06 September 2007

1937) Israel’s Approach To Armenian Allegations - Originally Published in 2003

One of the formidable obstacles in Jewish-Armenian and Israel-Armenia relations is Israel’s attitude towards the Armenian anti-Turkish claims. As expected for the Armenians, Israel is the most important state in convincing the world to the ‘Armenian genocide claims’ and as Asbarez pointed out, for the Armenians, the importance of the recognition of the Armenian political claims by the Jews, and more importantly by Israel, cannot be overstated.[1] Therefore, the Armenian international campaign especially has focused on Israel and the Jews.[2] However Israel has consistently refrained from acknowledging the Armenian claims. Israel even in the recent years officially declared that the 1915 Relocation and the following inter-communal clashes couldn’t be called ‘genocide’ or ‘holocaust’. Government representatives have never participated in the memorial assemblies held by the Armenians every year on 24 April to commemorate the ‘genocide’.[3]

In last two decades four significant events show Israel’s opposed position against the Armenian arguments. First of all in 1978 the screening of a pro-Armenian film about the Armenian quarter in Jerusalem was cancelled and the film has never been shown since that time because the Israeli authorities thought that the film was a political and a propaganda material. As a matter of fact that Israeli Broadcasting Authority (IBA) had requested a documentary on the historical Armenian quarter in the city. However, though the film was supposed to be about the Armenian quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, Michael Arlen, director of the film, had focused on the 1915 Armenian Relocation and had accused the Turkish people. In another word, Arlen was repeating the well known Armenian political claims instead of concentrating on the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem. Naturally the IBA refused to broadcast the film. In convincing the IBA the Turkish Jews and the Jews had emigrated from Turkey to Israel played a significant role. Jews in Turkey argued that the documentary was a ‘one-sided political propaganda film’.

In 1982, when some Armenian researchers aimed to participate in an international conference on the subject of the Holocaust and Genocide in Tel Aviv (Israel), the Israeli Government saw this attempt as a part of the politically motivated propaganda campaign. For the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the Armenians were trying to manipulate the public opinion by using the conference in Israel. As a result the Foreign Ministry rejected the Armenian applications and tried to limit the subjects regarding the Armenian claims. However the Armenian applicants started an international campaign against Israel and blamed the Israeli Government of damaging academic freedom.[4]

The third significant development occurred at the end of September 1989 when some American senators mainly led by the Armenian and Greek lobby proposed a bill in the American Senate Judiciary Committee to commemorate the so-called ‘Armenian genocide’ indicating a memorial day in the American calendar. As a matter of fact that the United States House of Representatives had previously rejected two similar attempts in 1985 and in 1987.[5] In the previous cases the US Presidents, the Government and the Congress had clearly showed that the US does not agree with the radical Armenians and never recognised such political claims. Turkey as expected condemned the attempt, yet the campaign against the bill was mainly organised by the Turkish Jews. The Chief Rabbi of Turkey sent a personal letter to every member of the US Senate and said ‘We recognise the tragedy which befell both the Turks and Armenians ... but we cannot accept the definition of “genocide”. The baseless charge harms us just as it harms our Turkish countrymen.’[6] The Chief Rabbi, moreover, pointed out that the Turks were tolerant towards the minorities in the Ottoman and Republican periods. However, the Turkish Jews and the official Turkish representatives were not able to affect the balance in the Congress as the Armenian and Greek lobbies were strong enough to manipulate the other senators for such a bill. Israel’s and the Jewish lobby in this context played a vital role by working behind scenes.[7] The American Jews officially did not accept their efforts in preventing the Armenian bill, because they did not want to alienate their relations with the American Armenians. Though Israeli diplomats denied such an initiative, Ha’aretz, the respected Hebrew daily, on 17 October 1989 declared that the Jews and Israeli diplomats worked to prevent the commemoration. Similarly The Jerusalem Post later wrote ‘the Israeli Embassy in Washington actively lobbied to block a US congressional measure to commemorate the Armenian events. In that instance, the Foreign Ministry chided embassy officials for their excessive involvement…’[8] Not only the Israeli and Turkish lobbies but also the American administration was against the bill and another Armenian attempt also failed, and this once more underscored that the Turkish and Jewish have a similar view on the issue.

Another case showing the Israeli attitude about the Armenian allegations was witnessed in 1990. IBA cancelled screening another pro-Armenian documentary called ‘Journey to Armenia’ in 1990. As IBA confirmed 100.000 Turkey immigrant Jews sent protest letter to the institution. In all these letters the Turkey Jews argued that the Ottoman Empire protected the Jewish minority for the ages and the Turkish people have been outstanding in its humane and tolerant treatment of its Jewish minority for 500 years following the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain and saved masses of Jews from massacre. In this framework the letters further argued a massacre against the Armenians or any other ethnic group cannot be expected. A member of the IBA Board of Directors clearly said that the documentary is a propaganda film:

‘The film contains propaganda and injury to part of the public, because a Holocaust happened only to part of the public, because a Holocaust happened only to the Jewish people’.[9]

‘We Reject the Armenian Attempts’

Israel in the 1970s and 1980s opposed the Armenian attempts to draw similarities between Holocaust and 1915 Relocation event, yet it made extreme efforts not to alienate the Armenians. Therefore all Israeli efforts to prevent the Armenians were secret and ‘behind the curtain’.[10] Naturally there has been a pro-Armenian group in Israel as well and this group does not share the official policy. However the pro-Armenian politicians are not strong enough to shift the official Israeli position and does not reflect the official view. On the other hand the fragile political structure and coalition system allows the marginal groups to enter the cabinet. For instance Yossi Sarid’s, Israel’s Education Minister, efforts resulted in including some Armenian claims in the national curriculum. Similarly Yossi Beilin, then Deputy Foreign Minister, had given support to the radical Armenians in April 1994. In the following years two Israeli ministers expressed their sympathy for the Armenian argument. However David Levy, the Israeli Foreign Minister, declared that the Israeli position regarding the issue was the same and the two minister’s statements on the issue in no way reflected the Israeli Government’s position, expressing his wish to maintain the already excellent relations with Turkey on every level. David Levy reiterated in his letter to his Turkish counterpart Ismail Cem that the Israeli government was clinging to its policy that the Armenian allegations should be discussed by historians, not by politicians or diplomats.[11]

In recent years the Israeli government’s attitude vis-à-vis Turkish and Armenians has changed and Israel has not hesitate to declare its opposition to the Armenian claims. The Nobel Peace Prize Awarded Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres for example declared that the Armenian political claims are meaningless.[12]

Peres in his speech in April left no doubt about that Israel has a similar view with the Turkish government on the question of the 1915 Relocation, saying that the fate of the Armenians in Anatolia was a ‘tragedy’, not a genocide.[13] Peres further continued:

‘Armenian allegations are meaningless… We reject attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. It is a tragedy what the Armenians went through but not a genocide... Israel should not determine a historical or philosophical position on the Armenian issue. If we have to determine a position, it should be done with great care not to distort the historical realities.’[14] (Emphasis added, s.l.)

Apart from the Armenian claims issue Peres underscored the good relations between the Turkish and Jewish peoples, and made special note of the esteem in which Turkey is held by the Jewish lobby in Washington. Peres having claimed ‘Turkey and Israel are in the same boat and Turkey-Israel relations are extremely good, said that he hoped the lobby would continue to lend support to Turkish causes.[15] Peres’ statement caused great reaction among the radical Armenians; The Asbarez, a periodical of a radical Armenian political group, labelled Peres and Israel as ‘denier’.[16] Haig Boyodjian from the same periodical protested Israel and further said ‘we Armenians in turn reject Israeli efforts at denying the reality of another genocide preceding theirs’.[17]

Memorial Day: No Way to the Armenian Allegations

In addition to Shimon Peres’ statements the First Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain also provided clear proofs for the Jewish stance on the issue of the Armenian attempts to create parallel between the 1915 events and the Jewish Holocaust. When the British government with the BBC organised a Holocaust Memorial Day, the Armenian lobbying groups saw this as an opportunity although the focus of the day was solely the events in the World War Two. In spite of this the Armenian political groups accused the British government and claimed that the British simply ignored the Armenians. Nevertheless they applied to join the day as the ‘victims’ of, as they called, a genocide. As expected the Armenian application was turned down by the British Government and the BBC and the Armenian groups were informed by the Home Office that the memorial ceremonies were designed for the Holocaust only.[18] The representatives of the British Government frequently declared that the United Kingdom had never recognised the 1915 events as ‘genocide’ and its stance regarding the Armenian allegations remained the same.[19] Not only the British but also the Jewish people and Israel were unhappy with the Armenian political attempts. As discussed Shimon Peres clearly refused the Armenian claims while the British Jewish never supported the Armenian attempt. Turkey’s Jewish community also declared that inclusion of other ‘so-called genocides’ in the commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain would be disrespectful to the Jews killed by the Nazis.[20]

Israel: ‘No Parallels Between Holocaust and the 1915 Events’

As the examples demonstrated that Israel has made it clear its position about the Armenian allegations and officially and clearly rejected all Armenian attempts to present the 1915 Relocation as ‘genocide’. The most recent example came from the Israeli Ambassador to Armenian Rivka Kohen. Mrs. Kohen on 7 February 2002, during a press conference in Yerevan said that the Israeli people and government are sorry for the both sides of the tragic events of 1915, but she refused to draw any parallels between the 1915 events and Holocaust. Rivka Kohen implied that the 1915 events couldn’t be considered as ‘genocide’ because the mass killings in these events were not planned and the Turkish Government had no intention to destroy a nation or a group of people. As a well-known fact many people from the Armenian and Muslim groups had lost their life in these events. She further argued that Holocaust is unique:

‘Holocaust was a unique phenomenon, since it had always planned and aimed to destroy the whole nation. At this stage nothing should be compared with Holocaust.’[21]

The Armenian reaction to Kohen’s comment was bitter: First, Dzyunik Agadzhanyian from the Armenian Foreign Ministry said Kohen’s statements were “unusual and sad”:

‘It is sad that the political leadership of the nation which went through the Holocaust continues to adhere to such position, based on unclear political reasons’.[22]

Then, the Armenian Aryan party urged persona non grata status for the Israeli Ambassador. For the Aryan party, Kohen’s “pro-Turkish” statement was “cynical and interference in Armenia’s internal affairs”. Aryan’s press release declared Israel as “genocide denier” and claimed that Israel helps Turkey and Azerbaijan against Armenia.[23] After an anti-Israel campaign, Armenian Foreign Ministry had to change its ‘moderate’ position. On 15 February Dzyunik Agadzhanyan the spokeswoman for the Armenian Foreign Ministry gave an interview to the Armenian press and criticised Kohen and Israeli policy regarding the Armenian issue. Agadzhanyan told the reporter that the Armenian Foreign Minister strongly denounced Israeli Ambassador’s remarks:

‘Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanyan has unequivocally negatively assessed Ambassador Kohen’s statement. Earlier the Armenian Foreign Ministry also negatively assessed a similar statement by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. This time the Armenian foreign minister has again taken serious steps to express his dissatisfaction… It is really regrettable that Israeli diplomacy sticks to such a position, which stems from certain political considerations…’[24]

After the statement Armenian Foreign Ministry issued a note of protest to Israel over the Ambassador’s remarks[25] and the Ministry cancelled Oskanian’s official visit to Israel which had been planned before the Ambassador crisis as Ms. Ashjain said ‘at this moment no visit on the level of foreign affairs minister is planned to Israel, and no delegation is expected from Israel at this moment in Armenia.’[26] As expected Israel did not accept the accusations and Israeli Foreign Ministry released its answer to the Armenian note of protest:

‘As Jews and Israelis we are sorry for the killings and tragedies that took place particularly in 1915-16. We understand the outbursts of the feelings of both sides (Turks and Armenians - s.l.), know that there were many victims and realize the suffering of Armenia nation. The examination of this theme requires discussions with participation of large communities of society and dialogue of historians, which will be based on facts and proofs.’[27]

As anticipated this reply did not satisfy the Armenians and the Armenian press blamed Israel and accused the Israeli Foreign Ministry of ‘playing dirty political games’[28] In conclusion, Israel’s attitude regarding the Armenian allegation has deeply affected the relation between both states; on the one hand Armenia has insisted on its allegations and accused Turkey and Israel for their positions, on the other it has criticized Turks and Israelis for not to develop good relations with Armenia.

[1] ‘Dr. Yair Auron Responds to Shimon Peres’ Statements’, Asbarez, 18 April 2001.

[2] Marilyn Henry, “Armenia Asks Israel to Recognize Turkish Genocide”, The Jerusalem Post, 22 April 1999.

[3] Yair Auron, The Banality of Indifference, (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 2000), p. 352.

[4] Israel Charny, ‘The Conference Crisis. The Turks, Armenians and the Jews’, in The Book of the International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide. Book One: The Conference Program and Crisis, (Tel Aviv: 1982); on, The Banality..., pp. 354-355; Leora Eren Fruncht, ‘A Tragedy Offstage No More’, The Jerusalem Post, 15 June 2000. Also see: Amos Elon, ‘Their Holocaust’, Har’aretz, 11 June 1982; Yad Vashem, ‘We and the Armenians’, Ha’aretz, 29 June 1982; Israel Amrani, ‘A Little Help for Friends’, Ha’aretz, 20 April 1990; Norman G. Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry, Reflections on Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, (Verso Books, 2001), Chapter 2.

[5] Auron, The Banality.... Also see: Yoav Karni, ‘Battle of Politicos Over the Armenian Holocaust’ Ha’aretz, 27 October 1989.

[6] Auron, The Banality..., p. 356.

[7] Yoav Karni, ‘Battle of the Politicos Over the Armenian Holocaust’, Ha’aretz, 27 October 1989.

[8] Leora Eren Fruncht, ‘A Tragedy Offstage No More’, The Jerusalem Post, 15 June 2000.

[9] Kol Haeir, 22 June 1990, quoted in Auron, The Banality..., p. 359.

[10] For the details of these examples see: Patrick Goodnough, ‘Armenia Seeks Recognition of “Genocide”, Conservative News Service, 23 April 1999, www.conservativenews.org/; Leora Eren Fruncht, ‘A Tragedy Offstage No More’, The Jerusalem Post, 12 May 2000.

[11] ‘Levy Clarifies Israeli Policy On Alleged Armenian Genocide’, People’s Daily, 26 May 2000; Turkish Daily News, 25 May 2000.

[12] Haig Boyodjian, ‘Peres Claims Armenians Did Not Experience Genocide’, Asbarez, 10 April 2001; ‘Israeli Opposition Leader Mr/ Yossi Sarid Attends Memorial Service: He Addresses Commemorative Rally at the Armenian Convention Jaffa’, The Armenian National Committee of Jerusalem, 25 April 2001.

[13] Thomas Patrick Carroll, ‘Ankara’s Strategic Alignment with Tel Aviv: Implications for Turkey and the Region’, Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Vol. 3, No. 5, May 2001.

[14] ‘Peres: Armenian Allegations are Meaningless’, Turkish Daily News, 10 April 2001; Boyodjian, ‘Peres...’

[15] Carroll, ‘Ankara’s…; Boyodjian, ‘Peres...’

[16] ‘Dr. Yair Auron responds to Shimon Peres’ Statements’, Asbarez, 18 April 2001.

[17] Boyodjian, ‘Peres...’.

[18] Independent, 22 November 2000.

[19] Sedat Laçiner, ‘Armenian Diaspora in Britain and the Armenian Question’, Armenian Studies, Vol. 1, No:: 3, September-October-November 2001, pp. 223-257; Ara Sarafian, Denial of the Armenian Genocide by the British Government, a lecturer delivered in London on 24 March 2001, organised by the Socialist History Society.

[20] ‘Rabbi in Turkey Says Jews Only at UK Holocaust Day’, Asbarez, 26 January 2001.

[21] ‘Israeli Ambassador Says No Parallels Between Holocaust and 1915 Genocide’, Asbarez, 8 February 2002 and National Television of Armenia, 9 February 2002 (via Groong).

[22] Avet Demourian, ‘Armenian Radical Party Calls For Declaring Israeli Envoy Persona Non Grata’, Associated Press, 12 February 2002.

[23] ‘Armenian Party Urges Persona Non Grata Status For Israeli Envoy’, Arminfo, 11 February 2002; Demourian, ‘Armenian...’.

[24] ‘Oskanyan Reacts Negatively To Ambassador Kohen’s Statement’, Iravunk (Armenian daily), 15 February 2002 (For English version see: Groong, 15 February 2002).

[25] Press Release, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Armenia, 15 February 2002; ‘Armenia Files Complaint With Israel Over Comments On Genocide’, Ha’aretz, 17 February 2002; ‘Armenia Protests To Israel Over Envoy’s Genocide Comments’, Agence France Press, 16 February 2002.

[26]; ‘Armenian Foreign Minister Not To Visit Israel In Near Future’, ArmenPress News Agency, 15 February 2002; ‘Foreign Ministry Sends Protests to Israel’, Asbarez, 15 February 2002.

[27] Press Release, The Israeli Foreign Ministry, 18 February 2002.

[28] Rouzan Poghosian, ‘Diplomatic Incident: Israeli Foreign Ministry Answers Armenia’a Protest Notes’, AZG Armenian Daily, 19 February 2002.

Copyright © Journal of Turkish Weekly


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