On genocide memorial day, Jerusalem Armenians hold out hopes for Israeli recognition

The Jewish state has prioritized ties with Turkey and Azerbaijan over recognizing the WWI Ottoman massacre, critics say, as Armenian community voices shame over country’s stance

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Armenian ceramist Vic Lepejian in his Old City studio, April 23, 2023 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)
Armenian ceramist Vic Lepejian in his Old City studio, April 23, 2023 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

As air force stunt planes flew overhead in preparation for Israel’s 75th Independence Day, a solemn procession marched out from the St. James Cathedral Church in Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter on Monday.

Led by black-hooded priests and seminary students in resplendent red-and-white robes, the worshipers streamed out of the Old City, making their way to the Armenian Cemetery on Mount Zion. The cemetery, originally meant for clergy, was later opened to Armenian laypeople who fled to Jerusalem more than a century ago to escape Ottoman forces killing, raping, and expelling the empire’s Armenian minority.

As is the case every year on April 24, Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, the events were somber and contemplative.

But there was also an air of defiance. With only 34 countries around the world recognizing the massacres and deportations as a genocide, Armenians continue to advocate under the slogan “We Remember and Demand.”

For Armenians in Jerusalem, many of them proud Israeli citizens, there is a complex mix of feelings about living in a state that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust, yet refuses to recognize the very genocide that Adolf Hitler likely referenced as precedent for the Shoah, telling Wehrmacht officers in 1939, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

It’s not anger Israel’s Armenians express toward government policy. Instead, they speak of dismay and even shame that their country and the Jewish people set aside their own history and morals — in their telling — in order to accomodate Turkish and Azerbaijani demands.

Armenian schoolchildren march through Jerusalem to mark Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, April 23, 2023 (courtesy)

“Of course it’s disappointing,” said lawyer and activist Kevork Nalbandian from his office in the Armenian Quarter. “We’ve tried going to the Knesset and passing a vote, and talking to politicians and party heads. But all these attempts are stymied.”

‘We are not historians’

Armenians have long sought international recognition of the 1915-1917 killings by the Ottoman Empire, which reportedly left some 1.5 million of their people dead, as a genocide. Turkey — the Ottoman Empire’s successor state — strongly rejects the allegation that the massacres, imprisonment and forced deportation of Armenians amounted to genocide.

On April 20, 1965, Uruguay became the first country to recognize the Armenian Genocide.

The aftermath of a massacre during the Armenian genocide (public domain)

But the vast majority of the world refuses to formally refer to the events between 1915 and 1923, during which Ottoman forces massacred Armenian citizens in a systematically planned act of ethnic cleansing, as genocide, out of concern for their ties to Turkey, which maintains the largest European army in NATO and is a powerful, relatively pro-Western  Muslim power in the Mediterranean and Middle East.

Israel, which sees Ankara as a key trading partner and sometime security partner, has remained firmly in the majority camp.

Some maintain that the Holocaust’s unique nature prevents Israel from recognizing the Armenian genocide, out of a fear of having the industrial slaughter of one-third of the world’s Jews relegated to just another among a string of genocides throughout history.

But most point to the vital relationship with Ankara, a regional power. Supporters of this position see the cry that emerged from the death camps of “Never Again” as a moral imperative meaning the Jews and the Jewish state must prioritize making sure they are never subject again to slaughter, even it means making realpolitik alliances with unsavory partners.

At the same time, there is no shortage of Israelis who argue that the Jewish experience in the Shoah obligates the country to lead the world in showing recognition when others suffer similar fates — in effect, understanding Never Again the opposite way.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting on Turkish archives, in Ankara, Turkey, April 24, 2019. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)

Many leading Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Union for Reform Judaism, recognize the Armenian genocide.

But Israeli leaders have stood firm.

In 2001, when relations with Turkey were at an apex, then-foreign minister Shimon Peres outright denied “Armenian allegations,” denouncing them as an effort to create a parallel with the Holocaust.

“Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. What the Armenians went through is a tragedy, but not genocide,” he said.

Yet there have also been attempts by prominent politicians to move Israeli policy.

Members of the Armenian community march with flags and torches on April 23, 2015, in Jerusalem’s Old City, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the mass killings of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire in 1915. (AFP/Gali Tibbon)

In 2000, then-education minister Yossi Sarid of the left-wing Meretz party announced plans to place the Armenian genocide on Israel’s history curricula. “Genocide is a crime against humanity and there is nothing more horrible and odious than genocide. One of the objectives of our education — our main objective — is to instill sensitivity to the harm to the innocent based on nationality alone,” he said on the 85th anniversary of the massacre. “We Jews, as principal victims of murderous hatred, are doubly obligated to be sensitive, to identify with other victims.”

More than a decade later, in June 2011, it was MK Arye Eldad of the far-right National Union party who introduced a bill to declare every April 24 Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. A few weeks earlier, the Knesset had held its first discussion on recognizing the genocide. A majority seemed to support recognition, but the issue was never put to a vote.

Even Israel’s previous president, Reuven Rivlin, was an outspoken advocate for the recognition of the Armenian genocide. “It’s unthinkable for the Knesset to ignore this tragedy,” Rivlin said when he was the Knesset speaker for the Likud party, before becoming president. “We demand that people don’t deny the Holocaust, and we can’t ignore the tragedy of another nation.”

Reuven Rivlin speaking at the United Nations in New York on January 28, 2015. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

But as president, his priorities shifted dramatically. During a 2015 UN address, Rivlin spoke at length about the massacre of Armenians a century before. But he tiptoed around recognition. Speaking in Hebrew, Rivlin referred to the retzah bnei ha’am ha’armeni, which means “the murder of the members of the Armenian nation,” which hints at the Hebrew term for genocide, retzah am, but falls shorts of using the term itself.

He also decided as president not to renew his signature on an annual petition calling on Israel to recognize the genocide.

The Foreign Ministry, which was not invited to Monday’s memorial events in the Old City, continues to defend Israel’s stance.

“Israel’s ethical stance, which expresses identification with the Armenian people’s suffering, has been presented a number of times in the past and at multiple opportunities,” a spokesman told The Times of Israel on Monday.

Neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Prime Minister’s Office put out a statement to mark the day.

“On the one hand, the state calls the minority to be part of it,” lamented Nalbandian, “and on the other hand it doesn’t want to recognize your pain. It’s not pain against the country. It’s not a pain that threatens the country. It’s pain that is legitimate, and we remember what Shimon Peres, of blessed memory said, ‘We are not historians.'”

Kervok Nalbandian in his office, April 25, 2021 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

“When it comes to the Shoah, they’re historians, and they expect the world to be historians. But when it comes to the Armenian Genocide, suddenly the nation of Israel, of all nations, declares that they’re not historians.”

A sense of shame

Artist Garo Sandrouni, the son of a genocide survivor who fled to Jaffa in 1917, places the blame on the state, not his Jewish neighbors: “The Jews recognize it, the state doesn’t. It’s politics, and politics is something that is very dirty.”

Sitting in his studio in the Armenian Quarter, his voice gains an edge when talking about Turkey and its close ally, Azerbaijan.

“The day will come when Israel will recognize,” he predicted. “The day will come when Israel will know exactly what Azerbaijan is and what Turkey is. They will never be supporters of Israel. They will never be friends of the Jewish people.”

Garo Sandrouni in his studio, April 24, 2023 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Azerbaijan is another reason for local Armenians to feel a renewed sense of betrayal.

The Shiite-majority country is one of Israel’s major oil suppliers and reportedly offers Israel a base from which to carry out operations and surveillance against its southern neighbor Iran.

In return, Israel is one of Azerbaijan’s major arms suppliers, which the Muslim-majority nation used to deadly effect in its 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia. Azerbaijan emerged victorious in the six-week war, which claimed the lives of more than 6,000 soldiers and resulted in Baku regaining control over disputed territories. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Israel provided 69 percent of Baku’s major arms imports in 2016-2020.

In this handout photo, President Isaac Herzog (right) shakes hands with Azerbaijan’s new Ambassador Mukhtar Mammadov while accepting his credentials, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, March 26, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)

“During the Karabakh war with Azerbaijan, all the drones with the technicians were Israelis and they were firing and killing Armenian soldiers,” said Vic Lepejian, an Amman-born artist whose parents fled Armenia and who has been waiting almost a year for his Israeli citizenship request to be approved. “So how do you want the Armenians to feel toward Israel?”

Lepejian has been sent by Israel to represent its culture and art at tourism conferences across Europe.

“It’s very funny that in Armenia there is a statue for the Holocaust,” he pointed out. “The funny thing, until today, Israel doesn’t recognize the Armenian.”

Hagop Jornazian, a young activist and proud citizen, agreed that Israel’s support for Azerbaijan is hypocritical.

Hagop Jornazian in the St. James monastery complex, April 25, 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

“Israel is fighting every day terrorism here in Jerusalem right now or during the year,” he told The Times of Israel from the grounds of the Armenian monastery. “But you sell weapons to a country that at the end is giving blue and white products to terrorists.”

He sees Israel’s approach to the Armenian genocide in a similar light.

“I feel very bad and sad and painful and angry,” he explained. “All in one package. I’m a citizen and I’m part of the Israeli society. And we have not the same, but we have kind of the same, past. We both went through tragedies.”

Armenian soldiers walk along a road near the border between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, November 8, 2020. (AP Photo/File)

Growing up in Israeli schools, Jornazian told his Jewish classmates the story of the genocide on April 24 every year, starting in second grade.

“I always heard from my friends that we are with you,” he said, “but they don’t act, they don’t demand policy, they don’t demand from their politicians.”

Jornazian’s great-grandmother was the only one of her nine sisters to survive.

“It’s like the survivors of the Shoah,” he said. “Most of them, they don’t talk about their story or the things they went through because it’s difficult to remember your past and the tragedy they went through.”

I always heard from my friends that we are with you, but they don’t act, they don’t demand policy, they don’t demand from their politicians.

He said he is inspired by the Yom Hashoah tradition in Israel of having survivors give intimate talks about their experiences from the living rooms of private homes. “They pass the story. This is what we want to do, the same. This is what I continue to do every, every single day that I have the chance.”

We Remember and Demand!

Posted by Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate of Jerusalem on Sunday, April 23, 2023

Nalbandian, a Haifa native whose grandparents fled from Armenia to the area in 1915, also insisted that the Jewish state is falling short of its divine role.

“What did Rabbi Lau say a few years ago? ‘We were called to be light unto the nations, but we are barely a light unto ourselves,” he recalled. “The people of Israel were called to be a light unto the nations. They received the Torah, they received the commandments.”

“There is only one nation that received that call, and it must treat it with great care,” he said.

Armenian artist George Sandrouni in front of his Old City studio, April 23, 2023 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

George Sandrouni, a gregarious Old City artist like his cousin Garo, feels no anger against Israel or Jews.

“The Jewish people is the only nation in the world that understands what genocide is,” he told The Times of Israel. “Inside the heart of every Jew, I promise you, they feel with us.”

Israel’s stance does cause him pain, but pain that comes from deep identification with and expectations from his state.

“It doesn’t hurt me because the country doesn’t recognize the genocide,” he said. “It hurts me that the country is so weak. It hurts me that my country is too weak to say no.”

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report. 

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