The Pope, Kim Kardashian, Escaped Nazis — the PR and Politics of Genocide Recognition

The reality star's visit to Jerusalem is leading the way in spreading awareness of Ottoman Turkey’s killing of Armenians during World War I.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Kanye West, left, and Kim Kardashian visiting St. James Cathedral in Jerusalem, April 13, 2015.
Kanye West, left, and Kim Kardashian visiting St. James Cathedral in Jerusalem, April 13, 2015. Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

You can’t buy PR like this — in one short weekend, Armenia attracted more global attention than in all the years since it gained independence from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991. Kim Kardashian, who is more famous for being famous than anyone, was also revealed to her millions of fans as the most famous Armenian in the world. Together with her musician husband Kanye West and their daughter North, they arrived in Yerevan on a personal pilgrimage to the land of her fathers. The timing wasn’t coincidental, of course.

Kardashian’s entourage was taken on an emotional tour of the memorial and museum commemorating the one and a half million victims of the Armenian genocide, less than two weeks before the official 100th anniversary of the disaster. The photograph of Kardashian laying flowers at the eternal flame tweeted to her 31 million followers did more for the recognition of the genocide than decades of lobbying. But that wasn’t all that Sunday brought for the Armenians.

At mass in the Vatican, Pope Francis, standing by the heads of the Armenian Orthodox Church and President Serzh Sargsyan (Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan met with the Kardashian-Wests back home in Yerevan), said the Armenian tragedy had been “the first genocide of the 20th Century.”

Francis is of course a celebrity in his own right (though he has only 5.9 million Twitter followers). But he is also a head of state and the Vicar of Christ; his statement at this particular Sunday mass was the subject of intensive diplomatic pressure from the Turkish government, but to no avail. Turkey’s long-held policy of denying that its army carried out a planned genocide of the Armenians during World War I, and of cajoling other nations not to recognize it either, was rent asunder in a few hours by a man of God and a woman whose initial claim to fame was an Internet sex tape.

Since Turkey has already recently blocked YouTube and Twitter, there is little it can do to Kardashian, but the pope is another matter. The ambassador to the Vatican was immediately recalled and Francis was accused of “prejudice.” Vatican officials told the media the pope had nothing against today’s Turkey; his statement was meant to echo the fact that in today’s Middle East as well, Christians are being persecuted.

The Turkish government, however, preferred to move the narrative to other continents. On Monday, Ankara’s minister for EU affairs, Volkan Bozkir, went a step further, accusing Francis of being “brainwashed” like his fellow Argentines by the Armenian diaspora, which in Argentina apparently “controls the media and business.” And if that’s not bad enough, said Bozkir, Argentina is also “a country that welcomed the leading executors of the Jewish Holocaust, Nazi torturers, with open arms.”

Worse than Hitler

The minister at least got this historical detail correct. Argentina under President Juan Peron was the destination of many Nazis on the run after World War II (many were helped by well-placed priests in the Vatican). But connecting Francis to sins he had no knowledge of or involvement in as a boy in Buenos Aires is a nasty slur.

And the current Turkish administration has not flinched from using this sort of imagery. Last July, at the height of the Gaza conflict, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Israelis “curse Hitler morning and night. However, now their barbarism has surpassed even Hitler’s.” Erdogan and other Turkish politicians routinely allude to Jews controlling the global media and financial system in exactly the same way Bozkir spoke about the Armenian community in Argentina.

This of course isn’t the first time the Holocaust has been dragged into the Armenian-genocide controversy. For decades the Armenians have tried to receive recognition of the genocide from Israel and Jewish communities. The symbolism of the Jews recognizing the Armenian national tragedy is of course inescapable. In the past some Armenian emigres even called it the Armenian Holocaust, but whether because that didn’t catch on or out of a desire not to offend Jewish sensibilities, they stuck with “genocide.”

Israel, however, has resolutely refused the small but growing group of countries that have officially recognized the Armenian genocide. For years this was out of consideration for the national pride of strategic ally Turkey. Powerful Jewish groups in the United States, particularly the Anti-Defamation League, lobbied in Congress against the passage of American recognition.

But in recent years, as ties with Erdogan’s government have steadily deteriorated and with Turkey’s standing as a NATO member and reliable ally of the West plummeting, Israel’s policy remains unchanged, even as other countries have formally recognized the genocide. Jerusalem has a new friend in Baku; Azerbaijan is the supplier of most of Israel’s oil, a buyer of Israeli weapons and an ally in the anti-Iranian coalition.

The battle for victimhood

But why is Azerbaijan, Armenia’s oil-and-natural-gas-rich neighbor, so invested in the dispute over commemorating an atrocity that took place three quarters of a century before it even gained independence?

The Azeris see themselves as the Turks’ brother nation, but more than they’re concerned with maintaining Turkey’s historical image, they’re anxious to prevent anything from boosting Armenia’s international standing. Azerbaijan, in an on-off conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabach enclave since the early 1990s, is eager to prevent the Armenians from attaining any status of victimhood. In their national narrative, it was the Karabach Azeris who were murdered and ethnically cleansed by cruel Armenians.

The Aliyev family that rules Azerbaijan as its private fiefdom has invested hundreds of millions in trying to brand the country as a Westernized regional power while lobbying foreign governments and the international media to view it favorably. One aim of Azerbaijan’s PR campaign is to smear Armenia; in recent months the lobbyists have vigorously tried to portray the Armenians as chronic Jew-haters. They have tried to place op-ed pieces to his effect in newspapers, especially in Israeli and Jewish media.

Azerbaijan’s mouthpieces are not motivated by concerns for the welfare of the Jews, though there may be some truth to the allegations. Last year the ADL published a survey on 100 countries, according to which no less than 58 percent of Armenians harbored anti-Semitic beliefs. Whether that figure is accurate however, the tiny Jewish community in Yerevan, apart from a few isolated acts of vandalism, has never suffered any serious incidents.

Armenia has also tried to improve its ties with Israel, including the inviting of ministers. Next week at the marking of the genocide’s centenary, a delegation of Knesset members will be on hand. The Foreign Ministry has made it clear this doesn’t count as official recognition, but perhaps that doesn’t matter as much now that Armenia has Kim Kardashian and Pope Francis.

It’s ironic that is the current Israeli position, as Jews were once so instrumental in recording the Armenian genocide. It was the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, who in 1915, disgusted by the reports he was receiving from his consuls, first brought the killings to the world's attention. It was the lawyer and Holocaust refugee Raphael Lemkin who actually coined the term “genocide,” applying it first to the Armenian tragedy. But Israel’s immediate geopolitical needs trump the recognition of history.

It was probably no coincidence that from Yerevan, the Kardashian cavalcade flew to Israel. And while Kim and Kanye landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, encountered mobs of Israeli fans and dined with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, the visit focused on churches in the Old City across the Green Line. Mindful of political and diplomatic considerations, not once was the word “Israel” tweeted, just “Jerusalem.” A subtle reminder perhaps that everyone has recognition issues.

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