The Education Committee of the Israel Knesset recently held open hearings on whether the events in Armenia in 1915-18 should be defined as “genocide.” The committee closed the hearing without taking any action. Hopefully, the Israeli Knesset will not take any further action on this issue, since it is not appropriate for the State of Israel to become the arbiter and decider of whether the events in Armenia — or any other historical event for that matter, with the exception of the Nazi Holocaust — are or are not properly defined as genocide.
The Knesset’s taking up this issue is part of a trend in which legislatures of various countries have considered (and made determinations on) the question of whether the events in Armenia constituted genocide. Most recently, the lower house of the French legislature passed a bill that would make it a crime to deny that the events in Armenia were genocide (this bill still requires approval of the French Senate to become law). It seems quite hypocritical for the French — whose Vichy government collaborated with the Nazis to implement the genocidal Holocaust in France — to sit in judgment of others.
Regretfully, words like “genocide” and “Holocaust,” used outside the context of the Shoa, have become terms of political dynamite with meanings light-years away from their significance in the context of the Nazi genocide against the Jewish people. The careless and inappropriate use of the term “genocide” outside the context of the Jewish Holocaust diminishes the significance and uniqueness of the Nazi genocide against the Jewish people.
Some have suggested that politicians in the Knesset took up the Armenia issue to retaliate against Turkey for its actions against Israel (including the expulsion by Turkey of Israel’s ambassador in connection with the Gaza flotilla debacle). However, this strategy could backfire to the detriment of Israel, because further action on this issue could interfere with efforts to repair and reinstate relations between Ankara and Jerusalem, and could even terminate relations entirely. Even the Israeli Foreign Ministry — whose head, Avigdor Lieberman, has been a sharp critic of Turkey — urged the Knesset not to take up the Armenia issue.
Because of developments in Iran and the Middle East, it is very likely that the interests of Turkey and Israel will converge at some point in the future, and that Turkey, Israel, and the United States will have to work together to maintain stability in the region. Further Israeli actions on the Armenia issue could disrupt efforts at achieving peace and stability in the region.
It is also important to mention that Turkey and Armenia agreed to protocols in 2009 to normalize their relations. One aspect of this agreement was the establishment of a historical sub-commission consisting of Armenian, Turkish, and international experts to perform an impartial scientific review of historical archives relating to the events in Armenia. These protocols, unfortunately, are in limbo because the parliaments of Turkey and Armenia have not ratified them. The United States is in favor of their ratification.
Turkey and Armenia need to move forward with the protocols and also establish the historical sub-commission to perform the historical analysis of the events in Armenia. This is a job for the historians, not the politicians. Historians are divided on the Armenia issue, and even distinguished historians such as Bernard Lewis and Steven Katz have taken the position that the events in Armenia did not constitute “genocide.”
As people of conscience, Jews have given the world the gift of human compassion. However, we must also be vigilant and oppose the mischaracterization of historical events, other than the Jewish Holocaust, as genocide. We must never forget, as Steven Katz tells us, that the Holocaust was “unique” because “never before has a state set out, as a matter of intentional principle…to annihilate physically every man, woman, and child belonging to a specific people.”
Finally, Israel’s further involvement in this issue can only lead to problems and difficulties, and will provide no benefit — moral, political, or otherwise — for Israel at this time of crisis in the Middle East.