'Genocide' talk tests Israel-Turkey ties
Jewish support for Congress to call an Armenian massacre 'genocide' has strained relations between the longtime allies.
JERUSALEM — It's not that often that one finds an archbishop in long black vestments making his way down the hill from Jerusalem's Old City for a political protest at Israel's Foreign Ministry.
But for Archbishop Aris Shirvanian, these are not ordinary times, and matters of conscience are at hand. They begin with the stories that his father told him about the atrocities he witnessed as a 9-year-old, which ended in the death of his father's parents and uncles. The year was 1915, and Mr. Shirvanian's father escaped, like many others, to the Holy Land, which has a prominent Armenian community.
They ended in Washington, where a congressional resolution recognizing the mass killing of Armenians in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire as a genocide was tabled late last week amid intense domestic and international pressure.
Much of that pressure came not just from Turkey but from Israel. While some American Jewish groups had taken up the cause of the Armenian genocide, the Jewish State was busy lobbying on behalf of their Turkish allies, rare friends in the Muslim world who maintain both military and economic ties with Israel. Turkey, the first Muslim country to recognize Israel, has long rejected the idea that the killings of Armenians should be called a genocide. They say that many Turks, as well as Armenians, were killed at the time.
The Israeli stance – following an Oct. 10 House committee vote in favor of passing a genocide resolution – prompted the first protest of its kind by this country's usually apolitical Armenian Orthodox community, which numbers about 5,000, not including approximately 20,000 Jewish Armenians who have immigrated here over the years.
With Israel's strategic relationship with Turkey in mind, the Armenian question has become an untouchable topic. The protest went virtually uncovered by most of the local media and got noticed by foreign papers only.
To Shirvanian, who was born in pre-state Haifa and spent 30 years in the US before returning to Jerusalem, this is no reason to give up now.
"This was the first genocide in the 20th century, and the Jewish one followed. Passing this is as important as recognition of the Jewish Holocaust by the whole world," he says.
"If there's no recognition of such heinous acts, then the crime may be repeated," Shirvanian says. "We want this because Turkish leaders have never expressed any remorse for what happened to the Armenian people. Secondly, most Armenians hope there will be some kind of reparation, like there was to the Jewish people."
Turkey made its viewpoint clear during the visit here earlier this month of its foreign minister, Ali Babacan, who told several Israeli media outlets that Turks believe the resolution amounts to a Jewish and Armenian cabal to besmirch Turkey, and that he hoped Israel would intervene.
"All of a sudden the perception in Turkey right now is that the Jewish people ... and the Armenian lobbies are now hand in hand trying to defame Turkey, and trying to condemn Turkey and the Turkish people," Mr. Babacan told The Jerusalem Post.
Turkey's ambassador to Israel, Namik Tan, explained in an interview last week that it's natural for Turkey to ask Israel for help in Washington.
Mr. Tan says that one major reason the genocide resolution got as far as it did was the decision of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) – a major Jewish-American organization dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism and bigotry worldwide – to come out in support of the Armenian genocide resolution.
"We cannot deny the fact the Israel is the heart of the Jewish communities worldwide, and there is a very strong and effective interaction between Israel and the Jewish community. We have a right to ask our Israeli friends to talk to their friends in the US," he says.
"There is another fact, that eight of the sitting members of the foreign relations committee are of Jewish descent and they are ardent supporters of this resolution, and all voted in favor of it, which encouraged and bolstered the ambitions of the Armenians and the ADL statement," Tan adds. The ADL, he says, "has confused the hearts and minds of so many Jewish institutions."
He warned that the resolution's passage would do additional damage to Israel's image in Turkey.
"When something like this resolution passes, it really offends the Turkish people, and it becomes impossible to explain to the rank-and-file people that it is not related to Israel," he says.
An Israeli government official, who asked not to be named, says that Turkey's conception of Israel's influence over Jews abroad is distorted.
"The whole idea that Israel can control the American Jewish community is obviously a bit of a misunderstanding of reality," the official says.
Tan says there is no proof to support the genocide claims and reiterated what he says is a longstanding offer to bring Turkish and Armenian historians together to study the issue.
That, says George Hintlian, historian of the Armenian community of Jerusalem, is not an option.
"For us," he says, "it's like sitting with David Irving," a self-styled British historian famous for questioning facts surrounding the Holocaust. "Do you sit with deniers? Modest deniers?"
Mr. Hintlian says his father was 17 years old during a famous death march in which his grandfather died. He believes it's only a matter of time, perhaps 10 or 15 years, before the US and others recognize the events of 1915 as a genocide.
In the meantime, he brings along a copy of the grim "map of the Armenian genocide," copies of which paper the alleyways of the Armenian quarter of the Old City, for anyone interested in the issue. The posters often get ripped down or defaced; activists in the community soon replace them.
"I think the totality of the Israeli public and the press sympathizes with us, but this double-standard is so embarrassing for Israeli intellectuals that it's hard for anyone here to speak about it," he says. "We have a psychological burden for the next generation. The American-Jewish community is saying that this stain should be taken away from the people of the Holocaust, but Israel is acting pragmatically."
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev says, "The process in the House of Representatives is an internal American affair and we're not involved in that. Our position on the Armenian tragedy is well known and has not changed." The Foreign Ministry issued a statement a few months ago noting the "tragedy" that occurred in 1915, which included "mass killings."