Why Israel still refuses to recognize a century-old genocide

Many have urged the government to change its approach to Turkey’s killing of 1.5 million Armenians, but geopolitical considerations prevail

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

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. (photo credit: AFP/Gali Tibbon)
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. (photo credit: AFP/Gali Tibbon)

Addressing the United Nations in New York on International Holocaust Remembrance Day earlier this year, President Reuven Rivlin dedicated a large chunk of his speech to the fate of the Armenian people, who were killed by the hundreds of thousands between 1915 and 1923.

Rivlin spoke of “one hundred years of hesitation and denial” and stressed that at the time, no one in the Land of Israel denied the massacre that had taken place.

“The residents of Jerusalem, my parents and the members of my family, saw the Armenian refugees arriving by the thousands — starving, piteous survivors of calamity. In Jerusalem they found shelter and their descendants continue to live there to this day,” he said.

During his speech, he uttered the word “genocide” nine times — but never in the context of what had occurred to the Armenians. Or did he?

Speaking in his mother tongue, Rivlin referred to the retzah bnei ha’am ha’armeni, which means “the murder of the members of the Armenian nation,” but hints at the Hebrew term for genocide, retzah am.

For some, his choice of words was a smart rhetorical device with which he elegantly avoided a diplomatic pitfall, since Israel has never officially recognized the Armenian genocide. The Armenian community in Israel, however, was disappointed.

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

Rivlin used to be known as one of the country’s strongest advocates for the unequivocal recognition of the genocide, said Georgette Avakian, a member of the Armenian Case Committee in Israel. “Today, he is the president of the state and things aren’t exactly as they once were,” she told The Times of Israel. “He didn’t use the word ‘genocide.’ Yes, he said retzah bnei ha’am ha’armeni, but that’s not enough.”

This Friday, the world observes the 100th anniversary of the mass murder of nearly a million and a half Armenians at the hand of Ottoman Turks. Well, not the entire world. While countless regional and local government have recognized the Armenian genocide, from Scotland, New South Wales and 44 US states to the province of Buenos Aires and the municipality of Aleppo in Syria, the overwhelming majority of countries in the world — including the United States, Germany and of course Israel — refuse to do so.

In most cases, countries don’t want 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 is a member of NATO and an important Muslim ally of many Western countries.

Ankara resolutely denies that genocide took place on its soil and aggressively objects to anyone who adopts such a terminology.

In this 1915 file photo, Armenians marched long distances and said to have been massacred in Turkey.  (photo credit: AP Photo, File)
In this 1915 photo, Armenians are said to have been massacred in Turkey. (photo credit: AP, File)

Earlier this month, Pope Francis referred to the mass murder of the Armenians as “the first genocide of the 20th century.” Turkey was furious: The pontiff had joined “the conspiracy” of an “evil front” against the country’s ruling AK party, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu declared. (Even though the Vatican had officially recognized the Armenian genocide already in 2000, when pope John Paul II said it was a “prologue to the horrors that would follow.”)

Israel doesn’t formally recognize the Armenian genocide for various geopolitical reasons that go beyond a hoped-for détente with Turkey. These strategic considerations weigh so strongly that they continue to trump heavy pressure from Jewish and Armenian groups and even a significant number of Israeli politicians. Israel’s ongoing denial of the Armenian genocide survived several debates in the Knesset and even efforts by a former education minister to add the topic to school curricula.

Israeli activists calling for the government's recognition of the Armenian genocide in front of the Turkish consulate in Jerusalem, April 24, 2012 (photo credit: courtesy Combat Genocide Association)
Israeli activists calling for the government’s recognition of the Armenian genocide in front of the Turkish consulate in Jerusalem, April 24, 2012. (photo credit: Courtesy Combat Genocide Association)

“Israel’s position hasn’t changed,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said in an interview last week. “Israel and the Jewish people are showing solidarity and empathy with the Armenian people and government in light of the profound tragedy they endured during World War I.”

Nahshon carefully skirted the G-word. So did the Knesset’s press release about Israel’s delegation to Yerevan for official memorial events over the weekend, which referred merely to the “Armenian tragedy.”

Three Israeli dignitaries are scheduled to represent the state in Armenia: MKs Anat Berko (Likud) and Nahman Shai (Zionist Union) and Israel’s non-resident ambassador to Armenia, Shmuel Meirom.

Nahman Shai (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MK Nahman Shai (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Israel must reconsider its position on whether the time has come to recognize the fact that an Armenian genocide occurred. As Jews, we must recognize it,” said Shai, whose center-left party will most likely be in the opposition. In an interview, he went as far as calling the tragic events “the Armenian Holocaust,” even daring to say that they were “just like what the Nazis did to the Jews.”

But Berko, who represents Israel’s ruling party, steered clear of such terms.

“We consider this a horrible tragedy and we identify with the Armenian people,” she told The Times of Israel last week. Jerusalem recognizes the suffering that befell the Armenian people and relates to it by sending a “respectable delegation” to Yerevan, she added, suggesting that it is pretty much all Israel can do for the Armenians at this stage.

“This is the state’s position. We’re representing the state; my personal view on this doesn’t matter,” she said regarding Jerusalem’s refusal to call a genocide a genocide. Referring to the events 100 years ago as a “horrible tragedy” is strong enough, and there is no need to commit to calling it a genocide, she argued, suggesting that historians are still unclear on what exactly happened back then.

Does recognizing the Armenian genocide marginalize the Holocaust?

In 2001, when relations with Turkey were much rosier than today, then foreign minister Shimon Peres outright denied “Armenian allegations,” denouncing them as efforts to create a parallel between them and the Holocaust. “Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. What the Armenians went through is a tragedy, but not genocide,” he said at the time.

The Holocaust’s uniqueness, some argue, prevents Israel from referring to the Armenian situation as genocide. Following this warped logic, recognizing another people’s genocide somehow diminishes one’s own tragic history. On the other hand, a growing number of Israelis argue that since Jews suffered genocide they are obligated to be the first to recognize it if it is being done to others.

Many important Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Union for Reform Judaism, have long recognized the Armenian genocide.

“As members of a nation that knew the Shoah and that fights Holocaust denial, we are obligated to show special sensitivity toward the catastrophe of another people,” reads an online petition calling on the Israeli government to recognize the Armenian genocide. Among the signatories are prominent Israelis from all spheres, such as writer Amos Oz, historian Yehuda Bauer, retired Israel Defense Forces general Amos Yadlin, former Likud minister Dan Meridor and about a dozen former MKs and ministers. (So far, some 760 people have signed the petition.)

Armenians mark the anniversary of the Armenian genocide in 2007 in Jerusalem (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Armenians mark the anniversary of the Armenian genocide, Jerusalem 2007. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

And yet, chances that Jerusalem will heed their call anytime soon remain low, according to Israel Charny, the longtime director of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem and one of the first and most vocal Israeli advocates for the recognition of the Armenian genocide.

“Right now, the best we can hope for is that government representatives will make menschlich [decent] statements of recognition of the genocide and the sympathy and the identification of the Jewish people with the Armenian people with the tragedy and evil that they suffered,” he said.

But Charny, who was invited by the Armenian government to attend the state’s official genocide commemoration Friday in Yerevan, does expect a renewed attempt by MKs to vote on an official Israeli recognition. He attended previous such discussions in the Knesset, during which he felt that a majority of lawmakers are actually in favor of recognition legislation, but that they were always stifled by the powers that be in the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office.

Whether such a law will be passed by the 20th Knesset is doubtable, but Charny hopes, at the very least, that “the people who stifle it carry the shame and responsibility in history for stifling something that is absolutely bona fide, for which there is plain evidence, and which is a forerunner of the Holocaust.”

Israel should take an example from Armenia, which started devoting significant resources to studying genocides other than their own, Charny said. The Armenian equivalent of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum has recently built a new library dedicated to mass murder of other peoples, and legislators established a day of commemoration for victims of all genocides. In comparison with Armenia, he suggested, Israel appears self-centered and indifferent to other people’s tragedies, as if Jews had the monopoly on suffering.

A sign held by Israeli activists calling for the government’s recognition of the Armenian genocide, April 24, 2012 (photo credit: courtesy Combat Genocide Association)
A sign held by Israeli activists calling for the government’s recognition of the Armenian genocide, April 24, 2012. (photo credit: Courtesy Combat Genocide Association)

“There is nothing in Armenia that is not minimizing their own memory of their genocide. On the contrary. But they’re expanding their worldview,” he continued. “For me, it is our Jewish tradition at its wisest — it is the Israel that I and many others like me dream of — that would be able to expand itself to be concerned also with the genocides of other people, and not just be busy with the realpolitik, crushing kind of self-interest policy.”

What is it, exactly, that keeps Jerusalem from recognizing the Armenian genocide? Israel is a small country in a hostile neighborhood that can’t afford to antagonize the few friends it has in the region. Even more powerful states refuse to employ the “genocide” term for fear of alienating Turkey, and though ties between Jerusalem and Ankara are at an all-time low, Israel knows that recognizing the Armenian genocide would further distance any prospect of reconciliation.

But perhaps more important than the ties with Turkey is Israel’s budding friendship with Azerbaijan. A Shiite Muslim but moderate country bordering Iran, it is the archenemy of Armenia and therefore opposes any acknowledgment of Armenian victimhood. Indeed, Azeris are currently involved in a campaign to portray the Armenians themselves as perpetrators of systematic mass murder. Citing the so-called Khojali massacre of 1992, in which Azeris were killed during the Nagorno-Karabakh War, government officials and scholars sympathetic to Baku accuse the Armenians of genocide.

‘Armenia is a poor country, and they ain’t worth as much in their shtetl over there, compared to the flourishing Azerbaijan’

During his Holocaust Day speech at the UN, Rivlin actually listed Khajoli among a number of other ostensible “genocides,” much to the Armenians’ dismay.

In February, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman attended an event in Azerbaijan commemorating the events at Khojali, again angering Armenia. “It is inappropriate that any politician could allow himself to be pulled into cheap Azerbaijani manipulations,” Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Tigran Balayan said at the time.

(Several articles making such claims have appeared in the Israeli press in recent months, pointing to a concerted effort to turn the Armenians from victims into perpetrators.)

Israel refuses to recognize the Armenian genocide “only because of material interests,” said Avakian, of the Jerusalem-based Armenian Case Committee. “It’s because of relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey, arms deals and other economic issues. Israel is forgetting that the Jewish people also went through a horrible Holocaust.”

Baku and Jerusalem indeed have strong trade ties, in addition to a mutual distrust of Iran. Some 40 percent of oil used in Israel comes from Azerbaijan, and Jerusalem “also sells its Azeri partner armored troop carriers, multiple rocket launchers, Tavor rifles and ammunition,” Bar-Ilan University scholars Anna Geifman and Dima Course wrote in a 2013 paper. “However, since neither country has enough friends beyond its borders, it should be clear that each partner may contribute to much-required foreign lobbying for the sake of the other.”

There is a strong lobby within the Israeli government that puts realpolitik ahead of principle, which explains why strong ties with Azerbaijan prevent the recognition of the Armenian genocide, said Charny, the Jerusalem-based genocide scholar. “Armenia is a poor country, a struggling, smaller country. And they ain’t worth as much in their shtetl over there in Armenia, compared to the flourishing Azerbaijan,” he said sarcastically.

This 1915 file photo, shows Armenian victims of the massacres in Turkey. The Nazi genocide of European Jews is widely commemorated in Israel and etched deeply into the psyche of a country founded in its aftermath. But when it comes to the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War I, which historians have called the "first genocide of the 20th century," Israel has largely stayed silent. Fearing repercussions from its former ally Turkey and wary of breaking ranks with American policy, Israel has refrained from calling the mass killings a genocide. (photo credit: AP Photo, File)
This 1915 file photo shows Armenian victims of the massacres in Turkey. (photo credit: AP, File)

And yet, efforts to place historical truth and moral considerations over political expediency have come from both the left and the right in Israel.

In 2000, then-education minister Yossi Sarid (Meretz) 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.”

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 the recognition of the genocide. It appeared that there would be a majority for recognition, but the issue was never put to the vote.

Another right-wing politician — today he is Israel’s president — was one of the Knesset’s most outspoken advocates for the recognition of the Armenian genocide. As MK and Knesset speaker, Rivlin vocally argued that the moral imperative not to deny another people’s suffering must trump whatever Israel’s diplomatic and geopolitical needs dictated.

It’s unthinkable for the Knesset to ignore this tragedy, Rivlin commented two years ago in the plenum. “We demand that people don’t deny the Holocaust, and we can’t ignore the tragedy of another nation.”

He even sought to establish an annual parliamentary session to mark the Armenian genocide. “It is my duty as a Jew and an Israeli to recognize the tragedies of other peoples,” Rivlin said. “Diplomatic considerations, important as they may be, do not allow us to deny the disaster [experienced by] another people.”

Today, as Israel’s head of state, whose words carry so much more weight on the international stage, Rivlin faces a true dilemma pitting moral clarity against political expediency. While Armenians accuse him of an about-face, other advocates of recognition say he remains committed to the cause.

The way he tiptoed around the word “genocide” during his UN speech is not the only manifestation of his ostensible hesitancy to utter the G-word in relation to Armenia. In December, he also decided not to renew his signature on an annual petition calling on Israel to recognize the massacre as a genocide. Israeli pro-recognition activists were disappointed, but some acknowledged that it might not behoove a president to sign petitions of this sort.

For Charny, the genocide scholar, Rivlin’s pro-recognition credentials remain fully intact. True, the president avoided uttering the word “genocide,” but he placed the Armenian massacre front and center during his speech for Holocaust Remembrance Day, suggesting that Jeremiah would have wept for the Armenians as he wept for the people of Israel.

Rivlin’s reference to the retzah bnei ha’am ha’armeni counts as a full recognition of the Armenian genocide, Charny opined, “and I consider that a major symbolic step forward.”

Israel’s political system places certain limitations on the powers of the president, but “it is not a trivial matter when the president of a country takes a stand like that,” he added. “It’s a breakthrough and it is tragic that it is not celebrated correctly, either in Israel or in Armenia.”

Indeed, there are clear indications that Rivlin hasn’t changed his mind on the matter. During a briefing for English-speaking journalists last week, he congratulated the pope for recognizing the Armenian genocide. “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,” he said. “We cannot allow any kind of racism, any kind of anti-Semitism, any opportunity of acting in wars that can be defined as genocide. This is very obvious.”

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