Israel and the Armenian Genocide

This spring marks the 101st anniversary of the mass murder of Armenians in World War I at the hands of Turkish authorities, and the issue of formal recognition of the event as “genocide” has been raised again in Europe and elsewhere.

The French parliament voted unanimously on July 3 to amend the current Holocaust law to include “denial or trivialization” of all events classed as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or slavery. The denial of Armenian genocide thus becomes punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of 45,000 Euros ($49,750).

It followed the overwhelming vote of the German parliament just days before to adopt a symbolic resolution declaring the Armenian killings genocide.

In Israel on Tuesday, a parliamentary motion to discuss the matter was approved, and it will be brought before the Knesset Education Committee.

Backing the motion, Speaker Yuli Edelstein declared that “we must not ignore, belittle or deny this terrible genocide. We must disconnect the current interests, bound to this time and place, and the difficult past, of which this dark chapter is a part.”

“Current interests” was, of course, a reference to Turkey. Having just concluded a reconciliation agreement with Ankara after six years of diplomatic rupture, it is patently in Israel’s national interest not to aggravate the delicate bilateral relationship for the sake of a gesture, no matter how righteous.

That is why a proposal for Israel to formally recognize the killings as genocide is opposed by the Foreign Ministry (still headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu) and will probably fail, despite strong emotional support.

In truth, the issue is not substance but timing. The facts are known. Most historians agree that over one million Armenians were killed by the Turkish authorities in 1915, constituting an act of genocide. Like other such crimes against humanity, it was accomplished through a host of cruelties: murder, starvation and deportations.

The Turkish government has disputed the figures, insisting they were much lower, from 300,000 to 600,000, and has argued that there was no systematic plan to annihilate the Armenian people, and therefore it does not deserve to be classed as genocidal. Instead, they say, it was a time of war, in which large numbers of innocent people of various ethnic groups and nationalities were killed.

Nevertheless, the historical consensus rejects the Turkish version of events, and the recent parliamentary acts in France and Germany reflect that. Such are the facts. An Israeli resolution will not add to those facts or make the accusations against Turkey any more true. It will only add to the opprobrium.

And for Israel, the timing of such a resolution could not be worse. The Turks would undoubtedly take it as a gratuitous slap in the face.

The attitude of the Turkish leadership toward the Armenian issue in general is also among the well-known facts. Turks are acutely sensitive to the charges made against them, vehemently denying them and even retaliating with diplomatic sanctions.

In 1973, Turkey recalled its ambassador to France to protest a genocide monument erected in Marseilles to the Armenian victims. A 1989 U.S. Senate proposal to recognize the Armenian genocide in Turkey resulted in the suspension of U.S. Navy visits to Turkey.

As for the recent German resolution, Ankara angrily dismissed it as “null and void,” and the Turkish ambassador was summoned home for consultations.

“The way to close the dark pages of your own history is not by defaming the histories of other countries with irresponsible and baseless decisions,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

More of the same, if not worse, can be expected in reaction to a similar Israeli vote.

Israel’s abstention from the debate will not be construed by any fair observer as a denial or belittling of the crime. In Israel, nobody denies what was perpetrated against the Armenians. On the contrary, the Knesset has repeatedly taken up the issue, and members have sought a formal resolution to recognize it as genocide. At a session of the Knesset Education Committee in July 2015, support for recognition was unanimous. The feeling is the same today.

Israelis are especially aware of the Armenian experience, not only because of their own Holocaust experience, but because of their direct witness to it in those grim days of World War I.

As Israeli President Reuven Rivlin observed: “The residents of Yerushalayim, my parents and the members of my family, saw the Armenian refugees arriving by the thousands — starving, piteous survivors of calamity. In Yerushalayim they found shelter, and their descendants continue to live there to this day.0

Nor has Israeli neutrality on the semantics of genocide prevented it from showing solidarity with the Armenians. Israel sent a delegation to the 100th anniversary commemoration in Yerevan, Armenia, last year, even though official statements carefully avoided use of the term genocide.

President Barack Obama has followed the same policy of restraint, making clear that he stands on the side of the Armenians while avoiding giving direct offense to Turkey, whose cooperation is vital in the fight against Islamic State and other matters.

It may not be the most satisfying policy emotionally, but it is the most realistic and responsible one.