Friday marks the centennial of the start of the systematic extermination of 1.5 million members of Turkey’s Armenian community at the hands of Turkey’s ultra-nationalist government during World War I.
But as ceremonies marking the centennial are held across Armenia and abroad this week, debate still rages on whether to officially term the mass killings genocide.
Some world leaders, including President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have avoided using that term.
Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish lawyer, coined the term “genocide” in 1943 — specifically in relation to the events in Turkey during World War I — to describe any systematic, organized manner in which the killings are carried out.
Knesset member Nachman Shai of the Zionist Camp is part of a delegation that will represent Israel this week at ceremonies and memorial events in Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. He called for Israel to reconsider its position on whether the time has come to recognize the fact that an Armenian genocide occurred.
“As Jews, we must recognize it,” he said. “This is especially true during these days, when we mark Holocaust Remembrance Day. Participation in the events in Armenia is a clear and strong statement by the Israeli Knesset, which has repeatedly remembered the Armenian victims, that it is obligated to reopen the matter.”
Pope Francis recently called the events of 100 years the “first genocide of the 20th century,” drawing criticism from the Turkish government. German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined him in calling the killings a genocide.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who is Jewish, will represent the United States in Armenia for the commemoration.
Much of the reluctance to label the events a genocide is due to intense diplomatic pressure from Turkey in an already perilous diplomatic climate. It is, however, a much more complex discussion, which you can read more about in this week’s editorial.
JTA contributed to this report.