Armenia and Israel

The Republic of Armenia is a tiny, landlocked, militarily weak country in the post-Soviet Transcaucasus with few important natural resources and a population of only about three million. It recently accorded official recognition to Palestine and Israel reacted with predictable consternation. But on the face of it, why should anybody care? The list of countries that recognize the latest Islamic failed state is already long. If Armenia, a country with little political or economic power, wishes to join the party, so what? But I think the Armenian case is interesting and worth thinking seriously about.

The first item of interest for Jews and Israelis is not so much what Armenia has, as what it doesn’t have: the country has no indigenous Jewish community. All its four neighbors, by contrast, do: in Georgia, to the north, Jewish life has flourished without interruption for two and a half millennia. There are Hebrew inscriptions, including one from the pre-Christian capital, Mtskheta. The capital, Tbilisi, has three active synagogues and a Jewish museum. Most Georgians belong to their national branch of the Orthodox Christian church; but Armenians and Muslims also coexist peacefully in Georgia. Georgians take justifiable pride in a history from which anti-Semitism is absent. Armenia’s three other neighbors are Muslim: there are old Jewish communities to its east in Azerbaijan; to its south, in Iran; and to the west, in Turkey. Iranian Jews have their own dialect, Judeo-Persian, which is written in Hebrew letters. There is a treasure trove of illuminated manuscripts of religious and secular content in the language. Iranian Jews have an extremely rich culture, and have always been part of the fabric of Iranian life, from the legend of Queen Esther in the days of the Achaemenian dynasty, four centuries before Christ, down to the reign of the last Shah in the late 20th century. Jews in Azerbaijan speak a variety of Turkic and Iranian dialects: the community of rural “Mountain Jews” is unique in our diaspora. Jews have lived in what is now the Republic of Turkey for millennia, long before Asia Minor was a Roman province, and now range from Sephardic Ladino-speakers in the west to speakers of Arabic in the southeast.

According to the Classical Armenian historian Moses Khorenatsi, whose dates are disputed but whom one would place in the ninth or tenth century AD, king Tigran II, the Great, whose short-lived empire existed in the first century BC, conquered much of the Near East, including the northern part of the Land of Israel. He built a new capital, Tigranakert— which probably stood not far from modern Amida/Diyarbakir, in southeastern Turkey— and settled thousands of Jews there. In the fourth century AD, according to the historian Pawstos, who was writing a century later, there was a substantial urban Jewish population that presumably had grown from the days of Tigran: he reports that the Sasanian shah Shapur II deported tens of thousands of Jews from Armenia to Iran. But thereafter there is nothing.

The Armenians began their mass conversion to Christianity over the fourth century, absorbing many words from the Christian Aramaic dialect, Syriac, into their own language. Some of these either have a distinctly Judaic flavor, or derive from earlier Jewish usage unconnected to Syriac: Saturday is shabat and Friday is urbatErev (Shabbat)! Christian communion bread is mas, from Matzah. A shop is khanut; a table is seghan (from Hebrew shulchan); and dry land is tsamak, Hebrew tsomeq. There are many more examples, including, significantly, gaghut, “Diaspora”, from Hebrew galut. The Armenian diaspora over the centuries has been as widespread as our own. Although 19th-century philologists tended to associate Armenian loans from Semitic languages with trade and money, that emphasis was guided by prejudice rather than science. The scope is much wider; and perhaps some of the Jewish community in Armenia that remained after the depredations of the long war between king Arshak II and Shapur became part of the nucleus of the nascent Christian community, as was the case in Anatolia, where the Apostle Paul had preached.

St. Mesrop Mashtots invented a phonetic alphabet of remarkable precision and clarity for Armenian in the fifth century: the Soviets introduced and enforced spelling reforms but otherwise it has changed little to the present day. St. Mesrop’s hagiographer Koriun (the name is Hebrew and means “lion cub”, as in David ben Gurion) compared Mashtots to Moses bearing the tablets of the Ten Commandments. When the Armenians fought back against the Sasanian campaign to reconvert them back to Zoroastrianism in 451 AD, the historian Yeghishe (the Armenian form of Hebrew Elisha) likened the Christian martyrs and their commander, St. Vardan Mamikonian, to our Maccabees. But despite these distinctly Old Testament models of Armenian, there is no trace of an enduring Jewish community, save for one medieval Jewish cemetery in the village of Yegeghis. Aside from the inscriptions, we know nothing of the people interred there or of the origins, history, character, or longevity of the community that maintained the cemetery. Professor Michael Stone, a renowned scholar and old friend who pioneered Armenian studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, studied the Jewish cemetery of Yegeghis and co-authored a recent monograph on it.

Armenian identity has been inextricably intertwined with Christianity, in particular to the national church, for seventeen centuries. Although that church traces its foundation to the Apostles Thaddeus and Bartholomew, the patron saint who converted the Armenian Arsacid kings— a branch of the Parthian royal clan in Iran— was himself a native Armenian, of the same Parthian royal lineage as king Tiridates, whom he baptized. Down to the high Middle Ages, the Catholicoi (supreme patriarchs) of the Armenian church were lineal descendants of St. Gregory. Armenian Christianity is as much an ethnic as a religious category of identity. Although today there are a few Jews in Armenia, Israel, America, and Russia of mixed Armenian and Jewish parentage, to be Armenian you must be Christian. Professor Seta Dakotan, formerly of the American University of Beirut, devoted several learned works to Armenians who converted to Islam in medieval times. Although some of these rose to great prominence in Islamic society, they ceased to be Armenian upon renunciation of their baptism. There are some Catholic (Mekhitarist) and Protestant Armenians: they attend their own churches, which non-Armenians do not attend. Just as Jews sometimes refer disparagingly to a Gentile as a goy, Armenians call a non-Armenian an otar. The word is from Iranian and is actually cognate to Sanskrit avatar, which means a divinity who has taken on human form. But the Armenian word is uncomplimentary.

Armenians are a close-knit community. Despite all the social engineering and ethnic mixing that went on in the USSR, the little Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, which existed from 1922 to 1991, remained the most ethnically homogeneous of the fifteen Republics of the Soviet Union. It had tiny minorities of Yazidi Kurds and Greeks, some Russians of course, and even a handful of Azeri Muslims: there is a small, exquisite mosque built in 1776, just off what used to be Lenin Avenue in the capital, Erevan. I met a few Jews in Erevan on a pleasant Erev Shabbat in the fall of the first full year of Perestroika, 1986. All were from Russia and the Ukraine. One, Dima Slivnyak, worked at the Matenadaran, the institute of ancient Armenian manuscripts: he had moved to Armenia from the Ukraine to escape Ukrainian anti-Semitism. Armenia was a prosperous, happy, welcoming place in those days. Later on, when the USSR dissolved, Dima and his wife made Aliyah, they took Hebrew names, and I met them again in Jerusalem.

The Armenians have often been compared to the Jews. Both can be clannish and ambitious, and tend to be financially and professionally successful in their diaspora communities. The Armenians church is completely independent of all other Christian denominations, with its own particular liturgy, rituals, and feast days, even a distinct architectural style. Unfortunately, they also share with us a legacy of isolation, exile, and tribulation. Christian Armenia became an island in a Muslim ocean, and was often submerged, losing its freedom and being subjected to various degradations. These culminated in the Genocide of 1915.

The reformers of the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 20th century planned a monolithic Turkish state and regarded Armenian nationalism as an existential threat to be overcome by the annihilation of the Armenian people, most of whom lived in Ottoman Turkey. World War I provided a cover and pretext for the premeditated deportations and massacres that followed. It was a coordinated, industrialized slaughter. The word genocide was to be coined only a generation later, by Raphael Lemkin; at the time, Turkey’s German allies proposed that the perpetrators call it a jihad and enlist the aid of other Muslim populations. Some Armenian villages on the slopes of Musa Dagh, the Mountain of Moses, refused the deportation order and resisted the regular army till they could be rescued by the French Navy. But about one and a half million Armenians were murdered; most of the rest, driven into exile. The part of Armenia ruled by Russia raised a citizen army and fought back the Muslim invaders in 1918. That surviving sliver of the ancient land became the Armenian SSR four years later.

As Hitler rose to power in Germany, a German-speaking Czech Jewish writer named Franz Werfel published his novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, as a chronicle and a warning. It became an international bestseller, though it did not deter the Nazis. During the war, it was widely read in the ghettoes of Warsaw, Vilna, and other cities; and in the Land of Israel the last stand planned on Mt. Carmel was to be called Operation Musa Dagh. Later on, the Zionist movement appropriated the native story of Masada as a replacement for Musa Dagh.

During World War II, Soviet Armenians fought bravely in the ranks of the Red Army to defeat Hitler. The nationalist, anti-Communist Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnak, for short) included fascist sympathizers and had been responsible for the assassination in December 1933 of an Armenian archbishop in New York whom it perceived as pro-Soviet. Two Dashnak leaders, Nzhdeh and Dro Kanayan, organized an Armenian unit in the army of Nazi Germany. Hitler did not like Armenians, although a professor named Artashes Abeghian had published a book attempting to prove Armenians were racially pure “Aryans”. The Armenian unit saw little front-line action, and some joined it to avoid being sent to concentration camps as Soviet POWs and tried to escape back to the Russian lines.

After the war, the New York American-Armenian writer Avedis Derounian, who had infiltrated American Nazi organizations under the name John Roy Carlson, traveled to the Middle East. He did not have to conceal his identity during the Arab-Israeli conflict: there were large Armenian communities existing peacefully in all the Arab front-line states. After the 1948 war Derounian published a book about his adventures, From Cairo to Damascus, in which he predicted that radical Islam would prove to be a much greater threat to world civilization and human liberty than Stalinism. This was a bold pronouncement in the days of McCarthyism and Red baiting.

Derounian visited the nascent State of Israel at the end of his Middle East journey, and in his book he expressed somewhat wistfully the hope that a future free Armenia would look like the secular, liberal, part-socialist polity of Israel.

My first job was at the Armenian Diocese in downtown Manhattan, and I met Derounian, who spent his days quietly at the B’nai Brith library. The Dashnaks had co-opted the Red scare to their own ends and used it against Derounian, who was a broken man. His legacy is beginning to be recognized.

Armenia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union was nothing like what he had hoped for. In his policy of divide et impera, Stalin had given two Armenian regions to Turkic Azerbaijan. One, the exclave of Nakhichevan, bordering on Turkey, was ethnically cleansed of Armenians, who had inhabited it since time immemorial. The other, Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh), also anciently Armenian, became an “autonomous” enclave within Azerbaijan. When the Soviets vanished, long-dormant ethnic hatreds flared into regional war.

Israel, allied with Turkey, succumbed to pressure by the latter to deny official recognition to the Armenian Genocide. The official government Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, scrupulously avoids any mention of it. Azerbaijan sells Israel gasoline and lets it use listening posts and air bases near its border with Iran. In return, Israel has supplied Azerbaijan with high-tech weaponry in its war with Armenia.

Two years ago, Azerbaijan defeated Armenia in the region of Artsakh. Its propaganda ministry distributed essays ostensibly written by Azeri Jewish leaders denouncing Armenians as the worst anti-Semites since Hitler. These were duly printed in Diaspora Jewish publications like Tablet. Azerbaijan then blockaded what was left of Armenian Artsakh for nearly a year: people collapsed and died of starvation while waiting in queues for bread. Last year, Azerbaijan conquered the last Armenian stronghold, Stepanakert. The entire population fled to Armenia in one day, many on foot, abandoning their few possessions in the ditches in panic. Nobody, including Armenia’s ostensible ally Russia, lifted a finger to help. Putin was angry that Armenia’s president, Mr. Pashinian, had been making overtures to NATO powers in the West.

Since the war, Azerbaijan has demanded that Armenia let it open and control a highway across Armenia’s southern Zangezur corridor to the exclave of Nakhichevan. This would cut Armenia in two and enable Turkey and Azerbaijan, now supplied with a land link, to go in for the kill. Turkey’s fanatical ruler Erdogan is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He is an opportunist in most matters, but his hatred of the Armenians is unwavering. Yet an Israeli academic shill for Baku regularly publishes essays these days demanding that Armenia be forced to build the desired highway. In another piece that redefines chutzpah, he argues that it is only reasonable that Armenia dismantle minefields in Karabagh left over from the war.

There is an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in the Armenian community that is, I suppose, common to most adherents of the Christian faith, in whose sacred history Jews play the role of deicides— even though Christ was a Jew, as were all His disciples, and it was the Romans who crucified Him. Much of the Armenian diaspora is in the Arab world, where anti-Semitism of the vilest kind is at the front and center of all political and cultural life. After Armenia became independent, many Armenians from Arab countries went there and brought their prejudices with them.

Even if Israel were not a crucial supporter of Azerbaijan and an on-again, off-again ally of Turkey, Armenia might choose to recognize Palestine anyhow. Pashinian says he’s giving a leg up to a two-state solution, though from Jerusalem it looks more like he’s jumping on the bandwagon of Jew haters rewarding Hamas for October 7th. Armenians and Jews are ancient, civilized people. We have a very long history that is intriguingly parallel at many points. But history is cunning and darkly sardonic. It all looks pretty hopeless. But…


In the rainy, cold winter of early 1993, when I was teaching Ancient Iranian and Armenian at Hebrew University, I used to go on Thursdays to meet friends— my pupil Roberta Ervine and Bishop Guregh Kapikian— for dinner in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City. Before our meeting I would often hang out with Johnny Zogby, a Christian Palestinian silversmith, in his “Syriac Bazaar”. He would serve us little cups of strong, bitter Arabic coffee. We talked as he tapped with his hammer on resplendent episcopal pectoral crosses he was repairing on the anvil. “Cheer up,” once said I. “Jesus will come back.” “No He won’t. Who would want to come back to this mess?” he replied. Tap tap tap. Another time, when I worried aloud that Jerusalem would be redivided and we wouldn’t see each other anymore, he put down his hammer and looked me straight in the eye and said with the utmost seriousness, “No. We will always be together.”

We will. All of us. So we might as well all stop being holier than thou and learn to do it. Armenians aren’t angels. They’re human. So are we. In our relations with the Armenians, we Jews aren’t the horned villains we’re made out to be by professional, university-trained haters— but we haven’t always been the good guys either. Something to think about. And thanks, Johnny, wherever you are, for your coffee and your friendship.

About the Author
Born New York City to Sephardic Mom and Ashkenazic Dad, educated at Bronx Science HS, Columbia, Oxford, SOAS (Univ. of London), professor of ancient Iranian at Columbia, of Armenian at Harvard, lectured on Jewish studies where now live in retirement: Fresno, California. Published many books & scholarly articles. Belong to Chabad.