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Between 664,000 and 1.2 million died in the genocide

Why some US Jewish groups now recognize the Armenian genocide, and others don’t

Jewish officials have historically withheld recognition to protect Israel-Turkish relations and Turkish Jews; Ankara’s current regime has changed that

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)
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)

WASHINGTON — This fall, the US Congress did something that once seemed like it could never happen.

In October, in a historic vote supported by an overwhelming bipartisan majority, the House of Representatives approved a resolution formally recognizing the Armenian genocide. The measure passed by a vote of 405 to 11. Then, on Thursday, the Senate approved its own resolution also recognizing the Armenian genocide.

The moves, while symbolic, have triggered a fierce reaction from the Turkish government, which derided the House measure as a “meaningless political step” that risked harming US ties with Ankara. That message caught the attention of the Trump administration, which according to news website Axios, directed GOP senators at least three times to block the Senate measure.

Indeed on Thursday, after the Senate finally passed the resolution, the Turkish government said that “history will note these resolutions as irresponsible and irrational actions by some members of the US Congress against Turkey” that will “go down in history as the responsible party for causing a long-lasting damage between two nations.”

Despite the president’s attempts to avoid infuriating Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one of Trump’s allies on the world stage, the politics on the issue have clearly changed in Washington.

But beyond the rough and tumble on Capitol Hill is another development that reflects another group’s new willingness to acknowledge the atrocity inflicted upon the Armenians: the growing support of a number of influential Jewish groups to recognize what happened as a genocide.

An Armenian demonstrator holds up a historic photograph of the Armenian genocide during a demonstration in Jerusalem, April 24, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The Armenians say the mass killings of their people from 1915 to 1917 amounted to genocide, a claim recognized by 32 other countries.

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “The Armenian genocide refers to the physical annihilation of Armenian Christian people living in the Ottoman Empire from spring 1915 through autumn 1916. There were approximately 1.5 million Armenians living in the multiethnic Ottoman Empire in 1915. At least 664,000 and possibly as many as 1.2 million died during the genocide, either in massacres and individual killings, or from systematic ill-treatment, exposure and starvation.”

Turkey strongly denies the accusation of genocide and says that both Armenians and Turks died as a result of World War I. It puts the total death toll in the hundreds of thousands.

Recently, many prominent Jewish groups that have been silent or neutral in the past are now firmly taking the side of the Armenians.

Shortly after the House resolution passed, the Anti-Defamation League and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the political arm of the Reform Jewish movement, issued statements praising it.

“This historic Congressional resolution, while long overdue, is an important step toward raising awareness and educating the American public about the horrific genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire against Armenians during the early part of the 1900s,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the ADL.

“Indeed, historians note that Hitler viewed the Armenian Genocide and the world’s indifference toward it as inspiration to launch his own genocidal campaign across Europe,” Greenblatt wrote in a statement.

The American Jewish Committee, for its part, expressed support of the resolution before the vote.

“To this day, Turkey tries to deny this documented crime,” the organization’s president, David Harris, tweeted. “Don’t let it.”

According to a number of longtime American Jewish leaders and officials approached by The Times of Israel, this demonstrates a major shift.

For years, they said, most of the US Jewish establishment was quietly opposed to efforts to recognize the Armenian genocide — or, at the very least, wanted to stay out of the dispute.

Abraham Foxman (Miriam Alster/Flash90/File)

Abe Foxman, the former head of the ADL, said there were several reasons for their neutrality. Chief among them, however, was their not wanting to damage the Israeli-Turkish-relationship or to put Turkish Jews at risk.

“Jews felt that if they would support the genocide [recognition] effort, it would not save one Armenian’s life, ” Foxman told The Times of Israel. “But it could put Jewish lives in jeopardy — Iranian Jews fled into Turkey and Turkey accepted them.”

“The Turkish Jewish community was respected and protected, and the Turkey military alliance was critical to Israeli security,” said Foxman.

Shai Franklin, a senior fellow at the Institute on Religion and Policy, said that the Israeli government often directed US Jewish groups to stay out of the push for recognition.
“For many years, various Jewish organizations were encouraged by the Israeli government to help advance Israeli-Turkish relations as a way of keeping those relations on a good keel,” he said. “So Jewish groups were mostly lobbying against the resolution. This created a tension with the Armenian-American and the Jewish communities because they have parallel historical narratives.”
Activists on the 'Mavi Marmara' preparing to attack IDF soldiers (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)
Activists on the ‘Mavi Marmara’ preparing to attack IDF soldiers. (IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)

But since May 2010, when 10 Turkish activists died after IDF commandos boarded the Turkish flotilla ship Mavi Marmara as it sailed toward the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in defiance of an Israeli security blockade, Israeli-Turkish relations have taken a turn. (The Israeli government says the blockade is designed to prevent Hamas, a terror organization, from importing weapons.)

At the same time, Erdogan has placed the country in an increasingly authoritarian direction and aligned it with Iran, Israel’s acknowledged enemy.

“Things have changed and fallen apart,” Foxman said. “Turkey is no longer an ally of Israel and the Jews, and the geopolitics have changed. Turkey is a problem for Western interests, NATO, Israel.”

These changes help explain why Jewish groups are now taking a stance they have long resisted.

“Historically, the American Jewish community has been sensitive to the Israeli-Turkish relationship,” said Ira Forman, a former special envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism in the Obama administration.

“In recent years, that relationship has deteriorated greatly. Clearly, there is much less reluctance to talk about the reality of the Armenian genocide,” said Forman.

But what about the other major US Jewish groups?

Not every major American Jewish group is on board.

The following organizations declined multiple attempts to comment on the House and Senate resolutions: the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the Jewish Federations of North America, the World Jewish Congress and the Orthodox Union.

This is the scene in Turkey in 1915 when Armenians were marched long distances and said to have been massacred. (AP Photo)

Beyond not wanting to antagonize Turkey, it is possible these groups may not want to insert themselves into a domestic political debate.

“A lot of it is politics,” Foxman said. “Trump is a friend of Turkey. All these things plays in various degrees to various groups.”

Meanwhile, the Institute on Religion and Policy’s Franklin said some Jewish groups may not feel compelled to weigh in if other Jewish groups have already done so.

“There’s a division of labor in the American Jewish community,” Franklin told The Times of Israel. “If the ADL has come out in support of the resolution, a lot of groups may see them as covering the wider community on this issue.”

Some of the smaller Jewish organizations have made it clear they now wish to be on the record as supporting recognition of the Armenian genocide.

Said Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, chief rabbi of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly: “In light of our own history and experience with genocide, including the Holocaust, we feel the need to represent a moral truth even when it conflicts with a desire for improved relations with modern-day Turkey or the Israel-Turkey relationship.”

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