Israel and the Armenian Genocide
On April 24 of this year—Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day—American President Joe Biden made a statement acknowledging the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks from 1915-1917 as genocide. In doing so, President Biden made de jure what had been de facto since the 1950s: while American politicians have mentioned the Armenian Genocide periodically over the past several decades, the federal government had yet to make any formal recognition. Biden’s acknowledgment follows bipartisan resolutions passed in 2019 by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to formally acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, which former President Donald Trump opposed. This acknowledgment of one of humanity’s greatest crimes comes 106 years after it began—and many counties are even further behind.
In the years leading up to World War I, 2 million Armenians lived in the Ottoman Empire, which, in 1914, encompassed what we now know as Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, and parts of Saudi Arabia and Armenia. Armenians served primarily as peasant farmers and laborers, though a few hundred thousand lived in cities, some of whom had become wealthy due to their connections with Europe. While prior to 1878, Armenians were seen as somewhat harmless relative to other minorities such as the Greek Christians, they were still subject to the restrictive laws oppressing dhimmi, or non-Muslims, in the Ottoman Empire. The group was frequently maltreated, and crimes against them were rarely punished and often state-sanctioned.
Though the 1878 Congress of Berlin intended to force the Ottomans to guarantee the safety of their Armenian population, conditions worsened; the use of the Armenians as a bargaining chip led the general population to believe that they were interfering in the government, and labeled them as subversive. In the late 19th century, on top of the inflated taxes, unprosecuted crimes, forced labor, and land seizure they were already subject to, Armenian populations began to become the subject of pogroms perpetrated by Ottoman-created Kurdish regiments and Ottoman soldiers. The situation was similar to that of the Greek Christians and Assyrians living in the Ottoman Empire, who were also persecuted and murdered during this time period.
Conditions for Ottoman Armenians worsened through the end of the nineteenth century and early 20th century. The political instability caused by the Young Turk Revolution led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Armenians in a politically fueled massacre in 1909, when Ottoman soldiers provided rioters with weapons. The massacre led several European powers to propose an agreement in 1914, which would have required two European inspectors to remain in the east of Ottoman Turkey to ensure the protection of Armenians, and which led to fears about partition in the Ottoman Empire.
In addition, the ideology of the new ruling party — the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) — favored pan-Islamism, which, for them, necessitated the removal of all Christians. The combination of these factors led to the decision to exterminate the Armenians, in response to the “Armenian Question”. In the following two years, Armenians were persecuted, deported, and murdered systematically, reducing the resulting in the Armenian population by 90%. This is not to mention the concurrent genocide of Greeks and Assyrians, altogether resulting in a death toll of 2-3 million people simply on the basis of religion and ethnicity.
If this situation seems eerily familiar, it is for good reason. In a speech that Adolf Hitler gave at his house in Obersalzberg in 1939, he reportedly said “Wer redet heute noch von der Vernichtung der Armenier?”, meaning “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Historians such as Abram Sachar and Stefan Ihrig, as well as lawyer and genocide scholar Raphael Lemkin, attest that the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians was part of the inspiration for the Nazi Party’s attempted extermination of the Jewish people.
One striking difference between the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide, however, is the way in which each event was treated by its perpetrating country and the rest of the world. While the Holocaust has been acknowledged across the world as a crime against humanity, and the modern country of Germany has acknowledged and denounced its crimes, the Ottoman successor state, Turkey, refuses to acknowledge that the genocide ever happened; only 33 countries worldwide have explicitly decreed it a genocide, mostly in South America and Western Europe. The failure to recognize the massacre of Armenians in 1915 as a genocide not only disrespects the survivors of the crime, but also stymies the recognition of other genocides, such as the ongoing genocide in Darfur.
Turkey has denied the Armenian Genocide ever since 1915. The state’s narrative claims that the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire was simply “resettled” in order to protect the national interest. The government continues to blame the Armenians for the genocide, citing their rebellious and seditious nature as the reason for their relocation. Historian Ronald Suny summarizes the Turkish argument: “There was no genocide, and the Armenians were to blame for it”. Turkey promotes this narrative through the erection of museums and monuments such as the Iğdır Genocide Memorial and Museum, which claims it was actually the Armenians who killed Turks during World War I.
Turkish children are indoctrinated with false history, and Turkey will even arrest its own citizens for acknowledging the genocide. They also seek to advance this narrative abroad by sanctioning any country that dares to acknowledge that the events of 1915-1917 entailed a genocide of Armenians, counteracting the efforts of diaspora Armenians who have fought to have the genocide recognized. Among the countries that have fallen victim to this play is the state of Israel.
The fact that Israel has not officially acknowledged the Armenian Genocide is surprising and troubling given Israel’s relationship to the Holocaust. However, Israel suffers a similar problem to the United States and other Western countries in its recognition, in that the relationship of its government to that of Turkey is of significant importance for national security and economic prosperity. While the US offered humanitarian aid to Armenians being persecuted during World War I and condemned the Ottoman Empire for their annihilation of the Armenians, they never officially declared war on the Ottomans when they entered WWI, and the whole incident was largely forgotten in the political mess in the war’s aftermath.
By the time that the term “genocide” was accepted by the United Nations in 1948, the Armenian Genocide had taken place 33 years ago, and the modern state of Turkey had existed for 25 years without any significant backlash from other countries. Four years later, in 1952, Turkey joined NATO, the large group of Western countries that were very dependent on one another in order to combat the perceived threat of communism. By the time of the first official recognition of the Armenian Genocide in Uruguay in 1965 (the 50th anniversary of the start of the genocide) and the first big lobbying efforts of the 1970s by Armenian immigrants who had gained wealth and power in the United States, Turkey was well entrenched in the political machinery of the Cold War, and with the exception of Cyprus in 1975 and 1982, not many countries that were being actively lobbied by Armenian, Greek, and Assyrians immigrants cared much to end up on Turkey’s bad side. Only after the fall of the Soviet Union did recognition of the genocide become more common, with more European powers officially recognizing it, and the failure of the Turkish government to recognize it becoming one of the points of opposition to its admittance into the European Union, amongst other human rights violations.
However, the United States was particularly reluctant to acknowledge the genocide even after the end of the Soviet era, citing concerns about damaging its relationship with Turkey, which became even more important to the US during the War on Terror, in which Turkey was a crucial ally in the Middle East. In 2007, a resolution approved by the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs to recognize the Armenian Genocide was almost brought to a vote in the House, but was never actually put to the floor due to Turkey’s support of American anti-terrorism efforts in Iraq and the Middle East as a whole, and fear of destabilizing this by antagonizing them.
In addition, there was an implicit and explicit recognition amongst American politicians that if they were to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide, they would also be responsible for acknowledging the crimes that the United States had carried out against populations within its borders since its creation, including those against Native Americans and Black people. For example, Representative Gregory Meeks from New York opposed the 2007 resolution, stating that “we have failed to do what we're asking other people to do ... we have got to clean up our own house”, and Turkish commentators have expressed similar sentiments.
However, a deterioration of relations with Turkey over the past decade, the weakening of Turkey’s power and influence due to recent economic and political challenges, a recent willingness in the United States to acknowledge the iniquities of its own past, and the Biden administration’s emphasis on human rights cleared the way for the 2019 resolution in Congress and President Biden’s own statement this year. Turkey, though it issued a statement denouncing the acknowledgment of the genocide, is unlikely to do much more in response.
Similar to the United States, Israel has been largely dependent on Turkey’s cooperation for the last several decades — in fact, since the very beginning of Israel’s existence. Turkey was the first country in the Middle East to recognize Israel in 1949, immediately making them one of the only countries in the region that was not outwardly antagonistic. While Turkey joined Arab nations in condemning Israel following the Six-Day War, they did not vote for a clause calling Israel an “aggressor state”, and later opposed a proposal to sever diplomatic ties with Israel, indicating a slightly warmer disposition towards Israel as opposed to its Arab neighbors.
Relations continued to warm in the 90s, with Turkey and Israel sharing the goal of opposing Iran, as well as due to growing trade ties. Former President Shimon Peres’ consistent denial of the Armenian Genocide during the early 2000s is indicative of the strength and importance of this relationship for Israel. In the past 10 years, however, Israel’s relationship with Turkey has declined in parallel to the American relationship with Turkey, with disagreements arising over the Israel-Palestine conflict, Turkey’s friendship with Hamas, alleged cooperation with Iran, and the Gaza Flotilla incident. While Turkey remains Israel’s sixth-largest export destination, relations have largely cooled, and the two countries remain at each other’s throats.
The cooling of this relationship has allowed for some informal recognition of the Armenian Genocide by Israeli politicians and government agencies. In 2003, then Askenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel Yona Metzger visited the Tsitsernakaberd (Armenian Genocide memorial in Yerevan) and recognized the Armenian Genocide as a historical fact. In 2011, the Knesset had its first official discussion on the matter, and subsequently forwarded the matter to the Knesset Education Committee, which eventually officially recognized the genocide in 2016.
In addition, every spring, the left-wing party Meretz has introduced a bill to the Knesset attempting to recognize the genocide, though none of these bills have yet passed. Notable Israeli politicians who have campaigned for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide include exiting President Reuven Rivlin, Minister of the Interior Ayelet Shaked, former education minister Yossi Sarid, former chairwoman of Meretz Zehava Galon, and former Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. Rivlin, in particular, was very outspoken about recognizing the genocide during his tenure as Knesset Speaker, though his enthusiasm has waned as President, likely due to the fact that he no longer speaks only for himself but for the state of Israel.
Still, Rivlin was the first president to bring the issue up before the United Nations, and more steps have been taken towards the recognition of the genocide under his presidency than under any other — especially since the previous President, Shimon Peres, had denied the genocide altogether. Many politicians still oppose recognition as well, most notably Minister of Finance Avigdor Lieberman, who has repeatedly opposed efforts to recognize the genocide on the basis of shared financial interests with Turkey.
There are essentially three arguments against the recognition of the Armenian Genocide in Israel. Firstly, despite the recent decline in relations with Turkey, Israel still has strong economic ties with it via tourism and exports. In addition, Turkey represents a powerful buffer against Iran, and, when they have been on good terms, Turkey and Israel have carried out military actions and training together. Politicians such as Avigdor Lieberman hold out hope that the relationship between Turkey and Israel will be repaired, and that these important strategic aspects will still be available to Israel.
Recognition of the genocide, on the other hand, may damage relations with Turkey beyond repair. Israel has even gone as far as deploying the Foreign Ministry to attempt to cancel the 1982 International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide in Tel Aviv due to the fact that the conference mentioned the Armenian Genocide and might damage relations with Turkey.
Another consideration is the strong relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan, which also denies the Armenian Genocide due to the antagonistic relationship it has with Armenia, and actually claims that Armenians carried out massacres against Azeris. Israel was one of the first states to recognize the independence of Azerbaijan in 1991, and the two countries have enjoyed a close relationship ever since, based on Azerbaijan's claim of being a “country of tolerance” that has always protected its Jewish citizens, despite its persecution of Armenians. The relationship has also revolved around shared economic interests, with Israel purchasing 40% of its oil from Azerbaijan, and with Israeli companies being entrenched in Azerbaijan’s economy.
Azerbaijan’s economy has been growing at an exceptional rate in recent years, as opposed to the economy of Armenia, which has remained quite poor — creating a stronger incentive for allyship with Azerbaijan as opposed to Armenia. In addition, both Israel and Azerbaijan are wary of Iran, and Israel has been granted access to airbases in Azerbaijan in order to actively oppose Iran. Azerbaijan has also purchased a significant amount of weapons from Israel to aid in its territorial conflict against Armenia, and Israel’s support of Azerbaijan in this conflict has stymied its recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
Perhaps the most understated reason for a refusal to recognize the Armenian Genocide, however, has been a certain perception of the Holocaust as a unique event that cannot be compared to any other historical event. In 2001, former President Shimon Peres articulated this position clearly: “Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. What the Armenians went through is a tragedy, but not genocide.” In this perspective, acknowledging the Armenian Genocide diminishes the tragedy of the Holocaust — particularly, some argue, because an Armenian Genocide Memorial Day on April 24 may overshadow the importance of Yom HaShoah, which falls at the end of April or beginning of May.
This is the opposite view of many Jewish groups who have recognized the genocide, arguing that it is the very fact that Jews were subjected to genocide that means we should acknowledge the genocides perpetrated against other groups — to put real meaning behind the saying “Never Again”. People who hold the former perspective seek to maintain a sort of “monopoly” over the term “genocide”, and therefore paint a self-centered view of the world where only their tragedy matters.
It is worth noting that, on the other hand, the Tsitsernakaberd has recently built a library dedicated to the study of the genocides of other people, whereas Yad Vashem remains intractably focused on the Holocaust — even when other Holocaust museums worldwide (such as the United States Holocaust Museum) commemorate the genocides perpetrated against other groups of people, recognizing the extreme similarity in the suffering of these people and that of the Jews during the Holocaust This idea of a unique trauma seems to be one that is particularly prevalent in Israeli Jews, even as Jews worldwide campaign for the Armenian cause.
The refusal of the Israeli government to recognize the Armenian Genocide, while already ironic due to the concept of “never again” that the country was founded on, perhaps becomes even more incongruous upon a closer inspection of the efforts to recognize the Armenian Genocide in other countries. What is notable about these efforts is that many of them were spearheaded by Jews, who recognized that the actions taken during 1915 paralleled those of the Holocaust. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew, coined the term "genocide" in 1944, and specifically referenced the annihilation of Armenians as a seminal occurrence of genocide. In 2007, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity also acknowledged the genocide and called upon Turkey to recognize it as well — a continuation of Elie Wiesel’s personal recognition of the genocide.
In the United States, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Anti-Defamation League, and the American Jewish Committee each recognized the genocide in 1989, 2007, and 2014 respectively, and the Union for Reform Judaism specifically called upon the United States government to recognize the genocide. Additionally, in 2015, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs specifically called upon the United States government to recognize the genocide. Finally, in 2015, the Central Council of Jews in Germany called upon the German government to recognize the Armenian Genocide, which it did in 2016. Each of these organizations and people has cited Jewish values and the meaning of “never again” as part of their reason for recognition — a position the Israeli government refuses to take, as it continues to place strategic and economic policies over the Jewish values and the memory of the Holocaust that it was founded on.
However, change may be on the horizon. An increasing number of Israeli citizens believe that Israel should recognize the Armenian Genocide — in 2007, a survey found that 70% of Israelis believe that the government should recognize the Armenian Genocide, and 44% said they would be willing to break off relations with Turkey in order to do so. In addition, Israel Charny, director of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem and an ardent supporter of the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, has observed that the majority of lawmakers are likely in favor of recognizing the genocide, but have been unable to act upon this due to the importance of Turkey, and because of stifling by the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s office.
Perhaps most important, though, was the statement of Minister of Foreign Affairs and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid following Biden’s recognition of the genocide, promising the fight for Israeli recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Lapid’s position as Minister of Foreign Affairs, and his potential future position as Prime Minister in 2023 should the current government hold together, may now give him an opportunity to make good on his promise. While not a guarantee, Israel’s tendency to follow the United States in foreign policy, as well as recent normalization deals with other Arab states creating less of a reliance on Turkey, may enable the Israeli government to finally recognize the Armenian Genocide, and make good on the promise of “Never Again” on which they were founded.
Jake Kalodner is a senior at Yale University studying Archaeology and Anthropology. His current research focuses on the relationship between administrations and the people they govern during the Early Bronze Age in the Levant. When not digging holes and cleaning artifacts, Jake enjoys teaching, making ceramics, and going down Wikipedia rabbit holes.