RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS: Have Israel’s diplomatic, military and economic concerns trumped its moral imperative?
The mass murder of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1917 by the regime of the Young Turks in Turkey is widely seen as the first genocide of the 20th century.
It is also an event that has for long pricked at the conscience of the Jewish people, which suffered the horrors of the Holocaust, the worst genocide of the 20th century and of modern times.
Despite the mutual experience of genocide, the State of Israel, ever since its founding, has shied away from recognizing the Armenian experience, a state of affairs that activists decry but others assert has been and continues to be a necessary aspect of the Jewish state’s delicate diplomatic and security position.
This Saturday, Armenia and the Armenian diaspora will mark Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, with reports that US President Joe Biden may decide to mark the day by recognizing the genocide, as both houses of Congress did in 2019, and as the president promised during his election campaign.
ONE MAN who has struggled for decades to advance this cause is Prof. Israel Charny, whose new book, Israel’s Failed Response to the Armenian Genocide, details how and why the Jewish state has refrained from acknowledging the atrocities as genocide.
The genocide itself was preceded by a failed Turkish assault during the First World War against Russian forces to its east, and Turkey’s attempts to capture the Azeri city of Baku.
The Young Turk regime subsequently blamed Armenians in eastern Anatolia for betraying Turkey and accused them of being a fifth column in the country seeking independence.
As a result, Armenian soldiers in the Turkish army were disarmed and then systematically murdered by Turkish troops, and irregular forces then began committing massacres of Armenian civilians.
In May 1915 the Turkish parliament authorized mass deportations of Armenians from eastern Turkey to the south, alleging their presence was a national security threat, and under the oversight of civil and military officials, hundreds of thousands of Armenian citizens were then marched to desert concentration camps.
Many were massacred along the way while others died from starvation and dehydration in the Syrian desert.
Despite the broad recognition by historians that this sequence of events, which emptied Turkey of around 90% of its Armenian population, was genocide, Turkish governments from that time until today have refused to recognize it as such.
Instead, Turkey has acknowledged that large numbers of Armenians died during the period but has insisted that there was never a centrally mandated policy of genocide. It has worked strenuously to deny the genocide, has threatened countries considering recognition with various consequences and downgraded diplomatic relations with those that have made the recognition.
This situation has long placed the State of Israel in a quandary.
In 1949, Turkey became the first Muslim-majority country to recognize Israel and establish diplomatic relations with it.
For a long time since, the country was regarded as a strategic asset for Israel. Not only was it the one friend and ally Israel had in a region of unbridled enmity toward the Jewish state, it was also a regional power with strategic geopolitical importance.
It provided Israeli with an air corridor to the Far East, as well as trade, tourism and military cooperation.
But as a nation that experienced the Holocaust, many have argued that Israel has a particular moral necessity to recognize what is widely considered to be the first genocide of the 20th century.
Indeed, Adolf Hitler infamously recalled the massacres of the Armenians and the global failure to stop them or punish the perpetrators as a reason that the Nazis themselves should not shy away from similar actions.
Charny is one such person who has argued for decades that Israel, as the nation-state of a people that was a victim to genocide, and as part of Jewish values and tradition itself, has a moral obligation to recognize the genocide perpetrated against the Armenians.
From the early 1970s when he first learned of the atrocities, into the 1980s when a conference he organized in Israel on genocide – including discussion about the mass murder of Armenians – generated opposition from the Israeli government, and until today, Charny has worked passionately to bring public awareness to this dark historical chapter and for Israel to recognize it as genocide.
Just this month, Charny, who made aliyah in 1973, published a book detailing Israel’s history of refusing to recognize the genocide, including the fierce opposition to the 1982 conference he organized which dealt with the Armenian Genocide.
Originally an academic psychotherapist by trade, Charny has also lectured on genocide studies at Tel Aviv University and other universities around the world, and is a former president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars.
At the end of the 1970s, Charny began organizing what he would call the First International Conference on Holocaust and Genocide which would eventually take three years for him to bring to fruition.
It was the first international conference to connect the Holocaust to other genocides, and also the first to include Armenian scholars.
The renowned writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel was invited to chair the conference, an invitation he accepted, while numerous other scholars and organizations also participated.
But when the Israeli government got wind of the conference, according to Charny following publication about the event in The Jerusalem Post, intense pressure began to be exerted against Charny and his initiative.
Wiesel pulled out, and Charny came under heavy pressure from the Foreign Ministry to cancel the lectures on the Armenian Genocide and to cancel the participation of the Armenian scholars.
The ministry even claimed at one point that should the conference go ahead, Turkey might close its borders to Jews seeking to leave Iran and Syria at the time, a step that would trap them in those countries.
Of late, a student of Charny’s dug up Foreign Ministry cables from Ankara to Jerusalem which had recently been declassified indicating the lengths to which the government was prepared to go to stop the conference and avoid offending Turkey.
In one cable, sent two days before the conference from Israel’s chief consul in Turkey to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, the consul congratulates the ministry on its efforts to shut the conference down but says he was mystified by the claims about Turkey shutting down its borders to Jewish refugees.
In the cable, the consul is quoted as saying that he had not heard of such threats.
“I realized that Israel had concocted the threats to justify its behavior to try and close the conference down to please Turkey,” Charny told the Post.
He said that, at the time, he contacted the US State Department to ask if there was any threat to Jewish lives, which it said there was not, and therefore proceeded with the conference.
Charny is forthright in his diagnosis of the reasons behind Israel’s refusal to recognize the Armenian Genocide, asserting that it is Israel’s diplomatic, military and economic concerns that have trumped what he sees as its moral imperative.
“We are out for our own self-interest, which is the first value we should be concerned about, but it is coming at the expense of doing what is central to Jewish tradition, ‘Justice, justice, you shall pursue,’” he asserts, quoting from Bible.
DR. HAY Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, an expert on Turkey at the Moshe Dayan Center of Tel Aviv University and the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS), takes a much more practical approach.
He notes that he himself believes the massacres of the Armenians to indeed constitute genocide, but argues that it would not serve Israel to unilaterally recognize it as such, given the importance of relations with Turkey, even after more than a decade of rancor between the two countries.
“Recognizing the Armenian Genocide may be something very moral, but it will not contribute to Israel’s national interests,” says Yanarocak.
He says that the utility of having Turkey as an ally from 1949 and the diplomatic and military benefits that stemmed from it, were indeed the primary reason that Israel for so long declined to recognize the Armenian Genocide.
“Realpolitik is my bible. From my perspective, Israel should be very cautious and should not lead the way for recognition of the Armenian Genocide,” he says.
He says that despite the poor relations between Turkey and Israel, there are several reasons to believe that interests between the two countries may be converging once again.
Specifically, a rift has opened up between Turkey and Iran, Israel’s arch foe, over its penetration and influence in Iraq and Syria.
Tehran has long supported the Assad regime in Syria and opposes Turkish intervention there, and has therefore provided support to Kurdish groups in both countries which Turkey fiercely opposes.
Yanarocak says that Israel and Turkey have a joint agenda to minimize the Iranian presence in Syria, and that this rift could be extremely beneficial for Israel.
He also says that repairing relations with Ankara could help Israel advance its efforts to exploit gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean.
He also asserts that unilaterally recognizing the Armenian Genocide would also upset Azerbaijan, a close diplomatic and cultural ally of Turkey with a land border with Iran, and with which Israel also has very good diplomatic and military ties.
Yanarocak argues that Turkey’s limited response to the French recognition of the Armenian Genocide in 2019 and informal recognition by Russia in 2016 was due to the imbalance of power between Turkey and those two countries.
Turkey has more scope and ability to make trouble for Israel and less reason to restrain itself, says Yanarocak, necessitating Israeli caution.
Nevertheless, the situation remains that for over a decade, relations between Israel and Turkey have been extremely tense.
Former prime minister and current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used increasingly hostile rhetoric against Israel and adopted increasingly hostile policies towards the Jewish state, including funding and supporting Hamas.
This crisis in relations peaked in 2010 with the Mavi Marmara incident in which nine activists of the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (İHH) organization were killed after violently assaulting IDF soldiers who boarded the Mavi Maramara ship which was seeking to break the Gaza blockade.
The tensions which exploded at the time between Israel and Turkey have simmered ever since.
This has led to questions as to why Israel should not recognize the Armenian genocide, when relations with Ankara have been so poor for so long and the consequences of such a step would not seem to be worse than the current situation.
Efrat Aviv, senior lecturer in the Department of General History at Bar Ilan University, says however that recognition in this manner would be a mistake.
Aviv argues that if there is a moral case for recognizing the Armenian Genocide then it should not be done according to political or diplomatic calculations, or out of a desire to take revenge on Turkey for its behavior towards Israel, saying that such a decision would blemish the value of such recognition.
She noted that Israel -Turkey relations have been deeply damaged during the long years of Erdogan’s rule, but that the relationship is not beyond saving.
Recognition of the Armenian Genocide would however be a further setback, and anger not just Erdogan’s Islamist and religiously traditional Muslim voter base but secular nationalists as well, broadening the scope of anger towards Israel.
Aviv added that Turkey could react more sharply towards Israel than it has done against France, Russia and others who have recognized the genocide.
Nevertheless, Charny insists that there are considerations that supersede what he sees as narrow national interests, considerations that he believes could withstand Turkish ire.
“Is there not a point when ethical considerations are no less important than realpolitik? Would we have accepted this kind of reasoning by a country supporting Germany during World War II but at the same time disassociating itself from what Germany was doing to civilians in general and the Jewish people in particular?” he demands.
“It is our human and Jewish responsibility to strengthen peace, and caring for humanity. I love Israel’s contribution to national disasters around the world. That’s the kind of Israel I want to see and be part of,” he says.