Genocide Is the Only Word to Describe What Happened in Armenia

Imagine the president of France inviting the heads of the Jewish community on Holocaust Remembrance Day and intentionally refraining from uttering the word ‘Holocaust.’

Yair Auron
Yair Auron
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People take part in the torchlight procession in Yerevan late on April 24, 2015.
People take part in the torchlight procession in Yerevan late on April 24, 2015.Credit: AFP
Yair Auron
Yair Auron

In 1995, Prof. Yehuda Bauer – one of the world’s foremost Holocaust historians and who has also dealt extensively with research into genocide and its prevention – published an article in Haaretz called “A personal flower in Yerevan.” The article was written in the wake of our joint visit to Yerevan on the 80th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, the laying of flowers around the eternal flame began: First, the visiting heads of state and official guests were invited to lay flowers; and after them, the masses of people. Hundreds of thousands came from all over this small country to lay flowers in memory of relatives who perished in the genocide: their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. And we did so in our own name – we did not represent the State of Israel, whose representatives chose not to attend.

At the ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, on April 24, Prof. Israel Charny and I were invited to participate in conference discussions at the Global Forum: Against the Crime of Genocide, which was an official event. In his 1995 article Bauer condemned the approach to research into the Armenian genocide, after the Israeli Education Ministry rejected a curriculum proposal on the topic under the heading “Sensitivity to suffering in the world, genocide in the 20th century,” which was supposed – for the first time in the Israeli education system – to teach the subject of genocide. However, the Turkish government put pressure on diplomats, senior political figures intervened and the education minister promised that, in the following year, the schools would teach a “more academic” and “less one-sided” syllabus. Among other criticisms of the program, it was claimed that it dealt with ethical questions, whereas history deals with facts. Moreover, its place was “is in a youth movement.”

A year went by, and then another 19. Today, there are no living survivors of the Armenian genocide. And in the Israeli education system, there isn’t even the smallest text that deals with it. However, it was decided not that long ago to teach the Holocaust, starting in first grade – and perhaps even in kindergarten.

Nor are there genocide studies at Israeli universities. I am proud to have developed a number of courses on the subject at the Open University. However, despite the popularity of the courses – every year, several thousand students study the Genocide course – and even though we have 15,000 graduates, there is no organizational framework for genocide studies, not even a limited one.

Policy of denial

This year, after some dithering, two Knesset members – Anat Berko (Likud) and Nachman Shai (Zionist Union) – were sent to the official ceremony in Yerevan. Despite that, the Foreign Ministry hastened to clarify that “there has been no change in Israel’s policy on the issue. Some sort of moral problem does exist but Israel’s policy will not change, even in the centenary year.” That is, a continuation of the policy of denial, which supports the denial policy of the governments of Turkey and Azerbaijan – and yes, it is a policy of denial, not only nonrecognition. Israel’s policy is intolerable, and it is difficult to describe the pain of Armenia’s leaders and its citizens.

As both a human being and a Jew, I was very moved to experience the identification, acceptance and respect in the Armenians’ attitude toward the suffering of other peoples. The Holocaust was mentioned many times in Yerevan this year, both at the conference and during the official ceremony. Also mentioned were the acts of genocide in Rwanda, Cambodia and Darfur – where the genocide has been occurring for 12 years and still the world does nothing to stop it.

The presence of Knesset members is important, but it is not enough: the Armenian genocide must be recognized. However, in the current Knesset there is no chance that it will be, even though this would mainly be a declarative move – albeit one of great significance. Had the outcome of the election been different, I fear that even an alternative government would not have rushed to recognize the genocide.

The one person who might have rescued Israel from this moral disgrace is President Reuven Rivlin. In the past, as a Knesset member and as Knesset speaker, Rivlin expressed his clear opinion, to the effect that Israel should recognize the Armenian genocide. I know and respect the president’s profound relationship to the Armenian people, and his personal identification with their suffering. He even gave moving expression to this in his speech at the United Nations on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, although he intentionally avoided using the word “genocide.”

On the one hand, the eyes of the Armenians are upon President Rivlin, hungering for recognition. And on the other, the Turks and Azeris are also watching and applying pressure to prevent that recognition. However, the president could recognize the Armenian genocide. This is his right as president and, if I may say so, his moral duty. This recognition would be an historical act of profound moral significance, one reserved only for heads of state and presidents.

In a memorial ceremony held in Berlin under the banner “100 years since the Armenian genocide,” German President Joachim Gauck participated. Contrary to his country’s official position, he defined the crimes against the Armenian people as genocide. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier looked on with a frozen expression, as the audience applauded, but did not dare say anything. Gauck’s action is an important step, even if it is not sufficient – especially in light of the fact that Germany was a sort of accomplice in the Armenian genocide. Such a step on the part of the Israeli president could be of even greater significance.

Shortly after midnight following the Yerevan ceremony, the television played Charles Aznavour’s song “Ils sont tombés” (“They Fell”), in memory of the victims of the genocide. The screen showed thousands of people on their pilgrimage to the commemoration site, in the rain and cold. After two beautiful spring weeks in the Armenian capital, with thousands of lilac bushes and tens of thousands of beautiful tulips in bloom, on Remembrance Day the weather was cold and gray.

The title of my lecture at the conference was “Denying the genocide lays the foundation for a new genocide.” Crocodile tears and declarations devoid of content like “Never again” have not changed the reality, and never will. Denying a genocide from the past undermines the prevention of future genocides. Even now, at this very moment, acts of mass slaughter are underway. Tens of thousands of people – civilians, like you and I – are being murdered in cold blood because they belong – in the murderers’ opinion – to a certain group they want to destroy, whether or not scholars and politicians define this as genocide. The world is silent, and so are we. There have also been cases, as in Rwanda and Serbia, in which we helped the murderous governments with arms shipments, contrary to a UN embargo.

When we deny the Armenian genocide, we are desecrating not only the memory of its victims but also the memory of the victims of our Holocaust. No one has the right to desecrate their memory, certainly not the State of Israel and its government. I know that for many people it is difficult to hear these things, but I will continue to say them until we recognize the genocide. Only then will we cease to desecrate the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

A feeling of sadness accompanied me during the commemoration events in Yerevan. Will the day come when the State of Israel commemorates our Holocaust – which most of the world recognizes – in a more universal spirit like at the commemoration events in Yerevan, which expressed brotherhood, respect and identification with other victims of genocide?

Last Sunday, President Rivlin publicly hosted representatives of the Armenian-Israeli community. In distant Yerevan, I waited for his remarks with bated breath. In his International Holocaust Remembrance Day speech at the UN General Assembly in January, the president chose not to use the term “genocide” – even though he had used it in the past. And this past week, too, he apparently caved in to pressures from home and abroad and talked of “the murder of sons of the Armenian people.” In Hebrew, the addition of the word “sons” enabled him not to utter the phrase that means genocide – murder of a people, never mind the Armenian people.

The president’s gesture was worthy, moving and important: He wanted to express his sincere identification with the Armenian people’s suffering and pain. However, some of the statements in his remarks caused me deep sorrow and disappointment. Because what is the meaning of words like “tragedy,” “massacre” or “mass murder?” Genocide, after all, is different from mass murder and killing, and the president knows this.

Let us imagine, for the sake of comparison, that the president of France (or Sweden or the United States) invites the heads of the Jewish community in his country on Holocaust Remembrance Day and intentionally avoids mentioning the word “Holocaust.” Let us further assume that he speaks about “the tragedy of the Jewish people” and the “massacre of Jews,” and says of the Jewish people that it was “the second victim of modern mass killing.”

If that were to happen, Israel’s government and all its politicians would be in uproar. What did President Rivlin mean when he said, “We are morally obligated to point out the facts, as horrible as they might be, we must not ignore them”?

The terrible fact is that what happened to the Armenians is genocide. There is no other appropriate word to mark those horrible facts. Any other word serves not merely to blur them, but rather to deny them. There is no third alternative in this matter, and there is no possibility of standing aside and looking on. Anyone who does not recognize the Armenian genocide is on the side of the Turks, and supports the Turkish policy of denial. The obligation to choose is incumbent upon us.

The writer is a genocide researcher and is currently teaching at the American University of Armenia in Yerevan. For 30 years he has been fighting for Israel to recognize the Armenian genocide.

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