Once again the official day commemorating the 1915 Armenian Genocide, April 24, has passed without Israel issuing a statement of official recognition. As a country that inherited the legacy of the European genocide of Jews — the Holocaust — its recognition of the systematic killing of Ottoman Armenians would not only amount to a historically just move, but would also be an important step in promoting the study of comparative genocides, and giving a special meaning to the important motto of “never again.” Further, it could lead to the understanding of how Turkish denial has only prevented the country from moving forward, and show Israel the need to end the denial of its own injustices.
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Israel’s decision not to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide is directly connected to its attempts to maintain ties with Turkey, in good times and bad. At the height of Turkish-Israel relations in the 1990s, Israel sustained this policy in order not to risk jeopardizing its strong ties with the Turkish state, not to mention its arms deals. Shamefully, U.S. Jewish lobbies were coopted as a way to block American recognition of the Armenians’ tragedy as well.
Simply, Turkish tank deals trumped the moral and historical obligation of genocide recognition. Despite this, the internal debate surrounding the non-recognition emerged in 2000 when the liberal leftist education minister, the late Yossi Sarid (Meretz), attended Jerusalem’s 85th Armenian Genocide memorial ceremony. There he stated, “The Armenian Memorial Day should be a day of reflection and introspection for all of us, a day of soul-searching. On this day, we as Jews, victims of the Shoah, should examine our relationship to the pain of others.” He mentioned the word genocide no less than 10 times in the speech.
Despite years of strained relations that hit bottom with the 2010 Gaza Flotilla affair, Israel still has not recognized the genocide. Ironically, the new reason was that Israeli policymakers believed this could lead to a complete break in relations. However, before reaching this conclusion, U.S. Jewish lobbies had already opted out of taking their usual role in blocking Armenian Genocide recognition, and the Knesset debated the matter. While both groups denied this was related to the flotilla, the tone was clearly one of punishment. Even I argued against this, since recognition of genocide as a punishment against Turkey equaled no less of a farce than the previous situation.
After Reuven Rivlin, a longtime advocate of recognizing the Armenian Genocide, became Israel’s president in the summer of 2014, it seemed that Israeli recognition would finally come at the 2015 centennial commemoration of the mass killings. However, this too fell through due to pressure from the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Despite this, Rivlin came close to offering official recognition, saying that “the Armenian people were the first victims of modern mass killing,” and stressing that many Jews in Ottoman Palestine witnessed the horrors of the killings, a known fact. Rivlin’s words reiterated the reality that few in the Israeli public doubt it was a genocide: It is known in Hebrew as the Hashoah Ha’armenit — the Armenian Shoah.
Perhaps now that Israel and Turkey have made numerous statements that they are close to renewing full diplomatic ties, Israel should make clear that its relations cannot be held hostage to Turkey’s intractable stance on this topic, and that Armenian Genocide recognition is not about being a friend or enemy of Turkey. Additionally, Turkey needs to realize that in Israel the debate is only remotely related to Ankara. Rather, it holds a special place in the greater debate of the “uniqueness of the Holocaust” and the question of Jewish victimhood, which hits at the heart of Israeliness and the question of how to memorialize the Holocaust.
With April 24 falling on Passover this year, it important to remember that denial is also inherent in the Israeli narrative. Passover, a holiday that celebrates the ancient Israelites’ liberation from slavery, embeds a sense of freedom within its modern meaning, and sets into motion the national observation of Holocaust Memorial Day, followed by Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, and finally culminates in Independence Day. However, for Israel, freedom and independence amounted to the Nakba — the Catastrophe — for the Palestinians.
Even if they are different in scope, it can be argued that Israel has adopted Turkey’s stance of denial as a model toward the Palestinian Nakba, the 1948 ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from the land. By denying not only the existence of the event itself, which led to the forced expulsion or flight of 750,000 Palestinians, Israel also subsequently erases the memory of a Palestinian past and physically erases their presence in the geographical landscape of the country. In both countries, legislation and courts have also been used to block the memory.
It is time that Israel take the moral high ground and recognize the Armenian Genocide. No less important is the need to do away with its denial of the Nakba. Otherwise, like Turkey, it will remain raveled in conflict. In both cases, the long road to reconciliation starts with the recognition of the crimes that paved the way for the founding of these subsequent nation-states. Only by recognizing this will it allow Israel — and Turkey — the much needed opportunity to move forward.
Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who has lived in Turkey and writes about Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @IstanbulTelaviv