President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday hosted an event at the President's Residence in Jerusalem marking the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, but refrained from using the word "genocide" in his remarks. At the ceremony, attended by leaders of Israel's Armenian community, Rivlin said, "The Armenian people were the first victims of modern mass killing."
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In the recent weeks leading up to the anniversary, the Foreign Ministry exerted pressure on the President's Residence to make sure Rivlin not deviate from the terminology used by the Israeli government to describe the events of 1915.
The Foreign Ministry did so after Rivlin, in his speech at the United Nations marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, said, "In the year 1915the murder of the Armenian people took place." This part of his speech was delivered in Hebrew, and he did not use the term "genocide."
While Sunday's ceremony was the first such event held at the President's Residence, it was described as a gathering to mark the anniversary of the "Armenian tragedy." Rivlin's remarks didn't make reference to the "murder of the Armenian people" as his UN speech did; instead Rivlin used the word "massacre."
"In 1915, when the members of the Armenian nation were being massacred, the residents of Jerusalem, my parents and the members of my family, saw the Armenian refugees arriving in their thousands," Rivlin said.
"No one in Jerusalem denied the massacre that had taken place. As you know, this has been my personal view ever since. We are morally obligated to point out the facts, as horrible as they might be, not ignore them," he said."
"The Armenian people have been the first victims of modern mass killing," Rivlin said, adding that after the Holocaust, "commemorating the tragedy of the Armenian people is our Jewish obligation, a human and moral one."
Over the years, both as a lawmaker and as Knesset speaker, Rivlin was among the leaders of the campaign to recognize the Armenian genocide. Rivlin initiated Knesset discussions on the matter and, up until December 2014, consistently signed a petition calling for the recognition of the Armenian genocide. This year, for the first time, a Knesset delegation participated in a ceremony marking the anniversary of the genocide in the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
In the years 1915-1916, one-third of the Armenian people – one to one and a half million people – perished. The Armenians blame the Turks for committing genocide and have waged a public campaign for the international community to recognize the killings as such.
Turkey, for its part, has worked hard to prevent international recognition, claiming that no genocide occurred, but that during the Armenian struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire, between 250,000 and half a million Armenians – and a similar number of Turks – were killed.
Over the years, Israeli government policy has been not to recognize the Armenian genocide for fear of damaging Israel's strategic alliance with Turkey. More recently, as Israeli-Turkish ties have soured, the Foreign Ministry has warned that recognition of the Armenian genocide would only further escalate the crisis.
In his remarks Sunday, Rivlin emphasized that Israel does not seek to blame any particular country for what happened in 1915, "but rather [to] identify with the victims and the horrible results of the massacre."