The Armenian Genocide Debate
Moral Values Against Realpolitik
By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor, Jewish Journal
MAY 4, 2007
Rabbis Harold Schulweis, left, and Edward Feinstein flank
Armenian Archbishop Hovnan Derderian at Valley Beth Shalom.
Photo by Jeremy Oberstein
The Turkish ambassador to the United States, Nabi Sensoy, dropped in at The Jewish Journal a couple of weeks ago for an hourlong conversation with its editors. Last Friday evening, Archbishop Hovnan Derderian of the Armenian Church of North America stood on the bimah of Valley Beth Shalom, hugged its rabbi and called the occasion a turning point in Armenian-Jewish relations.
All the attention is flattering, but its underlying cause confronts the Jewish community with choices that -- perhaps oversimplified -- pits its moral values and sympathies against the realpolitik of American and Israeli policymakers.
At the root of the split is a wound that has been festering since 1915, when Muslim Turkey and its Ottoman Empire were fighting Russia, France and Britain during World War I. Charging that the Christian Armenian minority in eastern Turkey was collaborating with the invading Russians, Turkey deported, starved and brutalized much of its Armenian population.
According to the Armenians, backed by predominant historical analysis, between 1915 and 1923, Turkey killed 1.5 million Armenian civilians in a planned genocide. Turkey maintains that some 300,000 Armenians died, but that an equal number of Turks perished, and that both sides were victims of chaotic wartime conditions, disease and famine, not a predetermined extermination.
Turks refer to the wartime slaughter by the Arabic word mukapele, which Sensoy translated during a phone interview as "mutual massacre."
Year after year, Armenian Americans have commemorated the beginning of the slaughter by demanding that modern Turkey formally acknowledge the persecutions and deaths of their ancestors as the Armenian Genocide. Just as consistently, the Ankara government has refused.
This year, the inflammation of the old wound has intensified, marked by the introduction of a congressional resolution that the U.S. government officially recognize the killing of Armenians as a genocide. Both on Capitol Hill and on the grass-roots level, the strongest outside voices supporting the Armenian cause are those of Jews, Los Angeles Jews at that, and the reasons seem obvious.
"How can we, the people decimated by the Holocaust, stand on the sidelines?" asked Rabbi Harold Schulweis. "Perhaps if the world had stood up against the first genocide of the 20th century against the Armenians, the Holocaust might have been prevented.
"It is obscene for us, of all people, to quibble about definitions," said Schulweis, spiritual leader of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and long in the forefront of social and interfaith initiatives.
In 2004, Schulweis channeled his demand for action against world genocides by founding Jewish World Watch, focusing first on the ongoing massacres in Darfur. This year, the nonprofit was organized well enough to expand its reach, sponsoring a joint commemoration of "the 92nd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide" at Shulweis' temple.
At a dinner preceding the Friday evening Shabbat service, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Derderian and Janice Kamenir-Reznik, president of Jewish World Watch, struck a common theme. Jews and Armenians, two ancient peoples who have preserved their faiths and cultures through long diasporas, must be as one in remembering both their genocides and preventing such catastrophes in the future.
At the overflow dinner for 500, the majority Armenians, Rabbi Edward M. Feinstein of the host synagogue noted other striking similarities between the two ethnic groups.
"We both like to talk, loudly, we both like to eat and we both have reverence for our churches and synagogues, even if we don't attend services," he said.
Derderian, a youthful-looking prelate at 49 and a striking figure in a black robe and hood, pointed to some demographic similarities, as well. There are some 450,000 Armenians in Los Angeles, compared to 550,000 Jews, he said, and as primate of his church's Western Diocese, encompassing 14 states, he leads a flock of 800,000.
During the Shabbat service attended by some 1,100 Jewish and Armenian worshippers, Schulweis summarized his position, saying, "Of genocides, we cannot say, 'Mine is mine and yours is yours,' because both are ours."
The combined choirs of Valley Beth Shalom and St. Peter Armenian Church movingly concluded the evening with the singing of the Armenian and Israeli national anthems, both expressing the longing for lost homelands, followed by "America the Beautiful."
The Jewish and Armenian communities will come together again on May 15, when Jewish World Watch, now supported by 54 synagogues, will honor two Armenian scholars and activists at Adat Ari El synagogue. The honorees of the I Witness Award will be filmmaker Michael Hagopian and UCLA professor Richard G. Hovannisian.
Jewish support for the Armenian grievances has not been unanimous. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who represents a large Armenian constituency and has introduced House Resolution 106 calling for U.S. recognition of the 1915 genocide, has sent letters to four Jewish organizations criticizing their positions.
The Jewish legislator admonished the American Jewish Committee (AJ Committee), B'nai B'rith International, the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), which had jointly transmitted to House leaders a letter from the organized Jewish Community of Turkey.
In the letter, addressed to the AJCommittee, the Turkish Jewish leaders expressed their concern that the Schiff resolution "has the clear possibility of potentially endangering the interests of the United States" by straining Turkey's relations with Washington and Israel.
JINSA supported the letter's view, while the Jewish Telegraphic Agency quoted ADL National Director Abraham Foxman as stating that "I don't think congressional action will reconcile the issue. The resolution takes a position, it comes to a judgment."
Foxman added that "the Turks and Armenians need to revisit their past. The Jewish community shouldn't be the arbiter of that history nor should the U.S. Congress."
In his written response, Schiff took the action of the American Jewish organizations as "tantamount to an implicit and inappropriate endorsement of the position of the letter's authors."
He added, "I cannot see how major Jewish American organizations can in good conscience and in any way support efforts to deny the undeniable."
In a phone interview, Schiff reaffirmed his criticism of the Jewish organizations and surmised that their opposition was influenced by Israel, worried about harming its good relationship with Turkey.
"It would be a terrible mistake if the Israeli government became involved in this matter," he said.
Schiff noted that his resolution, now under consideration by the House Foreign Affairs Committee chaired by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), is co-sponsored by 21 out of 30 Jewish representatives and by eight out of 13 Jewish senators in a companion resolution. He acknowledged that he is under considerable pressure by the Bush administration and by former fellow legislators now working for the Turkish lobby, which Schiff described as "one of the most powerful" in Washington.
The Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C., has also joined directly in the struggle for the hearts and minds of the American people in general and American Jews in particular. It has cultivated close relationships with Jewish leaders and has retained a well-connected Jewish lobbyist to work with the Jewish media.
The embassy recently placed full-page ads in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times outlining a proposal to Armenia to appoint a joint commission of historians, with full access to national archives, "to study the events of 1915 and share the findings with the international public." In a phone call from his embassy, Sensoy confirmed Turkey's 2005 offer to Armenia for establishing a joint commission and urged that the United States and other countries participate in the investigation.
Citing the Turkish version of the 1915 events, Sensoy said that during the Russian-Turkish battles of World War I, a large number of Armenians supported the enemy, "and we had to relocate the Armenians in eastern Turkey to Syria and Lebanon." The result, he said, was "a kind of civil war," in which each side lost hundreds of thousands of lives.
"We are not saying we have all the truth, but we cannot accept guilt for the worst of crimes without knowing what the truth is," Sensoy said.
Asked why Turkey could not put the whole problem behind it by issuing an apology for deeds committed by a different regime at a different time, Sensoy replied, "The Ottoman past is part of our glorious history, and we cannot disassociate ourselves from the past."
On his special outreach to American Jews, Sensoy commented that "Jews are in the best position to understand the problem. We also have the best relations with Israel."
Drawing a parallel between Auschwitz and the disasters of 1915 "would be a disservice" to the memory of the Holocaust, said Sensoy. "After all, no Jews took up arms against the Germans and killed thousands of them."
Caught somewhat uneasily in the middle is the small, unorganized Turkish Jewish community of 100-200 residents of Los Angeles.
Dr. Moshe Arditi, vice chair of the pediatrics department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said he is pleased by "the recent movement toward an opening up in Turkey." He pointed to a massive rally by both Turks and Armenians in Istanbul to protest the murder of a local Armenian journalist.
Arditi endorsed a "historical fact-finding study" of the 1915 events that "could lead to dialogue between the parties."
But the joint commission proposal finds no resonance among critics of Turkey. Derderian, who described himself as "a grandson of survivors," rejected any dialogue before Turkish recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
Schiff commented that "there is no question among historians that what happened was genocide. It's like asking the Sudanese government to judge what's happening in Darfur."
Schulweis drew a different analogy, saying, "The proposal is similar to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling a conference to examine the truth of the Holocaust."
Genocide' reporting rankles newsroom at Times
While the pending congressional resolution to officially designate the 1915 mass killings of Armenians as the "Armenian Genocide" has affected the Jewish community, it has also triggered an acrimonious confrontation at the Los Angeles Times.
The tempest at the already storm-tossed Times, according to aggrieved reporters, goes to the highly sensitive question of whether a journalist can write an objective story on an emotional topic affecting his own ethnic group.
In other words, can a Jewish reporter write a balanced article on Holocaust denial, or a black reporter on racial discrimination?
As the current Times imbroglio shows, these are not abstract debating points, especially in as diverse and multicultural a city as Los Angeles.
Here is how the story developed, as mainly reported through internal Times' emails with some added commentary posted by former Times staffer Kevin Roderick in his blog www.laobserved.com, a daily must-read for journalists and media mavens.
In the middle of April, veteran Times reporter Mark Arax, of Armenian descent, wrote an article on the pending congressional resolution, focusing on how it had split the Jewish community into opposing sides.
In a highly unusual move, the story was killed by managing editor Doug Frantz because he felt that Arax "had expressed personal views about the topic in a public manner and therefore was not a disinterested party."
The "personal view" cited by Frantz was apparently a letter sent in 2005 reminding Times management that the paper's established policy was to refer to the 1915 killings in the old Ottoman Empire as the "Armenian Genocide."
The letter, which Frantz has described as a "petition," was signed by six journalists -- Arax and four other Armenian Americans and Henry Weinstein, the paper's respected legal correspondent, who is Jewish.
As anger about the article's fate inside the newsroom and outside in the Armenian community rose, top editor Jim O'Shea sent a memo to his staff. He declared that Arax's story had not been spiked but merely held for additional reporting, and that he said he would never take a reporter off a story on the basis of his ethnicity.
Also stoking the fire were charges that Frantz, who served as bureau chief in Turkey for both the New York and Los Angeles Times, was taking a pro-Turkish view on the Armenian question, a charge denied by Frantz and his superiors.
At press time, Arax was demanding a public apology from Frantz. Weinstein and Frantz declined to comment for this story.
Whatever the outcome of the Times conflict or the congressional resolution, we are again reminded that the ethnic wounds of 60, 90 or 1,000 years ago rarely heal completely.