I write this with tongue in cheek, but given not only Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s declaration that Zionism is a crime against humanity but also because his Turkish constituency has rallied around him, it is important that Turks consider the implication of Erdoğan’s efforts to de-legitimize the State of Israel and the Jewish nationalist enterprise.
Erdoğan combines religious intolerance and partisan anger at the Arab-Israeli conflict to conclude that are Jews unworthy of the same rights as Muslims, and Israel is unworthy of the same status of Turkey. Perhaps it is Turkey that has been born in blood. Certainly, the casualties that have arisen as a result of Turkish nationalism have been far greater.
Earlier this week, the Jerusalem Post published this fascinating account (full disclosure: authored by my wife) of an Armenian Bishop’s efforts to preserve a medieval Jewish cemetery recently found in Armenia:
Bishop Mkrtchyan discovered the cemetery when he and his brother Mayis Mkrtchyan opened the Siranush children’s camp in Yeghegis to provide shelter, food, recreation and education for children orphaned by the war with Azerbaijan. The bishop heard there was a mineral-water spring in the area. He wanted to find it for the children and, as he searched, he came across three tombstones, where he saw writing he didn’t understand… He also sent photos of the tombstones to Professor Michael Stone of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who confirmed the bishop’s suspicion that what he had found was indeed a medieval Jewish cemetery… The bishop’s dream is to build museum, or a culture center about Jews in Armenia, that would focus on education. “Because these two peoples had very ancient connections… and until now it is one of the few peoples with whom we had no problems,” he said with a laugh. The bishop wants people to know what connections existed between Armenians and Jews, stories of how they helped each other during the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust, for instance. “These peoples in this region, I think have to support each other… They ended up having a similar destiny.”
Yesterday, I testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Europe and Eurasian Subcommittee, which was investigating Iranian strategy, influence, and interests in the Caucasus. As always, there’s good news and bad news from the region. Azerbaijan remains a stalwart U.S. ally intolerant of Iranian approaches. Georgia is as well, but after its October election remains very much in play. Turkey’s efforts to subvert sanctions are well known. The greater problem today is Armenia:
- According to a State Department cable released by Wikileaks, in 2008, U.S. diplomats concluded that Armenia shipped Iran weaponry, which Iran then used to kill Americans.
- Bank Mellat, a sanctioned Iranian bank, operates in Yerevan, and Iranian businesses dot the city.
- In October 2011, a member of Armenia’s Nuclear Energy Organization told the Iranian press that Tehran had enticed several Armenian nuclear scientists to work in Iran’s nuclear program.
Azerbaijan is an important American ally for a number of reasons. Unlike Turkey, it remains true to its secular principles. Unlike neighboring Armenia—a country which continues to occupy one-third of Azerbaijan—it remains firmly oriented to the West and does not readily do Russia’s and Iran’s bidding. And unlike Iran to its south, its majority Shi’ite Muslim population realizes that empty religious rhetoric is no panacea.
Azerbaijan does have its flaws, however. Chief among them is its leadership’s reticence to reform and failure to make much if any progress in the Azeri peoples’ demands to move toward democracy. Freedom House ranks Azerbaijan firmly in the “Not Free” camp. Reporters Without Frontiers ranks Azerbaijani press freedom even below that of Turkey and Russia, a depth which censors and security forces must go out of their way to achieve.
With all due respect, I disagree with Max on the condemnation of the Turkish genocide against Armenians. Complicity comes in various shades, the most insidious of which is pragmatic impartiality. Over the past year we’ve learned intimately what bearing witness feels like: strikingly un-American.
True, in the case of Iran, inaction has immediate consequences for the victims of ongoing brutality. With the Turks and Armenians, we’re assessing history. While Max is correct that the resolution “does nothing to help the state of Armenia, which would benefit from better relations with its large neighbor, Turkey,” it does serve as an important public marker of consequence. When the U.S. goes on record as condemning crimes against humanity, it makes it that much harder for a cynical administration to strike a faux-realist pose and accommodate a brutal regime. How nice it would have been, in fact, if this resolution had passed some time in the run-up to Iran’s June 12 election.
There is also the issue of tactical wisdom. Just how pragmatic has our silence on the Armenian genocide been? Turkey did not allow U.S. troops to enter Iraq through its territory; in October of last year, Ankara cancelled Israel’s involvement in joint-military exercises on Turkish soil; Turkey then turned around and scheduled upcoming military exercises with Syria. It remained neutral when Russia invaded Georgia. Turkish leadership is now becoming ever cozier with Tehran. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not come closer to endorsing sanctions on Iran and has said, “We have specifically stated that the question [of Iran's nuclear program] can be resolved through diplomacy and diplomacy only.”
All this has unfolded against the backdrop of Turkey’s increasingly Islamicized government. And it is worth recalling that NATO’s charter calls for member countries to safeguard democratic freedoms at home. It is illegal in Turkey to call the Armenian genocide by its rightful name.
One last point: The Turks are already animated by a profound suspicion of an all-powerful Armenian lobby working against them in the halls of American power. Actually, they’re not animated by this belief; they’re becoming crippled by it. It’s not a coincidence that cultures marred by human-rights violations also become grievance cultures. There is no simpler way to defer blame for the societal stagnation that results from the quashing of dissent.
The Turks are wrong — and worse, stupid — to keep denying that a genocide was perpetrated against the Armenians in 1915. There is little doubt that mass killings occurred; to claim that it was not “genocide” is quibbling over terminology. I fail to see what Turkey would lose if it were to admit that genocide occurred. It’s not as if the current Turkish government or its immediate predecessors were responsible. The violence occurred during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. It would be easy enough for Turkish leaders to say, “We’re very sorry that these horrible acts were perpetrated by our countrymen under a previous regime that we repudiate and condemn.” They would thereby get considerable credit in world opinion. What’s the downside? At worst they might have to pay some reparations — but that’s something that prosperous modern Turkey could afford to do.
That said, Washington lawmakers are equally wrong — and worse, stupid — in trying to try to pass resolutions commemorating the Armenian genocide. That’s something the House Foreign Affairs Committee just did, prompting Turkey to recall its ambassador from Washington. What good does such a resolution do? It does nothing to deliver justice for the victims, annoys a key NATO ally, and also does nothing to help the state of Armenia, which would benefit from better relations with its large neighbor, Turkey. This is one of those issues that are driven primarily, I believe, by the well-funded Armenian expatriate lobby (a group perhaps deserving an exposé by Mearsheimer and Walt, if the latter weren’t already so busy uncovering the nefarious influence of the Jews, excuse me, the Zionists). Lawmakers find it easy to go along with what they view as essentially a meaningless gesture to wealthy campaign contributors; but, in the process, they create major headaches for policy makers.
That’s something that Obama, Biden, and Clinton are discovering for themselves. After having supported Armenian genocide resolutions while in Congress, they are now lobbying their former colleagues not to pass a resolution that will make it harder to work with Turkey on pressing issues such as Iranian sanctions. Doesn’t Congress have anything better to do with its time? Like investigating the “scandal” of the college football Bowl Championship Series?