Last week the Knesset almost did what several governments and the United Nations, the Catholic Church, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum have already done: recognize the historical truth of a mass murder that was committed in the Caucasus region between Asia and Europe a century ago.
Israel’s parliament considered — then failed to adopt — a resolution that would recognize the slaughter of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey by the leaders of the crumbling Ottoman Empire during World War I.
In declaring that the Armenian Genocide — which historians call “the forgotten genocide” — was a reality, despite the repeated protests and denials of Turkish leaders over the last 100 years, Israel would have taken the right step, albeit for the wrong reason.
The Knesset resolution was a subject of parliamentary debate not primarily to indicate solidarity with a fellow minority, descendants of the victims, or survivors of the crime for which the term genocide was coined. Rather, the resolution was designed to indicate Israel’s pique over deteriorating relations with the current Turkish government, an erstwhile ally that has turned increasingly belligerent toward the Jewish state in recent decades.
While the Armenian Genocide is the subject of countless debates in international, academic, and political forums, the fact that it took place is not in question, no more than the veracity of the Holocaust, for which the Armenian Genocide served as a bloody template.
Turkey, a master at bare-knuckled realpolitik, has been accused over the years of resorting to economic pressure and implied physical threats against Jews living in Turkey in response to those who would counter its repeated denials. In 1982, Israel, under pressure from Turkey, cancelled a Holocaust conference in which Armenians would have described their people’s genocide. Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel pulled out of the gathering, reportedly after Turkey threatened reprisals against Turkish Jews.
That Israel would succumb to implicit or explicit pressure is understandable. Outnumbered by hostile lands in the Middle East, Israel needs all the “friends” it can find, even a thuggish Turkey, formerly an outpost of secularism, which under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is becoming increasingly Islamic, militant, and hostile. Even the U.S. Congress has repeatedly failed to adopt a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide, fearing it would harm ties with Turkey, a NATO ally.
But the decision of Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to withdraw the resolution he had spoken eloquently in favor of — because it was unlikely to receive enough votes to be adopted — is a black mark on Israel’s human rights record. A country formed in the ashes of the Shoah, which consistently combats Holocaust denial and whose aging survivors still bear the markings of the Final Solution on their arms, should resist the efforts of modern-day deniers.
If Jews don’t take up the cause of the heirs of the first genocide, who will?
Prominently written on a wall of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington are the words “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”, which Adolf Hitler reportedly said to his generals before the invasion of Poland in 1939.
The answer to Hitler’s rhetorical question should be the Jewish community and the State of Israel. We should speak of the Armenian Genocide, and recognize its historical truth, not as a matter of political expediency, but of moral necessity.