Local Armenian leaders were disappointed that President Reuven Rivlin carefully avoided speaking of “genocide” when he officially marked the centennial of the killing of nearly 1.5 million Armenians this week, but he did in fact call it a “genocide” earlier this month.
Briefing foreign journalists at his official Jerusalem residence on April 13, Rivlin recalled that he was the first Israeli president to speak about the issue at the United Nations in January, and that he quoted Zionist leader Avshalom Feinberg speaking about the Armenians’ fate 100 years ago.
“It was Avshalom Feinberg, one of my eldest brothers, who said 25 years before the Holocaust that if we do not warn against what is going on with the Armenians, what will happen afterwards when they try to do to us…?” Rivlin said, speaking in English.
“There is a saying that the Nazis used the Armenian genocide as something that gave them permission to bring the Holocaust into reality, according to their belief that they have to discriminate against the Jewish people. ‘Never again’ belongs to every one of you, all the nations. We cannot allow something like that to happen.”
Rivlin was once one of Israel’s most outspoken advocates for recognition of the Armenian genocide.
But since he became president last year, he has been careful not to use the word “genocide” in describing the events in Armenia in official speeches and declarations, in accordance with Israel’s official policy not to refer to the events as genocide.
Much to the dismay of Armenians and human rights activists, Rivlin has taken to using the terms “mass killing,” massacre,” or the “Armenian tragedy.”
But at the April 13 briefing, Rivlin congratulated Pope Francis on having called the mass killings of Armenians the “first genocide of the 20th century,” adding that this was an important issue for all human beings.
“We cannot allow any kind of racism, any kind of anti-Semitism, any opportunity of acting in wars that can be defined as genocide,” Rivlin said. “It is really a value that should be mentioned to everyone, in order to avoid that the words ‘Never Again’ would not only be two words but would mean something.”
The fact that he did utter the word “genocide” two weeks ago may have been a slip of the tongue that revealed his true thoughts on the matter. The President’s Residence did not respond to a request for comment by the time this article was posted.
During the event Sunday with Armenian communal and religious leaders in Israel, Rivlin said that we are “morally obligated to point out the facts, as horrible as they might be, we must not ignore them.” The event was billed by his office as the first time an Israeli president official held an event to commemorate what happened to the Armenians.
“The Armenian people were the first victims of modern mass killing. We do not seek to put the blame on any specific country, but rather identify with the victims and the horrible results of the massacre.”
Archbishop Aris Shirvanian, who represented the Armenian patriarch, “expressed his disappointment that the State of Israel had not related to the killings of the Armenian people as “genocide,” according to a press release from Rivlin’s office.
“At the end of the meeting, the President stated that he had noted this criticism, and that he believed that Israel’s leadership must do more to raise the issue of the murder of the Armenian people, and stressed the importance of the discussion held today,” the press release stated.
At the event, the honorary consul of Armenia in Israel, Tsolag Momjian, acknowledged that Jerusalem for the first time sent two MKs — Nachman Shai (Zionist Union) and Anat Berko (Likud) — to the official genocide memorial event in Yerevan. “The Armenian genocide is not a political case but a moral case. And I want to thank the President for creating this historic opportunity today,” he said.
After having meet with Armenian officials over the weekend, both MKs are calling on the government to recognize the Armenian genocide, Shai said Tuesday.
Israel’s refusal to formally recognize the Armenian genocide is based on geopolitical and strategic considerations, prime among them relations with Turkey, which vehemently denies that Ottoman Turks committed genocide. But Jerusalem’s growing ties with Azerbaijan — a regional Muslim power with a long border with Iran — play an important role in Israel’s decision as well.
“The fuller understanding of this historical episode is in the interest of the entire civilized world, and ought to lead to an international dialogue committed to preventing the similar recurrence of severe human rights violations on catastrophic scale,” the Foreign Ministry stated Friday. It called for a “full and frank acknowledgement of the facts behind the horrible events” but steered clear of the word genocide.