Tucked away between the constant thud of children’s feet in the Jewish Quarter and the intoxicating smell of the Arab shuk is the Armenian Quarter. Almost alarmingly quiet, the calmest quarter is walled off — and those who have lived in the Old City for years are unlikely to have ever entered.
I lower my head to squeeze through the arch, and am greeted by a large square. You might see children running to the soccer field, old men playing backgammon, or maybe a priest walking to the seminary across the street. You will probably hear Armenian, but some of the young deacons might be speaking Russian. The stones are the same as those of any other quarter, but the crosses that decorate the area are uniquely Armenian. Life goes on here without most of Jerusalem knowing, even though the Armenian community is integral to the Old City.
Since I was working on a short documentary film about the Armenian Quarter, I came to know the area and its residents fairly well. Most people never even pause to think about why there are Armenians in Jerusalem in the first place — and a few friends and I decided to shine some light on that.
(Answer: Armenians have been in Jerusalem, uninterrupted, since the seventh century.)
We asked our interviewees a variety of questions — where are they from, where are their parents from, what do you like most about Jerusalem, etc. But the question that taught us the most was the following:
“What is your struggle, as an Armenian in Israel?”
Each priest whom I asked paused for moment.
“Let the world be honest,” said one. “The Armenian Genocide is a fact. Whether or not you recognize it, it happened.”
“It is the moral obligation of each nation,” the second said.
It is indeed our ethical prerogative to recognize the massacre and deportation of 1.5 million+ people. Perhaps because of our own history as Jews. But, in my opinion, we, as human beings, must award all those massacred the humanity that they were systematically denied. And Israel, as a state that prides itself on taking to the moral high ground, must take the high road not only in war, but also in its recognition of others’ suffering.
Geopolitical concerns certainly play a role here; I can’t deny that relations with Turkey and Azerbaijan certainly are important. But relations with Armenia and Israel’s Armenian community are not trivial — and, at the end of the day, Israel’s moral compass must point in the direction of recognizing the genocide that Hitler trivialized with his famous words: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Answer: we should.
It seems that we speak about it every few months in Israel. We bring it to one Knesset committee and then another. On August 1, we finally had some success — the Education, Culture and Sports Committee finally recognized the Armenian Genocide with support ranging from the far right to the far left. Certainly a step forward — but is Israel, as the first priest said, being honest with itself?
I’m very pleased with Israel for finally partially recognizing the Armenian Genocide, but it’s not enough. The Armenian community is waiting for the recognition of the decimation of its people. The quietest quarter of Jerusalem has a history that deserves to be spoken about in every state that holds itself to a moral standard.