The Armenian genocide, the centenary of which is marked today, is a wound that has yet to close, perhaps because of the lack of official recognition by some Western countries. So it’s encouraging, as well as interesting from a geopolitical perspective, to note that there are rumors that Israeli President Ruby Rivlin will officially recognize the Armenian genocide in a meeting with Armenian community leaders this weekend. Here, for example, is what the Times of Israel’s Raphael Ahren tweeted out overnight:
— Raphael Ahren (@RaphaelAhren) April 24, 2015
I happen to think that what was done to the Armenians a century ago by their Ottoman rulers amounts to genocide. I’ve always been a bit less insistent that various congresses and parliaments officially designate it as such, though I do wish they would, and I think individual politicians, even presidents and prime ministers, should say it was genocide if they do indeed think it was (which most of them seem to). This is slightly different than passing parliamentary resolutions, for procedural reasons, but also for reasons of honesty: if you believe something was genocide, and you were asked point blank if it was, then you should say so. Lying about genocide is a less-than-sterling political act.
I was recently recounting my experiences on the “March of the Living,” the annual trip for high school seniors to the death camps in Poland and then to Israel to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day. My most vivid memory has to do with scheduling. After visiting our last of the camps in Poland (I believe for our group it was Majdanek) we went straight to the airport to catch our flight to Israel.
Thousands of kids attend the trip each year, so the different buses break up into groups and have slightly different itineraries, or at least visit places in different orders. My bus had the great fortune of going straight from Ben-Gurion airport to the Western Wall. So my group had gone from the camps to the Kotel with no stops (or sleep) in between.
As you might imagine, it is an overwhelming experience, going from a place that marks the low point of our people to the place that marks the high. But that trip from Majdanek to the Western Wall either goes right through the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem (I can’t remember which path we took), or at the very least right next to it. There is some glaring incongruity in that, due to Israel’s non-recognition of the Armenian genocide.
Is that too sentimental a basis on which to make policy? Maybe, but we’re talking about the return of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel after two thousand years wandering the earth. There’s really no eliminating sentiment here. (It was Ben-Gurion himself who said that in Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.)
What about geopolitical considerations? Well, they’re not nothing. But if it’s the right thing to do to recognize the genocide, then it’s the right thing to do. Also, geopolitical realities have shifted anyway, and Turkey’s drift into Erdogan’s Islamist nightmare should at least give some politicians an excuse now to lend a symbolic hand to the downtrodden.
Additionally, I believe that recognizing the Armenian genocide is, for the Jewish community, a strategic imperative. The Armenians were first subjected to mass demonization efforts to cast them as disloyal citizens. That laid the groundwork for the argument that they were thus a national-security risk, and that rounding them up was not simple bigotry but a sort of counteroffensive war measure.
There is no community more likely to be accused of imperfect loyalty, even–or especially!–in the “enlightened” West, than the Jews. And in every such country, they are a vulnerable minority. It does not make much sense, then, for the Jewish state to argue that the demonization and isolation campaigns against Jews even in Europe recall a dark genocidal chapter not too long ago, and yet not recognize it as such with regard to others.
Some argue that it could cheapen the designation of genocide to apply it to a situation that may not be so clear-cut. But I think, in the case of the Armenians, the opposite is true. I think it cheapens the term genocide to only use it, as the current American administration has, when it is easy to do so and to drum up support for military action, such as with the ISIS assault on the Yazidis.
It would be appropriate, therefore, for Israel to make this recognition. But it would also be appropriate for another reason. Ruby Rivlin has thus far had something of a remarkable presidency. The office of the president of Israel is mostly ceremonial. And Rivlin has used that to great effect. In October, he became the first Israeli president to attend the annual memorial ceremony for the victims of the 1956 massacre in the Arab village of Kafr Qasem. Israel has to “look straight at what happened in the Kafr Qasem massacre and teach all future generations about it,” Rivlin said. He’s also spoken out movingly against racism.
As a dedicated rightist, Rivlin caught many off-guard when he showed this appetite for atonement and reconciliation. So if any Israeli president were to recognize the Armenian genocide, it’s appropriate that it would be him.
At this point, they’re just rumors. But the reporting suggests that Rivlin is seriously considering it. He should, and he should walk through the Armenian quarter of his nation’s ancient capital with his head held high.