Israel, Armenians and the question of genocide

When Israel remembers the Holocaust, why does it think only of Jews?

History has proven time and again that the Jews are not unique for having suffered genocidal policies. The many debates about preventing such tragedies have so far not helped populations that suffered mass killings and expulsions, with intent to destroy them for their national, religious or ethnic identity – even in recent decades. Therefore the politicization of the Armenian genocide in Israel in the context of Israel-Turkey relations, described with great eloquence by Akiva Eldar in al-Monitor, is not only wrong; it calls into question whether Israel is truly committed to “never again” when it comes to people who are not Jews.

In fact, Jews need not look outside their own community to understand the categorical need to universalize the awful lessons of the Holocaust. Eldar points out that one of the greatest advocates of this position was himself a victim:

The man who coined the term genocide and fought for adoption of the treaty [1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide – ds] was the Jewish-Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin, whose entire family was annihilated in the Holocaust. He himself managed to flee to the United States. Lemkin referred specifically to the Armenian annihilation as an act of genocide. This position was never adopted by Israeli governments. The official Israeli position was summed up in 2001 in an interview by then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres with the Turkish Daily News: “The Armenians suffered a tragedy,” he said, “but not genocide.”

Tragically, Eldar’s description of the feeling many Knesset members hold towards this question mirrors what I feel in Israeli society:

For them, any attempt to hint that other peoples were also persecuted and massacred for racist reasons is considered “disrespect for the Holocaust” (they themselves, on the other hand, often use the term “Holocaust,” especially to scare the Israeli public with the Iranian threat). They do not define the Armenian genocide as a human-Jewish-ethical issue.

To the argument that recognition of the Armenian experience threatens very immediate political needs related to Turkey, I hope that Turkish leaders and people see it differently. Remembering horrors suffered by others would say more about Israel’s values than it does about Turkey. Anyone can commit terrible crimes against innocents, Jews included. I wish for a country that rises above its own trauma to recall, support and help victims anywhere.

I can scarcely believe this needs to be said, but apparently it bears repeating: we must acknowledge that all human beings are at risk of falling victims to genocidal acts, or of perpetrating such acts themselves. The same people can be in both positions. To deny this seems to me as awful and dangerous as Holocaust denial itself.