Citing Holocaust, Israeli Armenians demand genocide recognition
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Citing Holocaust, Israeli Armenians demand genocide recognition

On centennial, victims’ descendants express dismay over a government policy they say favors realpolitik over ‘conscience’

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Armenians march with Armenian flags, signs, and torches from the Armenian Quarter of Old City to the Armenian Church in the German Colony, Jerusalem, as they mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, on April 23, 2015 (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Armenians march with Armenian flags, signs, and torches from the Armenian Quarter of Old City to the Armenian Church in the German Colony, Jerusalem, as they mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, on April 23, 2015 (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Carrying tricolor flags and signs condemning Turkey, members of Israel’s small Armenian community held a solemn prayer service on Friday in Jerusalem’s Old City to commemorate the Armenian genocide centennial.

Participants wore T-shirts and pins depicting a five-petaled purple flower. Known as the “forget-me-not” flower, it symbolizes the five continents in which Armenians settled in the aftermath of the massacre of an estimated 1.5 million people by the Turkish government between 1915 and 1923. Following the religious service, participants marched to the Turkish consulate in Jerusalem for a quiet protest over Turkey’s refusal to officially recognize the genocide.

But Armenian Israelis speaking to The Times of Israel on Friday across from the St. James Cathedral in the Armenian Quarter were more upset with their own country’s refusal to recognize what they said was the first mass murder of the 20th century, and a precursor to the Jewish Holocaust during World War II.

“The Jewish people has experienced a Holocaust, and you won’t let anyone forget it,” said Isaac Panoyan, a hotel manager from Haifa. “For some reason, you keep your Holocaust to yourselves. The Holocaust is not just yours; the Armenian people experienced one too. It’s called genocide, and we want you to recognize it.”

Haifa resident Isaac Panoyan demonstrates in Jerusalem's Old City, April 24, 2015 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Haifa resident Isaac Panoyan demonstrates in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 24, 2015 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

Isaac’s grandparents left their hometown near Adana in southern Turkey in 1915 and settled in Capernaum, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, where his parents were born. Following Israel’s establishment, he said, the Armenian community in the area was “transferred” to Nazareth. His parents eventually settling in Haifa where he was born.

‘For some reason, you keep your Holocaust to yourselves. The Holocaust is not just yours; the Armenian people experienced one too. It’s called genocide, and we want you to recognize it’

“We never had it easy in Israel,” Panoyan said. “We’re a quiet community, quietly trying to demand our rights. The only reason we aren’t receiving recognition from the people of Israel and its government is because of Israeli interests in Turkey. Even though relations with Turkey are supposedly bad, Israel does nothing [to recognize the genocide]. It’s very important for Israel to recognize, because once Israel does so, the entire world will follow suit.”

Though former education minister Yossi Sarid attempted to introduce the genocide to Israel’s school curriculum in the 1990s, Israel officially avoids using the word “genocide” when describing the event, using the word “tragedy” instead. On Friday, Meretz party leader Zahava Gal-on, Sarid’s successor, paid her respects at the Armenian memorial service.

Knarik Gevorgyan, a 41-year-old travel agent, moved to Petah Tikva from the Armenian capital Yerevan in 2000. She said she came to Jerusalem “to pay respect to the victims of the shoah (the Hebrew word for a holocaust), murdered only for being Armenians and Christian.” Only three members of her extended family of 47 living near the town of Eleşkirt in eastern Turkey survived the genocide, she said.

She recalled the narrative transmitted by her grandfather, who was six at the time and one of the sole survivors: Turkish soldiers entered the village, sending the women and girls on a “death march” toward the desert and killing the men and boys on the spot.

“His mother hid him under a pile of fabric and that’s how he survived,” Gevorgyan said. “He spent three days under the bodies of family members. When the Turks left, the Kurds came and took him on a death march, but luckily for me he survived and reached Armenia. He suffered much hardship, but today the family is quite large.”

It is important for Gevorgyan to educate her children about the Armenian genocide, but Hebrew books on the subject are all but nonexistent, she said. 

An Armenian demonstrator holds up a historic photograph of the Armenian genocide during a demonstration in Jerusalem, April 24, 2015 photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90
An Armenian demonstrator holds up a historic photograph of the Armenian genocide during a demonstration in Jerusalem, April 24, 2015 (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“I’d like to see many more books in Hebrew,” she said. “The Jewish people, who suffered the Holocaust, should be more proactive in telling our story.”

Israel should officially recognize the Armenian genocide and criminalize its denial, Gevorgyan added. Some survivors of the 1915 genocide fell victim to a second massacre in 1938 after refusing to adopt Islam. Another ethnically motivated attack occurred in Istanbul in 1956. Perpetrators of those crimes or their descendants could still be brought to justice today, she insisted.

‘Conscience should always take precedence over everything else’

In a few days, the Armenian community in Israel — numbering no more than 10,000 — intends to submit a letter to the country’s leaders demanding official recognition of the genocide, she said.

“I have three children. One serves in the army and another is on his way. I think that as an Armenian I deserve the respect of Israel’s recognition, especially since the Jews unfortunately experienced this as well.”

Armenian Case Committee director Georgette Avakian stands outside St. James Cathedral in Jerusalem's Old City, April 24, 2015 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
Armenian Case Committee director Georgette Avakian outside St. James Cathedral in Jerusalem’s Old City, April 24, 2015 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

Georgette Avakian, chairwoman of the Armenian National Committee in Jerusalem, said her grandfather and uncle were taken and killed by the Turkish government on April 24, 1915. That day, the Turkish government rounded up the Armenian elite living in Istanbul in at attempt “to silence the people.” Her father, 15 years old at the time, had fled to Armenia to escape the Turkish draft. Avakian’s father arrived in mandatory Palestine in 1926, where she was born. Her mother was four when she was expelled from her hometown of Gaziantep (Antep) in southeast Turkey.

“She would always tell us of what she saw,” Avakian said. “She remembers the event because the Turks pulled out her earrings and wanted to abduct her. But her uncle, who managed the Armenian orphanage, took her in and raised her. Her father was murdered and her mother died on the march through the Syrian desert.”

Avakian said Israel refuses to recognize the Armenian plight due to “miserable” economic considerations relating to its ties with Turkey.

“Conscience should always take precedence over everything else,” she said. “The Jews have a special obligation. Were the world to have reacted to the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust would have never happened. Hitler said in 1939: ‘Who remembers the Armenians today?'”

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