Waiting for the Denial to End

Dalia Shehori
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Next week marks the 90th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in Turkey. On April 24, 1915, some 300 Armenian leaders - authors, intellectuals and professionals - were arrested in Constantinople, deported and eventually exterminated. On that day, 5,000 more Armenians were murdered in the capital of the Ottoman empire. In the following years, 1.5 million of the 2.5 million Armenians living in Turkey were liquidated.

Although the Turkish prime minister acknowledged recently the need to reexamine the issue, Turkey's official stand has not changed. It persists in stating that there was no genocide.

The denial angers the Armenians. Not only is it not true, they argue, but it does not enable them to grieve for the extermination of their people. As long as the Turks deny it, the Armenians say, we must devote all our resources to convince the world that genocide did take place in the years 1915-1918, and the Ottoman Empire and its heir, the Turkish government, bear the blame.

Every year, as April 24 approaches, the Turkish government tensely checks various parliaments in the world for resolutions recognizing the Armenian genocide. If such a decision is made, Turkey exerts steamroller pressure on the adopting state to change it.

Two years ago a member of the Armenian community in Israel, Naomi Nalbandian, was chosen to light a torch on Mount Herzl on Memorial Day as the representative of the rehabilitation ward of Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. She was forced - following the Turkish government's insistent demand to the Foreign Ministry - to change the text she intended to read at the ceremony. Instead of "third generation of survivors of the Armenian holocaust, which took place in 1915" in the original text, Nalbandian presented herself as "daughter of the long-suffering Armenian nation." Incidentally, the use of the word "holocaust" in the Armenian context raises objections in another quarter - Yad Vashem and other Jewish organizations object to it, wishing to preserve the Holocaust as a unique term to mark the Nazi liquidation of the Jews.

Expulsion and murder

The Turks' denial of the genocide is the focal point of a study day entitled "Genocide in the 20th century - 90 years to the Armenian genocide," held at Jerusalem's Van Leer Institute 10 days ago with the participation of Israeli and Armenian historians. One of the participants was Dr. Ara Sarafian, head of the Gomidas Institute in London, which promotes and disseminates research, scholarship and analysis of the modern Armenian experience. Sarafian brought books published last year at the institute's initiative about the Armenian genocide, including "Ambassador Morgenthau's Story," based on the diaries of Henry Morgenthau, the American ambassador to Turkey from 1913-1916. Another book was the memoirs of Abram I. Elkus, who succeeded Morgenthau in the years 1916 and 1917.

"Ambassador Morgenthau's Story" was first published in 1918, but Sarafian says, "We find ourselves having to prove that the genocide took place, so we published again a series of documents and memoirs. Quoting archival material is not enough. The denial will persist. Therefore it is necessary to publish memoirs, diaries, letters and documents systematically."

Sarafian preferred to focus on American documents because they are in English and accessible to all. The United States was not involved in World War II until April 1917; consequently Americans - consuls, missionaries and citizens - were present at various places where Armenians were murdered and briefed the State Department regularly. At the end of 1915 they served as the only authorized source of information in the Western world on the Armenian genocide.

Sarafian cites, for example, the reports of American consul Leslie Davis on the gathering, deportation and extermination of Armenians - men, women and children - in the Harput area in central Turkey. He says these deportations were systematic. "The state officials had a list of names. They would read out your name, put you in a caravan and deport you. Then came the reports about the murder of these people. Consul Davis personally investigated a few places where the murder was committed and reported to the State Department ... he described the valleys where the deportees were taken and murdered. He talks of thousands of people and says things like: `I knew there were several caravans in a certain valley, because the corpses were in various stages of rot.'"

Sarafian says that although all the murder victims' personal effects had been taken from them before their murder, Davis knew they were Armenian because their personal papers were found at the murder site.

Ambassador Morgenthau "was the first person to notice that what happened at Harput was happening in other places throughout the empire...if you read his diaries after April 1915, you will see that the word `Armenian' becomes the most commonly used noun. He was obsessive about this issue. As he related in a private letter to his son, Henry Morgenthau Jr., `Ottoman Armenians were like the people of Israel in captivity, though they did not have a Moses to lead them out of their predicament.' This is very moving. There is a place in our heart for Morgenthau as a righteous non-Armenian, who did much to save Armenians."

Morgenthau also wrote his son that the Turkish government was using the fact that there was a state of war to wipe out the Armenian people.

Together with the diaries of the American diplomats, Sarafian says there is no substitute for the testimonies of Armenian survivors "because they were there, they were the victims, and they are very articulate."

These testimonies are written in Armenian, and it is necessary to publish at least some of them in English to answer the skeptics who ask how Morgenthau could have known what was happening, if he was based in Constantinople. We must publish everything possible, says Sarafian, for "if we give the Turks a chance to get away not merely with the slaughter but with the denial - it would serve as a precedent for future denials ... it's very troubling that a state with a population of 60 million refuses to confront history and make the required concession to solve this issue once and for all."

Israel is still denying

Professor Yair Auon of the Open University, author of the recently published "The Banality of Denial: Israel and the Armenian Genocide," expressed disappointment that Israel, as a state that represents the Holocaust survivors and is supposed to be more sensitive than other countries to the suffering of other nations, does not recognize the Armenian genocide.

"Israel's approach to other nations' genocide, and especially the Armenian genocide, harms our struggle to make the Holocaust part of the collective memory of human society. While we help Turkey deny the genocide - and Israel has regrettably become Turkey's staunchest aide in its denial policy - we are in fact desecrating the Holocaust's memory," he says.

Auron and Yona Weitz, a Hebrew University anthropologist, quoted Shimon Peres' statements about the Armenian genocide. In 2001, when he was foreign minister, Peres told Turkish Daily News that, "It is a tragedy what the Armenians went through, but not a genocide." Auron said Peres' position reflects Israel's official stand today as well. He added that the Education Ministry has been saying since 1994 that the Armenian genocide would be taught in schools "this year or next year" but in the schoolbooks it is referred to as a "tragedy," "pogroms," "slaughter" - and not a genocide. Even university students hardly know anything about the Armenian genocide.

Auron spoke of Yossi Sarid's abortive effort to legitimize the Armenian genocide when he was education minister. Five years ago, on the 85th anniversary of the genocide, Sarid was invited to speak in the Armenian church in the Old City. Sarid affirmed the genocide and concluded his statement with a promise to include the Armenian genocide in Israel's secondary school history curriculum. But Ehud Barak's government hastened to express reservations about his statement and explain to the Turks that Sarid was merely expressing his own opinion.

Auron also criticized Israeli academia, noting that senior members of it deny that a genocide took place and even doubt the reliability of Morgenthau's diaries. "They use the Turkish denial literature as though it were the only literature dealing with the Armenian genocide, and on that basis they claim there is no evidence that Morgenthau's diaries are not forged," he said.

One of the Armenian genocide's prominent deniers is Islam researcher Professor Bernard Lewis. Lewis says the Armenians suffered terrible massacres, but these were not committed as a result of a deliberate, preconceived decision of the Ottoman government. In an interview with the American Web site Book TV, Lewis said about three years ago: "What happened to the Armenians was the result of a massive Armenian armed rebellion against the Turks, which began even before war broke out, and continued on a larger scale. Great numbers of Armenians, including members of the armed forces, deserted, crossed the frontier and joined the Russian forces invading Turkey. Armenian rebels actually seized the city of Van and held it for a while, intending to hand it over to the invaders. There was guerrilla warfare all over Anatolia."

He says there is proof that the Turkish government planned to deport the Armenians from the sensitive areas but "no evidence of a decision to massacre." On the contrary, there is evidence of an unsuccessful attempt to prevent it. He says appalling massacres were committed by irregular soldiers and local villagers, who were reacting to what had been done to them. Claiming that the numbers of Armenian dead are uncertain, he acknowledged that 1 million deaths were likely.

Historian Dr. Claude Mutafian of the University of Paris said Turkey is not willing to recognize the Armenian genocide because it was based on ethnic cleansing, not only of the Armenians, but also of other groups. Therefore it has been trying to rewrite history since Ataturk's days and claim that only Turks have lived in Turkey since the beginning of time. Today Turkey is fighting for this more intensely than ever because it wants to join the European Union, "and this provides us with a new weapon to force the Turks to accept history the way it was."