Stephen Scheinberg: Jews Face the Armenian Genocide

Roundup: Talking About History

[Dr. Scheinberg is emeritus professor of history, Concordia University, and co-chair of Canadian Friends of Peace Now. His editorials can be heard on Montreal’s Radio Shalom 1650AM on Monday at 7:15A.M. and Wednesday at 6:14P.M.]

There is a controversy raging among American Jews which may get even hotter in the coming days. The issue arises because the U.S. Congress will once again be asked to vote for a bill recognizing the Armenian genocide of 1915. One might think that this would not be a difficult issue for the Jewish community but unfortunately several of the major Jewish organizations in the United States have seen fit to intervene against the bill.

First, let me explain to those of you who are not well acquainted with the events of 1915 that an overwhelming number of historians recognize that the Turkish government of the day engaged in the pre-meditated murder of between 1 and 1.5 million Armenians. Jewish holocaust scholars including Raul Hilberg, Elie Wiesel , Yehuda Bauer, Daniel Goldhagen and Deborah Lipstadt have all signed ads urging the Congress to pass the resolution. The scholarship is overwhelming; including even some Turkish writers, but the Turkish government persists in its refusal to acknowledge responsibility. Armenian genocide denial is close kin to holocaust denial and as morally reprehensible.

The current bill in the Congress was introduced in January 2007 by Representative Adam Schiff of California and has wide Jewish support in both the House and Senate, from Democrats and Republicans. However, it is not clear if or when the bill will come to a vote. The Turkish government has been active in supporting opposition to the bill, hiring prominent lobbyists and meeting with Jewish leaders. This leadership was obviously reminded, at a meeting with the Turkish Foreign Minister Abdula Gul, of Turkey’s good relations with Israel as well as with the United States, her support for her own Jewish community numbering approximately 40,000, and her record as a sanctuary for Jewish refugees over the centuries. It is difficult to say whether it was Turkish lobbying, their own sentiments, or possibly direct intervention from Israel which led the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai Brith International, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs to pass along to members of Congress a letter from Turkish Jews opposing the resolution, thus implicitly taking the side of Turkey.

It was the ADL’s Abraham Foxman who was the most outspoken of the Jewish leaders, declaring that “this is an issue that needs to be resolved by the parties, not by us. We are neither historians nor arbiters.” One has never heard Foxman, a child survivor of the holocaust, make such a cavalier reference to the death of six million Jews. He has given further fuel to his critics by firing the ADL’s New England regional director who had urged that the organization recognize the genocide. A former ADL regional board member condemned the firing as “a vindictive, intolerant, and destructive act” by an organization and leader whose “fundamental mission – is to promote tolerance.” Foxman has subsequently, following much criticism and a conversation with Elie Wiesel, recognized that the events of 1915 constituted genocide but continues to oppose the bill as counterproductive.

For her part, Israel has not made any public reference to the Armenian genocide and has carefully deleted such references from text books and even withdrawn support from international conferences at which the genocide would have been a subject for discussion. Before a trip to Turkey then-foreign minister Shimon Peres said of the genocide, that it was “a matter for historians to decide.” There are many prominent Israelis who deplore their government’s failure to act on a significant moral issue. However, in the case of a nation state, realpolitik often triumphs over morality. Israel obviously considers that her relations with Turkey are too important to be possibly undermined by taking the moral road, though Israelis from across the political spectrum have disagreed on the consequences of such actions.

Nevertheless, the American Jewish leadership is not and should not be tied to Israeli realpolitik. Individual morality cannot be waived in the interest of Israel, the United States or Canada. Perhaps if the Armenian genocide resolution is again defeated these same community leaders will be at pains to deny the influence of the Jewish lobby. Neither Israel nor the American Jewish community will be well served by a community leadership that abandons elementary standards of behavior for a misguided assessment of the needs of Israel or Turkish Jewry. Perhaps they should recall the infamous words attributed to Adolph Hitler, calling on his troops to pursue their destructive work, he stated: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” As Jews, we are obliged to speak, and our voices must be heard on the side of justice and morality.
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Elliott Aron Green - 3/10/2010

Prof Sheinberg, you seem not to be up to date on Israel and the Armenian genocide. Among other things, Israeli Prof Yair Oron has written extensively about the Armenian genocide.

Further, an educational film repeatedly shown on Israel TV, particularly on the History channel, mentions it. This is in the context of telling the story of Israel during WW I, especially the story of the NILI group which collected info on the Armenian genocide as it was happening. This film specifically relates the story of Sarah Aaronsohn, sister of Aaron Aaronsohn, the founder and leader of the NILI. She took a train from Constantinople back to her home near Haifa and observed the deportations, expulsions, and --sometimes-- killings of Armenians from the train window. In fact, the film indicates that knowledge of the Armenian genocide was one of the reasons for formation of the NILI. In fact, the Ottoman govt expelled the Jews from Tel Aviv & Yafo [Jaffa] in April 1917 [approx]. The Jews were sent to wander the roads of the country without food. This kind of expulsion was one of the preliminary stages of the Armenian genocide.

Moreover, another NILI activist, Eitan Belkind, published his memoirs of this period and his eyewitness accounts of the massacres in a book published through the Israel Ministry of Defense Publishing House in 1979 or thereabouts.

Belkind's book contains important testimony on the genocide from a non-Armenian source. Moreover, if you read biographies of Aaron Aaronsohn you will find that he pressed the British to do something in defense of the Armenians [they did little besides using the issue for anti-Ottoman propaganda during the war]. Several bios of Aaronsohn are now in print [see Samuel Katz, Ronald Florence, etc]. Aaronsohn wrote a memorandum for the British, circulated among top people in their forces, called Pro Armenia.

In addition, Aaronsohn was in contact with Armenian delegates to the Versailles conference, urging them to declare independence before Allied approval.

To conclude, Prof Sheinberg, I think that the self-righteous pedestal that you are standing on as against Israel is unwarranted, although there is much to criticize in the positions of several Israeli govts.