For Armenians in Israel, a Sad Holiday and an Identity Crisis Following Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

The recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has left many Armenians in Israel angered by their adopted homeland’s reported role in helping arm Baku and its ongoing refusal to recognize the 1915 Armenian genocide as a holocaust

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Harout Baghamian and Diana Galstyan in the Armenian compound in Jerusalem's Old City, January 2021.
Harout Baghamian and Diana Galstyan in the Armenian compound in Jerusalem's Old City, January 2021.Credit: Emil Salman

On January 19, when the Armenian Orthodox-Christian community traditionally celebrates Christmas in Israel, a decorated tree stood tall but abandoned in the Armenian compound in Jerusalem’s Old City. This year, it seems, no one wanted to celebrate following the brief but bloody war with Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh.

“The entire Armenian community is in national mourning,” says Harout Baghamian, 39, head of the Armenian National Committee in Jerusalem. “The most recent war is over, but thousands of our people are dead, many more thousands are wounded and we have lost part of our homeland.”

Christine Movsesyan, 35, says she feels as if she has lost a part of herself. Born in Armenia, she moved to Israel when she was 9 years old. She served in the Israel Defense Forces and now lives in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam, where she manages a nongovernmental organization. “I’m an Armenian and an Israeli – and both parts of my heart are broken,” she tells Haaretz via Zoom.

Then, smiling into the camera, she adds forcefully, “Armenians are lions, and even a wounded lion is still a lion. And now, at Christmastime, we received a gift: Our NGO, the Union of Armenian Communities in Israel, was legally registered this week. Now we will be able to help our people.”

A clergyman walking through the Armenian compound in Jerusalem's Old City, January 2021.Credit: Emil Salman

‘Still shooting at night’

Nagorno-Karabakh is a 4,400-square-kilometer (about 1,700-square-mile) enclave, completed surrounded by Azerbaijan. Its residents are overwhelmingly Christian Armenian. The vast majority of Azerbaijan’s 10 million population is Muslim, along with tiny Christian and Jewish communities. Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but defines itself as the independent Republic of Artsakh and is allied with Armenia.

According to most media reports, the fighting was brutal with extensive use of suicide drones and other attacks on civilians. The 44-day conflict began last September and ended with a Russian-brokered cease-fire on November 9. Under the agreement, Azerbaijan will keep control of the areas it captured, including Shusha (the region’s second-largest town), while Armenia will also return the surrounding territories it first occupied in 1994. Azerbaijan will also gain land access to its additional enclaves bordering Turkey and Iran.

David Saghyan, 36, was born near Shusha and moved to Israel as a young adult. Today, he lives in Haifa and works as personal trainer. “All of my father’s family is in Artsakh,” he says. “Two of my friends are missing; another has been killed. Supposedly things are calmer now and the Russians are preventing the Azerbaijanis from murdering us all. But I’m in constant contact with my friends and family, and they tell me there’s still shooting at night.”

Burnt vehicles and a damaged building on the outskirts of Shusha in Nagorno-Karabakh following the cease-fire between Azerbaijan and Armenia, November 13, 2020. Credit: STRINGER/REUTERS

Baghamian says that while the fighting is over, the situation now is much worse for the Armenian-Christian residents of Nagorno-Karabakh. “The conflict brought Armenian defeat and loss of territory, the deaths of thousands of Armenian soldiers and civilians. We’ve lost much of our homeland. We are afraid of the Azerbaijani occupation.”

Born in Jerusalem, Baghamian sees both Armenia and Israel as his homelands. “We’re like Jews who live in the Diaspora but feel very closely and very personally connected to Israel,” he says. “They have family and friends here, and Israel is part of who they are. That is how we feel.”

The Armenian community in Israel is estimated to be about 5,000 to 6,000-strong. Widely believed to be the oldest diaspora in the world, the community has had a presence in Jerusalem at least since the fourth century, after Armenia accepted Christianity. However, some believe an Armenian presence in the region dates back much further – to the time of Tigranes the Great (140-55 B.C.E.), who extended his empire over the northern areas of what is now known as the Middle East.

The local community is made up of three groups: those who trace their history specifically to Jerusalem over several centuries; those who are the descendants of the orphan survivors who were brought to Ottoman and British Mandatory Palestine after the 1915 Armenian genocide; and the more recent arrivals, who came to Israel after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. 

The Armenia Quarter in Jerusalem's Old City. Armenians have lived in the city since the fourth century, and possibly even centuries earlier.Credit: Emil Salman

The largest community can be found in Jerusalem – almost all of whom reside in the Old City’s Armenian Quarter – along with other communities in Jaffa, Bat Yam, Haifa and Petah Tikva.

The Armenian compound, within the Armenian Quarter, is the local community’s religious, social and administrative center. This large area features private homes and residences for the clergy and Patriarchate, meeting rooms and clubhouses, schools, a library and offices. It’s generally closed to visitors unless they’re accompanied by a member of the community, and the compound’s heavy gates are shuttered at night.

In Jerusalem, most of the community’s children attend the Armenian School, where lessons are taught in English. Baghamian was enrolled there too, but because the curriculum was British, he was accepted as a foreign student when he chose to study international relations at the Hebrew University.

“Most of us speak Armenian and some Hebrew at home, and when we grow up most of us are part of Israeli-Jewish society,” Movsesyan explains. “Very few of us speak any Arabic at all, and most of us don’t feel part of the Arab or Palestinian community. My children were baptized in church and we celebrate Armenian holidays, and they attend ‘regular’ Israeli secular schools. Their friends and teachers know they’re Christian, but it really doesn’t matter to anyone and I’ve never experienced any discrimination.”

Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan attending a military parade to mark the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, in Baku, Azerbaijan, December 10, 2020.Credit: PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/REUTERS

Ongoing tensions

The 1915 Armenian genocide – which Armenians in Israel refer as the Armenian holocaust, in both Hebrew and English – is a central part of the Armenian identity. “The last survivors of the holocaust are long gone, yet every child feels as if he or she ‘remembers’ those horrible events,” Baghamian says. “My father thought of himself as a second-generation survivor, just as Jewish children of Holocaust survivors think of themselves.”

Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan thus increases Armenian fear of and rage at Azerbaijani control over the disputed region. Indeed, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made statements alluding to “finishing the job of our grandfathers.” Like many Armenians, Baghamian believes that, given the chance, Erdogan would conquer Armenia and attempt to annihilate its Armenian-Christian population.

Israel’s strategic relationship with Azerbaijan and its continued refusal to recognize the Armenian holocaust are therefore a constant source of tension between the community and the state.

Israel is a leading exporter of arms to Azerbaijan. While Israel’s Defense Ministry did not respond to questions from Haaretz for this report, in 2016 Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev said his country had bought $4.85 billion in defense equipment from the Jewish state, including, according to some sources, cluster bombs and suicide drones (which are banned internationally). Israel also purchases approximately 40 percent of its oil from resource-rich Azerbaijan.

Haaretz columnist Yossi Melman reported that four Ilyushin-76 planes, operated by an Azerbaijani airline, touched down and took off from the Uvda air base in southern Israeli during the recent conflict. According to Israeli political scientist Emmanuel Navon, speaking on I24 News, Israel has sold cutting-edge technology, including Iron Dome air defense systems and attack drones, to Azerbaijan, and has taught its military how to use them.

Israeli officials have said they have no knowledge of or involvement in how Azerbaijan uses any weapons it acquires.

Katrin Gougassian, an Israeli-born housewife from the Armenian community in Jaffa, scoffs at the Israeli response that it’s not responsible for how the Azerbaijanis use those weapons. “The world has seen the footage: Israeli weapons have killed Armenian civilians. Now we know – Israel is responsible too.”

The Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem's Old City, January 2021.Credit: Emil Salman

Diana Galstyan, 33, is a graduate student in film studies at Tel Aviv University says she is “living in a painful dissonance. I am Jewish-Israeli; I came to Israel as a Jew from Armenia. I served as a weapons technician in the IDF, and now I feel as if the weapons I helped develop have killed my family and friends. I’m in mourning for one of my countries; I’m furious with the other.”

The reported sale of weapons to Azerbaijan has also heightened decades-old anger at Israel over its nonrecognition of the atrocities of 1915, when an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed in events that scholars widely believe were the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey denies that the deaths constituted genocide, saying the toll has been inflated and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest..

Despite repeated debates in the Knesset and pressure from Jewish groups in Israel and abroad, Israel has constantly maintained that because of the importance of its relationship with Turkey, Israel does not want to offend Ankara by recognizing it. More recently, its strategic relationship with Azerbaijan has increased tensions for local Armenians.

In 2001, then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres denied “Armenian allegations” regarding the 1915 genocide, denouncing them as efforts to create a parallel with the Holocaust in World War II. “Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. What the Armenians went through is a tragedy, but not genocide,” he said at the time.

“Sometimes, I think that Israeli officials want to hold onto the exclusivity of the Holocaust for their own cynical reasons,” Movsesyan tells Haaretz. “And every time there’s new [diplomatic] trouble with Turkey, some Israeli official ‘threatens’ to recognize the Armenian holocaust as a way to punish Turkey. They should recognize it because it’s true and because we shared in this fate – not because we are pawns in some cynical game.”

Kevork Gougassian, 47, notes that a memorial to the Armenian genocide was recently built in Petah Tikva. “It’s good to have a memorial. But it was established by contributions from the community. I wish that the Israeli government, even if it doesn’t formally recognize the holocaust, would recognize the pain by creating a public memorial.”

Kevork Gougassian next to a Christmas tree. Armenians in Israel traditionally celebrate Christmas on January 19. Credit: Meged Gozani

During the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, local Armenian organizations and ad hoc groups organized demonstrations, and the Azerbaijani-Turkish-Armenian conflict spilled over into Israel: During one incident, Azerbaijani supporters, waving Turkish and Azerbaijani flags, attacked a convoy of Armenian flag-wielding protesters who were returning from a demonstration in Jerusalem.

Baghamian says the events of recent months have forced him to question his own identity. “I have started to ask: What makes me Armenian? What makes me Israeli? I’m safe, warm and happy here – why should I care what happens over there? On the other hand, my people are from over there – so why should I feel attached to here? I’m angry at Israel. I’m angry at the Armenian government, too, because it hasn’t been able to build our nation the way Israel has.

“I feel disappointed and betrayed by all sides,” he says. “I wonder if, in some very small way, I understand how my grandfather felt when the Armenians were abandoned by everyone.”

Yet, at the same time, all those interviewed agree that the situation has led to energetic organizing within the community, culminating in the establishment and legal recognition of the Union of Armenian Communities as a nonprofit in Israel. The union, led by Movsesyan, is now planning to both participate in and raise funds for relief operations for Armenia, including sending prostheses for wounded soldiers, training Armenian medical rehabilitation staff, and rebuilding kindergartens and schools that were destroyed during the fighting.

“The Israeli people are offering their help to our nonprofit in so many ways,” Movsesyan says. “They recognize the connections between our two peoples, even if the Israeli government refuses to.”

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