The First Genocide, A Century Later

The First Genocide, A Century Later

On April 24, nine days after the Jewish community has commemorated its losses during the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah, another ethnic-religious minority marks its own searing 20th-century tragedy.

April 24 marks the centennial of the Armenian Genocide.

The mass murders — accompanied by rapes and beatings and expulsions — that took the lives of an estimated 1.5 million members of Turkey’s Armenian community at the hands of Turkey’s ultra-nationalist government during World War I had no obvious Jewish connection. But the Armenian Genocide, denied to this day by the rulers of Turkey and labeled “The Hidden Holocaust” by people sensitive to the largely overlooked Armenian cause, was the precursor to the Holocaust. Its then-unprecedented cruelty to a defenseless people provided a template for the leaders of Germany’s Nazi government in World War II, who could cite the world’s speedy ability to forget atrocities. “Who, after all, now speaks about the annihilation of the Armenians?” Adolf Hitler is said to have dismissively asked his generals. His question is inscribed over the entrance to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Recognition of the genocide — the Armenian tragedy was part of the inspiration for Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish lawyer and anti-genocide activist who coined the term — has been for several years an issue of contention in Israel and in parts of the international Jewish community, where the subject has been treated with ambivalence.

For some who resist recognition it is a matter of historical uniqueness, motivated by a fear that acknowledging the Armenian Genocide may detract from the singularity of the Holocaust. For others, it is a political issue — Turkey, a NATO member and until recently an ally of Israel, has made clear that recognition of the Genocide will further imperil deteriorating diplomatic relations and may endanger Turkey’s small Jewish community. Several mainstream Jewish organizations, recognizing the strong strategic relationship between Turkey and Israel, opposed efforts in the U.S. Congress to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. In the last few years, though, with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, making increasingly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements, some of these groups have reversed their position.

While Turkey’s leadership since the 1920s has had no direct ties to the slaughter of Armenians 100 years ago, some of the founders of the modern state were members of the now-fabled party that organized the Genocide.

Turkey, which has denied official recognition of the Genocide or reparations to the victims’ descendants, has consistently maintained that its Armenian citizens died from famine and disease during World War I, in smaller numbers than proponents of Genocide recognition cite.

Over the decades a number of prominent Jews have called for the recognition of the Genocide, from Henry Morgenthau, U.S. ambassador in Constantinople during the war, to Nobel peace laureate Elie Wiesel. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, when he was a Knesset member, stated, “Whoever thought of the Final Solution got the impression that, when the day comes, the world will be silent, as it was about the Armenians. It is hard for me to forgive other nations for ignoring our tragedy and we cannot ignore another nation’s tragedy.”

In this centennial year, there are signs that the Jewish community is recognizing its responsibility in taking part in the Genocide recognition issue. The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra presented a concert dedicated to the centennial of the Armenian Genocide last month. In New Jersey, the Holocaust Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest recently cosponsored a joint Holocaust-Genocide remembrance event with St. Mary Armenian Church in Livingston.

This year, as in recent years, an Armenian Genocide Recognition Bill was introduced in Congress. In past years it never reached the voting stage.

Now, the issue requires grassroots Jewish support. What can we do? As members of a community that takes time every year, as it should, to honor the millions of its people murdered in orchestrated 20th-century acts of hate, we can urge members of Congress to sign the resolution this year. We can attend Genocide memorial events, and recognize that hatred of one people inevitably is a threat to all minorities, and to the very notion of freedom and human dignity.

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