Why French Jews Changed Their View of the Armenian Genocide

For decades, some of France’s leading Jewish figures followed the Israeli line on the Armenian genocide of 1915. Now, Jewish and Armenian historians agree, that approach is itself being consigned to history

Shirli Sitbon.
Shirli Sitbon
French President Emmanuel Macron paying tribute at the Armenian Monument on the 106th anniversary of the genocide, in Paris last April.
French President Emmanuel Macron paying tribute at the Armenian Monument on the 106th anniversary of the genocide, in Paris last April.Credit: Bertrand Guay/Pool Photo via AP
Shirli Sitbon.
Shirli Sitbon

PARIS – French presidential candidate Eric Zemmour wants to revoke France’s so-called memorial laws, which recognize genocide and slavery as crimes against humanity, and make Holocaust denial a criminal act.

The controversial far-right candidate is currently facing an appeal trial after saying in a 2019 TV debate that the Vichy regime led by Marshal Philippe Pétain saved French Jews during the Holocaust. For him and others, memorial laws muzzle free speech and historic debate. “Most French historians have opposed those memorial laws that block historic research,” Zemmour told the CNews French news station last September.

The 1990 Gayssot law, making it a criminal offense to question the actions of Nazi Germany, made it easier to limit revisionist theories. However, France’s memorial laws don’t protect all victims to the same extent. For instance, while they recognise the 1915 Armenian genocide, they don’t criminalize revisionism of the facts.

In other European countries such as Switzerland, Greece, Cyprus and Slovakia, it is illegal to deny the Armenian genocide. But when French lawmakers voted in 2011 on whether to criminalize the denial of all genocides that are recognized by French law, it was struck down by the constitutional court, which said it violated free speech.

Many Armenians were shocked at the time to hear respected Jewish public figures oppose the bill. As the court was due to rule, for instance, former Justice Minister Robert Badinter wrote in the French daily Le Monde that banning revisionism would be unconstitutional.

French Armenians demonstrating in Paris, on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Credit: Remy de la Mauviniere / AP

“Can the French parliament turn itself into a court of world history?” wrote Badinter, a respected Jewish lawmaker. He argued that banning Holocaust denial had a legal basis because the Nuremberg Trials convicted Nazi leaders after the war, but no international trial had been organized after the 1915 Armenian genocide. Instead, the Ottoman authorities held courts-martial for some of the perpetrators.

Many Armenians believed this line of reasoning to be fundamentally wrong. “The notion of genocide did not even exist at the beginning of the 20th century,” notes French-Armenian historian Raymond Kévorkian.

And for Ara Toranian, who co-chairs the Coordinating Council of Armenian Organizations of France umbrella group, such legal arguments were pretexts to avoid new tensions with Turkey.

An estimated 1.5 million people were killed in the events that are widely viewed by scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey denies the deaths constituted genocide, saying the toll has been inflated and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest. Ankara contends that some 300,000 Armenians were killed.

The historical role of French Jews in failing to support Armenian efforts to get the genocide recognized rankled for many decades. In recent times, though, their fight has been more widely acknowledged in the Jewish community.

A protest in Paris calling for the Armenian genocide not to be recognized by the state. It was, despite their protests, but it's still not illegal to deny it. Credit: AP

France’s chief rabbi, Haïm Korsia, for instance, is unequivocal in his belief that the laws governing Holocaust denial should also cover the events of 1915-1917.

“The Armenian genocide is an unquestionable reality, there is no denying it,” he says. “The genocide had been planned in advance and carried out. There is [also] continuity between the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust – Hitler said, ‘Who remembers the Armenians?’” when he discussed the Final Solution.

“If people want to deny a reality, they must be put in place, be corrected,” Korsia adds. “Laws are important, but educating children about the Holocaust and about the Armenian genocide is even more crucial.”

Armenians had long hoped Diaspora Jews would lend such support to enshrine the memory of the Armenian victims, but over the years faced a major obstacle: the Jewish state itself.

>>> Why Won't Israel Recognize the Armenian Genocide? It's Not Just About Turkey <<<

“Israel’s position on the Armenian genocide is very significant, considering the historic dimension,” Kévorkian says. “Our two nations have suffered genocides and it’s difficult to accept this cynical posture. The reasoning behind this is regional: Israel has had a decades-long military and intelligence alliance with Turkey. They have been strategic allies – especially when Israel had few official contacts with its Arab neighbors.

“But the situation is improving. [Israeli] historians and left-wing politicians have pushed for recognition. I think Israel will eventually recognize the genocide like other countries have.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, center, with CCAF co-president Ara Toranian, right, and Murat Papazian at the Coordination Council of Armenian Organizations of France) in Paris two years ago.Credit: Christophe Petit Tesson / EPA PO

‘All genocides are unique’

Toranian cites her disappointment that not only has Israel failed to recognize the Armenian genocide, “it also backed Turkey’s position abroad. In the U.S., the Anti-Defamation League, for example, pushed back against the official recognition of the genocide.” Although he notes that the ADL has since reversed its position, for years “those organizations played by the revisionist guide book and made the situation extremely tense.”

In France, some prominent Jewish figures adopted a similar approach. Armenian historians and public figures say they don’t want to accuse anyone specifically, either because of their advanced age or because some have passed away.

“It’s part of the past,” is how Kévorkian describes it. “Some Jewish figures used to insist on the singular and specific nature of the Holocaust – it was almost contemptuous,” he says. “Even historian researchers can be politicized sometimes. But I believe we are past that now.

“You have to understand that the French authorities took so much time to acknowledge their responsibility in the Holocaust that this generated bitterness. Some Jews were absorbed by their personal story and didn’t care as much about what others had suffered,” he says. (France only began to acknowledge its wartime role in 1995, when then-President Jacques Chirac broke a 50-year taboo and said his country owed French Holocaust victims “an everlasting debt” for its actions helping the Nazis.)

Kévorkian says that, today, he would “rather think of those who helped us – like the Klarsfeld family. They pushed doors open and did everything they could to have the Armenian genocide recognized,” referring to lawyers and historians Serge and Beate Klarsfeld and their son Arno. “These are the people who initiated the creation of the Jewish Contemporary Documentation Center, collecting documents about the Holocaust, and then they helped Armenian historians do the same. CRIF has voiced support too,” he says, referring to the umbrella body of French Jewish organizations.

French-Armenian historian Raymond Kévorkian.

Toranian says that in the past, some French Jewish public figures “saw the Holocaust as a genocide apart; they said it was unique. They are right. But then again, all genocides have specific and unique characteristics.”

Kévorkian also notes the work of the Shoah Memorial Holocaust museum in Paris, “which has also voiced support and done much more. It organizes training for teachers: this is key to educating children about violence, exacerbated nationalism and what it can generate. They learn in high school about the three major genocides of the 20th century [Rwanda being the third]. Sometimes, there are problems during these classes when some children of Turkish origin protest – a bit like some students criticize lessons about the Holocaust,” he says.

French Jewish historian Marc Knobel says we should look forward, not back, when it comes to French Jews’ attitudes toward the Armenian genocide.

“I think that digging 15, 20, 30 or 35 years back will not bring anything positive; we should not create frictions,” he says. “If there had been a different position regarding the genocide decades ago – and I’m not saying that was the case – then I think it would have been linked to the Israeli position, the Israeli alliance with Turkey. Perhaps some institutions that were connected to Israel did not want to push this issue forward and come in the way of Israeli interests.”

Knobel also believes Israel should now recognize the Armenian genocide (“Failing to recognize it is deeply wrong”), but says there is “no ambiguity” among Jewish historians. “Jewish and non-Jewish historians agree quasi-unanimously about the Armenian genocide. No Jewish figure protested when the French parliament recognized the Armenian genocide. Jews have always expressed solidarity with the Armenians and their fight against genocide denial,” he adds.

Eric Zemmour arriving in Yerevan, Armenia, with his adviser Sarah Knafo last December. Credit: KAREN MINASYAN - AFP

New phenomenon

On the streets of France, meanwhile, the Armenian genocide still fuels hatred and violence. Descendants of Armenian genocide survivors who found refuge in France, for instance, have faced new threats in recent years. In 2020, a group of pro-Turkish nationalists calling themselves the “Grey Wolves” threatened them. And while the organization has since been disbanded, the threat remains real.

“It’s a new phenomenon. These groups of people marched in several cities, searching for Armenians – it’s alarming,” Toranian recounts. “The level of violence escalated during the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh,” he adds, referring to the war that flared between Armenia and Turkish-backed Azerbaijan in the autumn of 2020.

Zemmour has been accused of mining such tensions for political gain. He visited Armenia in December, and says the country shows what could happen to France if it does not stop immigration from Muslim countries.

“Zemmour tried to use the situation in Armenia to stigmatize and criticize French Muslims,” Kévorkian says. “Some of us have criticized this strategy. The Armenian genocide is not a question of religion,” he adds.

Chief Rabbi Korsia agrees. “There will always be people who deny genocides, but what does that show us about society?” he asks. “It’s a place where people oppose others instead of building together a common reality full of promises. There is no reason to distinguish between the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide,” he sums up.

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