Turkey’s feathers ruffled by Haifa’s newly unveiled Armenian Genocide Square

The northern city, where many ethnic Armenians live, is the first Israeli municipality to give such recognition to the World War I atrocities

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem and members of the Armenian Christian community of Haifa during the renaming ceremony of the Armenian Genocide Square in Haifa, Israel on March 20. (Haifa Municipality)
Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem and members of the Armenian Christian community of Haifa during the renaming ceremony of the Armenian Genocide Square in Haifa, Israel on March 20. (Haifa Municipality)

Turkey’s ambassador to Israel has protested the naming of a square for the victims of the Armenian Genocide in Haifa, which last month became the first Israeli city to acknowledge the tragedy in this way.

The initiative “heavily carries the potential of deteriorating these bonds which the peoples and the Governments of Israel and Türkiye wish to improve,” wrote Şakir Özkan Torunlar in a letter, obtained by The Times of Israel Tuesday, to Haifa Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem about the renaming, which took effect on March 20.

As the April 24 anniversary of the genocide approaches, Torunlar’s protest is a reminder of the issue’s sensitivity in the already-complicated relationship between Turkey, a powerful Muslim-majority nation, and Israel, where many feel an affinity to the Armenian experience because of the Holocaust.

Torunlar in his letter demanded the mayor reverse the decision to commemorate the genocide in the name of a square, and reiterated the official line of Turkey, stating that “such an act of genocide has never been committed in the history of the Turkish nation.”

Located along Ben Gurion Avenue in Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city and home to about half of the country’s 15,000-odd non-Jewish ethnic Armenians, the inauguration of Armenian Genocide Square marks the second time that an Israeli local government has acknowledged the atrocities. Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv, in 2020 unveiled a monument to the victims in what it later named the Charles Aznavour Park, commemorating the late French singer who was of Armenian descent.

The naming in Haifa highlighted the gap between widespread sympathy in Israel for the Armenian commemorative cause and the reluctance of successive Israeli governments seeking good ties with Turkey to officially recognize the killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenian civilians by Turkish troops during World War I.

Eliran Tal, the top spokesperson for the Haifa municipality, spoke of the naming as an example for the government to follow. “We can only hope now that the State of Israel acknowledges the genocide, perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire, which claimed the lives of 1.5 million Armenians,” he wrote in a statement. Turkish diplomats, he added, “worked hard to pressure” the city to drop the plan.

Aftermath of a massacre during the Armenian genocide (public domain)

In recent years, a new impediment has presented itself to recognition: Israel’s deepening ties with Azerbaijan, an oil-rich nation with strong ties to Turkey, a border with Iran and a bloody territorial dispute with Armenia.

Such recognition could strain the already-fraught relationship between Israel and Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a devout nationalist Muslim who in the past has accused Israel of perpetrating a “genocide” against Palestinians, among other allegations against the Jewish state and people.

Turkey returned its ambassador to Israel last year, ending a four-year partial break in diplomatic relations following the slaying of Palestinians by Israeli troops in 2018 riots. It was the latest in a series of similar crises since Erdogan’s rise to power in 2003.

Yerem Lapadjian, a leader of Haifa’s community of about 6,000 Christian ethnic Armenians, shared the hope that Haifa’s move would hasten a formal recognition of the genocide by Israel, which he said he considers his homeland in addition to Armenia. But his feelings about the square run deeper than geopolitics.

“When I walk past the Armenian Genocide Square, where I will also be commemorating the tragedy on the April 24 anniversary, I think of my late grandfather, a genocide survivor named Sarkis Lapadjian who died in Haifa in 1953,” the grandson said.

As a teenager, his grandfather escaped his village after hearing rumors that the Turks were murdering all the men, Lapadjian recalled. “He fled to Egypt, but he returned to his village near Adana, Turkey to reconnect with his parents. They’d all been murdered, and he fled again, this time to Lebanon and finally Haifa. He’s a holocaust survivor: A survivor of the Armenian holocaust.”

Israel’s refusal to acknowledge the Armenian genocide is particularly painful to Lapadjian, a 70-year-old car electrician. “It’s inconceivable. The Armenian genocide, perpetrated when Turkey was an ally of Germany, served as a blueprint for the Holocaust. Had the world spoken out in 1915, perhaps the Jewish genocide would have been prevented. It’s high time for Israel to speak out,” he said.

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