Chiding Turkey and Israel on the Armenian Genocide

My friend Aram and I met at Columbia University, where we were undergraduates living at Carman Hall, a nondescript block of a building with hard floors, narrow halls and uncomfortable rooms—which nevertheless offered plenty of opportunities to meet people, given the fact that we, as freshmen, mostly resided in the same place. Aram was a brilliant young man with a mind for numbers, a love for the New York Jets football team and a tendency to be followed around campus by the Jewish student groups, which wanted to recruit him because they thought he was a member of the tribe. Certainly, he looked like a stereotypical Semite: swarthy, dark-haired, prominent-nosed … all the supposedly requisite Hebrew characteristics. Yet Aram was of Armenian heritage, and he almost didn’t exist because of a terrible event that occurred in the early part of the last century, an event that even today goes unrecognized among certain groups and governments, including my own.

That event was the Armenian genocide, and I can’t believe there’s still a debate going on as to whether it should be officially acknowledged.

Many members of Aram’s family were murdered during this holocaust, which was begun by the Turkish government in 1915 and resulted in the deaths of approximately 1.5 million Armenians. Aram’s grandfather’s siblings and first wife were killed, and it’s likely that my friend wouldn’t be here today had his grandfather not remarried following the genocide. Torture and starvation were regular occurrences enforced during this time by the Turkish authorities, and the Armenian population residing in the regions of the Ottoman empire was decimated.

Despite these horrors, Israel—whose government also doesn’t recognize this event as a “genocide”—is in the process of repairing relations with Turkey, and I believe there’s a lot more to fix … specifically, the need to use the appropriate moniker when officially describing the Armenian holocaust, without worrying about what other people will think. It was a genocide. Nothing less. And the idea that it’s anything else is just absurd, as well as offensive.

As a Jew whose family escaped the pogroms in the Russia-Ukraine area in the early 20th century to live in the United States, I’m outraged that the land of my ancestors—a country my mother and grandfather helped build through the raising of funds back in the day—would not take steps to label the Armenian genocide correctly in official communications. I’m outraged that its relationship with the Turkish government, which itself has done much to impugn the villainy of the era and its forebears, is more important than the recognition of the Armenian holocaust … which preceded the one the Nazis perpetrated against Jews by more than a decade. The Ottomans sought to exterminate the Armenians. Period. What’s so difficult about acknowledging that?

Plenty, apparently, if you’re an Israeli, Turkish or U.S. government bigwig. The frosting-over of high-level relations could lead to a decline in mutual investment, in tourism—both vitally important to these established economies. It could lead to complexities in navigating the vicissitudes of regional connections in the Middle East, cause conflicts, dissatisfaction. The Turkish government could be seen as being responsible for its predecessor’s actions … perhaps even liable for reparations. It would not be pleased.

I don’t give a crap. Call this out for what it is—supply the right moniker to the events of not-so-yesteryear. At some point, accountability is essential. The Turkish government needs to admit the Ottomans’ culpability in the genocide, needs to recognize it for the extermination program that it was. An entire population was targeted, almost annihilated, nearly removed from existence. That’s a genocide in anyone’s book. Turkey must accept that. And Israel must take a stand.

We Jews survived our own holocaust, in which 6 million members of our faith perished. Because of this, we have an obligation to point to others and try to stop current ones while acknowledging ones in the past. The Israeli government should not be cowed into avoiding this when it comes to the Armenian genocide. I almost didn’t have a friend because of it. I know I’m not the only one.

Aram, thank God, is still with us and is now a successful businessman with a wonderful wife and four terrific kids. I see him every so often but of course not enough, as is always the case with dear friends. And I have to admit to a bit of pride in being able to call him the latter word, as it’s a term that means so much in an age of Facebook acquaintances that we regard as something more … even if we haven’t met the vast majority of them. That suggests, to me, the importance of labels, of monikers, of appellations—and ties in to the importance of using the right one to describe the Armenian genocide. Israel has a duty to do just that, and I hope that at some point in the near future, it will. Please don’t wait too long. Please don’t let language get in the way of responsibility.

Please, Israel. You’re better than that. My friend Aram sees this.

I do, too.

About the Author
Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website. His views and opinions are his own.
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