Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Genocide Denial

Adding to the list of cases where Jewish institutions are taking intolerable positions is the--shall we say tepidity?--of many American Jewish organizations to the demands of the Armenian community that America recognize the Turkish genocide against their people during World War I. The mass slaughter of 1.5 million people was, along with the Holocaust, one of the events that motivated Raphael Lemkin to coin the term "genocide," and the failure of people to remember the butchering convinced Hitler that nobody would mind his destruction of European Jewry. Though there is significant documentary evidence indicating that a genocide did occur, the Turkish government fiercely denies it, calls the debate an insult to its national pride, and has veiled threats of retaliation against any government or group that recognizes the event as a "genocide."

Michael Crowley wrote an excellent expose documenting the fierce lobbying that surrounds the issue in Congress. One would think that American Jewish groups, who have been so important in raising the consciousness of genocide issues and rallying around "never again", would be at the fore of those demanding recognition. You'd be wrong:
Earning a special commendation for dubious behavior is Washington's Jewish-American lobby. In one of this tale's strangest twists, the Turks have convinced prominent Jewish groups, not typically indifferent to charges of genocide, to mute their opinions. In February, Turkey's foreign minister convened a meeting at a Washington hotel with more than a dozen leaders of major Jewish groups. Most prominent groups now take no official position on the resolution, including B'nai B'rith, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (aipac), and the American Jewish Committee. The issue "belongs to historians and not a resolution in Congress," explains Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman, who outright opposes the resolution. "It will resolve nothing." But it's also clear that Turkey's status as Israel's lone Muslim ally counts for a lot, too. "I think a lot of Israelis agree," Foxman told me. (One person involved in the fight offers a more cynical explanation: "Jewish groups don't want to give up their ownership of the term genocide.'")

The Turks have also conspicuously hired some lobbyists with strong Jewish ties. Their payroll includes a Washington firm called Southfive Strategies, which bills itself as "a Washington D.C. consulting boutique with access to the White House, congressional leadership, and influential media organizations." Southfive is run by Jason Epstein, a former Capitol Hill lobbyist for B'nai B'rith, and Lenny Ben-David, an Israeli-born former deputy chief of mission at Israel's Washington embassy and a longtime aipac staffer whose previous firm, IsraelConsult, also worked for Turkey.

Some Jewish leaders, to be sure, find such realpolitik less than tasteful. "It is obscene for us, of all people, to quibble about definitions," one prominent California rabbi recently told the Jewish Journal. But, when I asked one Jewish-American aligned with the Turks whether he truly believes that genocide didn't take place, he stammered that "the verdict" is not in, before adding, "If you're asking do I sleep at night, I do."

Alan Wolfe also notes that the ADL has fired its New England Regional Director for insisting on recognizing the genocide, which led to the resignation-in-protest of several board members.

The ADL does appear to have recently flipped, issuing a statement saying that "the painful events of 1915-1918 perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenians... were indeed tantamount to genocide. If the word genocide had existed then, they would have called it genocide." But they also stress the need to avoid confrontation with Turkey, which has been one of Israel's few Muslim allies in the world.

Look, Turkey's friendship is important (for Israel and the US). But at what cost does it come? David Harris reminds us that allowing the Armenian Genocide to be held in limbo as "up for debate" doesn't bode well for those who wish to banish Holocaust denial from the realm of respectable conversation. "Picture a day," he tells us, "when a muscle-flexing Iran or Saudi Arabia seeks to make denial of the Holocaust a condition of doing business with other countries."

Jews have an obligation to the truth--on this issue more than most. Might it strain our relationship with Turkey? Possibly--though honestly, my response to them is to grow up. But in any event, there is a deep-seated ethical obligation on this issue that cannot be ignored or negotiated away. Gaining recognition of the Armenian genocide should be a top priority for the Jewish community. One cannot have "never again" when nothing is recognized to have happened in the first place.


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Anonymous said...

Thank you, David, for taking a principled stand and explaining things clearly and thoroughly. Countering genocide denial is a moral imperative, not a political one, no matter who the perpetrtors and victims may be. I encourage all to keep up with this ever-developing issue by visiting NoPlaceForDenial.com.