On Thursday evening at 6:15 p.m., as barbecue smoke wafts over the entire length of Israel as Independence Day ceremonies draw to a close, church bells will peal over the Old City of Jerusalem, echoing through its ancient stone alleyways. The bells from 18 churches will ring 100 times in succession, one toll for each year since the Armenian Genocide, which started on April 24, 1915.
Armenians around the world will be marking the centennial anniversary of the genocide, when the Ottomans killed 1.5 million Armenians during WWI. Israel’s Armenian population has been planning events throughout the year to mark the centennial, including concerts, lectures, documentary screenings, and special religious masses.
But the evening of April 23 through April 24 is the central day of mourning, with processions, candlelight vigils, and solemn ceremonies.
On Thursday night after the bells go silent, thousands of Armenians will march with torches through the Old City, where Armenian Christians have lived since the 4th century.
100 years of memory
The 100th anniversary has brought increased attention to the plight of the Armenians, who have been demanding worldwide recognition of the genocide for the past century. As the Ottoman Empire crumbled during WWI, the Ottoman officials feared that Armenian Christians would ally with their biggest enemy, the Russians. On April 24, 1915, Ottoman soldiers arrested 200 Armenian leaders and intellectuals in the first step of what would eventually become a campaign of ethnic cleansing. As WWI raged, the Armenians were marched into the Syrian desert with no food or water. More than a million and a half died, in what historians call the first genocide of the 20th century.
However, for the past 100 years, Turkey has denied that the events against the Armenians constitute a genocide, insisting that just as many Turks died during this period. The issue over semantics is so fraught with politics that only 22 countries have recognized the event as a “genocide.” Neither Israel nor the US is on that list, as both try to maintain good relations with Turkey.
“We are fighting two wars in parallel,” said Kevork Nalbandian, a lawyer and social worker in the Old City who is on the planning committee for the 100th anniversary in Jerusalem. “One war is to guard the memory of the Armenian genocide, to ensure that the memories of what happened are passed to our children and the younger generations. The second war is for the international awareness of this pain. We want the world to recognize this.”
This plea takes on outsized importance in Israel. “Israel is a country that was founded because so many of the citizens were survivors or connected [to the Holocaust],” said Father Koryoun Bahdasaryan, a priest originally from Armenia who has lived in Jerusalem for 20 years.
“How can you expect other countries to recognize your Holocaust when you yourself refuse to recognize the first genocide [of the 20th century], the genocide of the Armenian people?” asked Nalbandian.
In the domed living room of Nalbandian’s stone apartment in the Old City, he keeps a framed picture of a quote he photographed at the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC. The quote is from August 22, 1939, a week before Hitler invaded Poland. “I have issued the command — and I’ll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by a firing squad — that our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy,” Hitler said in a speech at Obersalzberg to his top officers, rationalizing his decision to begin an ethnic cleansing campaign against the Poles. “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
“Twenty-two years after [the Armenian genocide] happened, the world forgot,” Nalbandian said. “Hitler harnessed this power of the world forgetting, and he used it to build everything. He used the same tools and developed them further. Instead of taking them to the desert, he used gas chambers, but everything else was the same, like the death marches.”
“If you want to be the moral standard and want other countries to follow, that’s fine,” Nalbandian added. “But then when you take up that torch of morality and march forward, it’s on you as well. There’s no exemption.”
For the first time, Israel is sending a delegation of two MKs to the official memorial service in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. MKs Nachman Shai (Zionist Union) and Anat Berko (Likud) will travel to Armenia after Israel was formally invited to send an official delegation.
Both Nalbandian and Father Bahdasaryan are incensed when politicians utilize the threat of recognizing the Armenian Genocide as a diplomatic tool against Turkey.
“This is all politics,” said Bahdasaryan. “When they’re politicians they say they will support [resolutions recognizing it as genocide] but once they’re presidents they don’t write their own speeches.”
Most frustrating is when politicians dance around the term, such as Rivlin’s recent speech to the United Nations, when he referred to “retzach bnei ha’am ha’Armeni” (the massacre of the Armenian people) rather than “retzach am” which means genocide. Rivlin had previously expressed support for recognizing the genocide. On other occasions, politicians used the Armenian name, “The Great Tragedy,” as a way of avoiding the term “genocide.”
For Armenians, the semantics are essential to this debate. Forcing the world to recognize the term genocide is part of an emotional struggle that is central to their identity as Armenians. “It’s about closing a circle on a psychological and therapeutic level,” said Nalbandian. “The issue of requesting compensation for damages or not requesting compensation, that’s not what’s really worrying me. The moral question, the philosophical and emotional and psychological question, that’s what we’re carrying on our shoulders.”
Fighting for recognition is so central to their identity that Armenia’s Eurovision 2015 song entry was called “Don’t Deny.” The title was later changed to “Face the Shadow” amid accusations of politicizing the international song contest.
This fight for recognition also tempered the way that Armenians commemorate the genocide. Armenians still harbor deep anger against a common enemy, Turkey, anger which fused them into an even more tightly knit group with a clear-cut goal. “[This fight] helped us create solidarity, as well as religious solidarity,” said Bahdasaryan. “It helped us unite. It strengthened our identity.”
But Turkey refuses to show any cracks in their position, maintaining that while the events during WWI were regrettable, there is not enough information to prove that the events constitute genocide.
Light a candle
In Jewish Israeli society, there is an ongoing debate about the best way to uphold respectful commemoration of the Holocaust, without succumbing to a victim mentality. This debate is less prevalent in the Armenian community. The lack of recognition means that the group still very much identifies as victims. And if the world refuses to acknowledge those events, the Armenians insist on doing it themselves.
“You can find references to the genocide in everything, in education, in art,” said Bahdasaryan. “The genocide is part of our language,” added Nalbandian. “You grow up with this pain, this identity, this culture.”
“This identity is like a wound that all the time is dripping blood, and never heals. You grow up with this, you feel that you are part of this wound and the wound is part of your body.”
The deep connection to the genocide comes at a time when there are no longer any survivors of the Armenian genocide, a situation Israel will face with the Holocaust in the coming decades.
Part of the reason Armenians remain rooted to this part of their history is early education in their communities, starting in kindergarten, about the genocide and the survivors. Bahdasaryan estimates that about 70% of Armenians in Israel lost family members in the genocide.
Deep roots in Israel
Armenians have lived in Jerusalem since the 4th century. Armenia is known as the first country to convert to Christianity. Soon after, the Armenian Patriarch arrived in Jerusalem. Until 1918, their job was to host Christian pilgrims in Israel and protect the holy sites and churches, explained Bahdasaryan. Their main responsibility was maintaining a 400-room pilgrim’s hostel in their monastery in the Armenian quarter of the Old City. These Armenians who came before 1918 are called “Kartkazi,” or “people of the city.”
In 1918, after the British gained control of Palestine, thousands of survivors of the Armenian Genocide arrived in Jerusalem from Aleppo. They were immediately moved into the monastery, with one or more families per room.
The last wave of Armenian immigrants came in the 1990s, when people from the USSR with one Jewish grandparent were allowed to move to Israel. Some of these Armenians identify as Christian.
Today, most of the Armenian quarter is closed to the public because it is still a monastery. In the tense environment of the Old City, the Armenian Quarter often feels like an oasis of peace. Outside the Quarter, extremist yeshiva students spit at the priests and deface posters explaining the Armenian Genocide.
But inside the quarter, purple and pink flowers burst forth among the white stones. Soccer games echo across courtyards. A massive Armenian flag is draped across the side of the main cathedral, which recently made headlines after Kim Kardashian and Kanye West baptized their daughter there during a whirlwind trip to Jerusalem.
The symbol of the 100th anniversary is a purple forget-me-not, representing the commitment to memory. One hundred years have passed since the genocide began, and the community commemorates the event with memories but no survivors. Thirty years from now, Israel will be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps, also surrounded by memories but no survivors.
But for Nalbandian, the importance of remembering these genocides is not only to honor the memory of the millions killed, but also to ensure that these atrocities are not repeated. Even as the Armenians mark a century since the mass killing of Christians in the Middle East, the Islamic State is still massacring thousands of Christians in the same area.
“In Ecclesiastes it’s written that there’s nothing new under the sun,” said Nalbandian. “The world was quiet when this happened to the Armenians. The world was quiet when it happened to the Jews. The world was quiet when it happened to Rwanda. The world is still quiet when it’s happening with ISIS. It’s so sad that we’re in the 21st century and people are just butchered in these massacres. I’m at a lack for words against their travesties. Christians are being killed because of their ethnicity and religion, just disgusting things. And the whole world is standing to the side and watching.”