Should Jews speak truth to power even if it means putting Turkey’s Jews – and Israel’s relationship with Turkey – at risk? The controversy over whether to call the Turkish massacre of 1,5 million Armenians during the First World War ‘genocide’ epitomises the dilemma that vulnerable Jewish communities have wrestled with through the ages.
As reported in The Jerusalem Post,“Turkey’s small Jewish community has come out against the Anti-Defamation League’s new policy position that the massacre of Armenians during World War I was “tantamount to genocide.”
“Silvio Ovadio, head of the Jewish community in the country, issued a statement saying, “We have difficulty in understanding” the ADL’s new position on the matter, the Turkish media reported on Thursday.
“The ADL position only reflected the opinion of “related institutions of the American Jews,” the statement emphasized. “We declare that we are supporting Turkey’s belief that the issue should be discussed at the academic level by opening archives of all related parties and that parliaments are not the places for finding out historical facts via voting‚” the statement read.
“The Turkish press also published a letter from prominent Turkish Jewish businessman Jak Kamhi to (Abraham) Foxman (ADL’s director) on Thursday.
In his letter, Kamhi said that “by accepting this false comparison between the uniquely indisputable genocide for which the term was coined – the Holocaust, and the events of 1915, the ADL has committed an act of the most inexplicable injustice against the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, as well as against the sensitivities and pride of the Turkish people, who deserve your praise for their centuries-long tradition of compassion and their culture of humanity and cohabitation that remains an example to the world.”
Kamhi took issue with Foxman’s assertion that there was a consensus among historians that the massacre was tantamount to genocide, saying there was no such agreement. The ADL position “will put back the painstaking efforts by many of us in Turkey, including our brothers in the Armenian community, to resolve this highly emotive issue without prejudgment. It will now be seized upon by all those who seek to destroy all our work and create discord and bitterness between our countries,” Kamhi wrote.
Against the ‘pragmatism’ of the Turkish Jewish community David Harris of the American Jewish Committee puts forward a powerful argument that Jews should protect historical truth:
“The Armenian position has been straightforward. As victims of the Holocaust, who can better understand the Armenian ordeal and anguish than the Jews? Fearful of the danger of Holocaust denial, aren’t the Jews most aware of the slippery slope of distorting historical truth? And wasn’t it Adolf Hitler who reportedly asked, “Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?”— in effect, paving the way for the Final Solution?
“Meanwhile, the Turkish stance has been that Jews shouldn’t simply accept the Armenian version of history lock, stock and barrel, as it’s fraught with distortion and deceit, but rather bear in mind the traditional Turkish welcome of minority communities, especially the embrace of dispersed Jews from Spain by the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 15th century.
“Moreover, Turkish leaders have also at times taken a tougher line, suggesting, in barely veiled language, that a Jewish acceptance of the Armenian version of history could have negative consequences for other Jewish interests, whether in Turkey or beyond.
“And it is in this vice that many Jews have lived for years, essentially pitting principle against pragmatism. For armchair observers, that may look like an easy choice, but, in the world of policy, where actions can have real-life consequences, it’s anything but.
“Look at successive governments of the United States, whether under Democratic or Republican leaders. All have reached the same conclusion: Turkey is of vital importance to U.S. geo-strategic interests, straddling as it does two continents, Europe and Asia, bordering key countries—from the former Soviet Union to Iran, Iraq and Syria—and serving as the southeastern flank of NATO. Each administration has essentially punted when asked about the Armenian question, seeking to discourage the United States Congress from recognizing the events of 1915 as genocide, while arguing that a third-party parliamentary body isn’t the right venue to settle a heated historical dispute. (…)
“I have a strong connection to Turkey, a country I have visited on numerous occasions and to which I feel very close. Few countries have a more critically important role to play in the sphere of international relations. I remain grateful to this day for the refuge that the Ottoman Empire gave to Jews fleeing the Inquisition. I am intimately connected to the Turkish Jewish community and admire their patriotism and enormous contribution to their homeland. I deeply appreciate the link between Turkey and Israel, which serves the best interests of both democratic nations in a tough region. And I value Turkey’s role as an anchor of NATO and friend of the United States.
“At the same time, I cannot escape the events of 1915 and the conclusions reached by credible voices, from Ambassador Morgenthau to Harvard professor Samantha Power, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Problem from Hell: American and the Age of Genocide, to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, about the nature of what took place: it was a genocide, they determined, albeit one that occurred more than thirty years before the term was coined.
“From my experience in tackling difficult relationships, I believe that engagement, not avoidance, is the best strategy. In a perfect world, Armenian and Turkish historians would sit together and review the archival material, debate differences, and seek a common understanding of the past. To date, that hasn’t happened in any meaningful way. I continue to hope that it will. It should. We at AJC have offered our services, if needed, to help facilitate such an encounter. Ninety years of distance ought to allow for the creation of a “safe” space to consider contested issues.
“Meanwhile, as the issue once again heats up in the United States, it’s important to be clear. In a book entitled Holocaust Denial, published by the American Jewish Committee in 1993, the author, Kenneth Stern, an AJC staff expert on the subject, noted: “That the Armenian genocide is now considered a topic for debate, or as something to be discounted as old history, does not bode well for those who would oppose Holocaust denial.”
“He was right. Picture a day when a muscle-flexing Iran or Saudi Arabia seeks to make denial of the Holocaust a condition of doing business with other countries. Sound far-fetched? It shouldn’t. We have many interests as a Jewish people. Protecting historical truth ought to be right up there near the top of the list.”
See AJC press release in full
The Jerusalem Post: History is not black and white, but full of shades of grey