the problem.

So why is it that Armenians commemorating Armenian genocide day and teaching about the genocide in Armenia are not being “racist” against others for not including all the genocides in their commemoration, but Israel is “racist” for not having Holocaust education be about the killing of Armenians and Darfuris and others?  Why is it ONLY the Holocaust education has to be diluted to be “universal” and about everyone, but Palestinian education about the Nakba can be about, well, the Nakba; and Armenian teaching of the genocide can be about the genocide. Only the Holocaust is “racist” if you teach that it was directed at Jews, that 6 million Jews died.  No, you must mention Darfur, Rwanda, Iraq, Armenia, too, or you are “racist.”

Activists online but not in person

I’ve attended the genocide recognition marches in Jerusalem twice.  Each time I didn’t see the Israelis who supposedly care so much about this issue.  Where are the academics, journalists and others who supposedly care about advancing recognition of the genocide?  Why don’t they hold events at the university?  Why don’t they do events on April 24?  Because they suffice to write opeds bashing Israel, but not actually doing anything to raise awareness.  It’s about Israel, not about Armenians.

When writers claim that Jews must be “moral” and that recognizing the genocide “as Jews” matters because it is about comparative genocides, there is a very Jewishcentric concept at work, in which recognition is more about “us” being good, then about Armenians getting more attention.  It’s about “look at me, I’m being moral and good,” not about “look at them and their suffering, let’s talk about them.”

Only through such a ridiculous Israelocentric and Jewishcentric worldview could commentators come up with the idea that “Jewish lobbies” prevented recognition and that if only Israel will recognize the genocide, then Obama will do so. Because Obama listens to Israel on so many things, right?

One has to be wary to play into the hands of the Israeli political discussion on this issue and allow it to manufacture information and press.  For instance, why is it that a week after reconciliation, suddenly, the Knesset is being asked to recognize the genocide?  Because that is a perfect way to create a “crises” and use the reconciliation to make the government respond, and to create a controversy with Turkey.  Two months ago of course, they could have raised this issue.  But it is raised now because it is all about Israeli internal politics, not Armenia.


Armenians in Jerusalem demonstrate in 2016 (Seth J. Frantzman)

The fact is that Jewish activists, Jewish people, Jewish academics and Jewish commentators have always been at the forefront of raising awareness about genocide and especially Armenian suffering. As opposed to the view put forward by Israelis, who have a problem with their own government that taints their views, it is not “Jewish lobbies” that stopped recognition of the genocide, it is often Turkish protests, or “Turkish lobbies”.

It was US ambassador Henry Morgenthau, who was Jewish, who raised the alarm about persecutions of minorities by the Ottomans in 1915.

There is no competition between what befell the Armenians and the Holocaust.  Genocide isn’t a zero-sum history game, whereby if you commemorate one, there is less space for the other. Israel can commemorate the Shoah, and also students can learn about Armenia.  Why is it activists say that the one day a year people care about the Holocaust has to be “universal” and not about the Holocaust.  The mind has space for many atrocities, they don’t all have to compete for space on the same day.  Yom HaShoah doesn’t have also include Armenians, Armenians have a different day and that can also be discussed on that day.  But in Israel the discussion is not about awareness, it is just about bashing Zionism, Herzl, and Israel, instead of educating about genocide.

My friends in America who ask me “why doesn’t Israel do more about Yazidis”, I wonder what is America doing for them?  When they ask “why doesn’t Israel recognize the genocide”, one should reply “why don’t you in America.”  The response often is “because we expect more of Israel and Jews.”  Israel of course must have a higher standard.  “As victims of the Holocaust how can you not recognize it.”  There is a veiled anti-Jewish response in this, which admonishes “Jews” for not caring enough, as if the actions of Israel’s government represents all Jewish people. It is particularly odd that Jews abroad, who don’t even advocate for their own government to care about Armenia, care so much about Israel.

It is incumbent on every person in the world to decide for themselves about Armenian suffering.  It is important for every person to care about genocide and persecution.  Some countries or people don’t have to be held to a “higher standard”.  Genocide victims don’t have to water-down their suffering to compete with other genocides for space, and they don’t have a “special obligation” to care about genocide.  Rather genocide perpetrators have a special obligation.  Those who care most about Armenians should be talking to Turkey, not to Israel.

Israel’s education system should discuss the Armenians, and if the Knesset wants to recognize the genocide, it’s 69 years too late, but they can do it now.  Caring about Yazidis and other groups should be a priority as well.  Not because Jews have a “special obligation”, but because people, all people, have an obligation.











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