Israel and Armenia: Parallel Experiences, Divergent Interests  

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin with Armenian President Armen Sarkissian in Jerusalem, Jan. 26, 2020. (Credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM, GPO)
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin with Armenian President Armen Sarkissian in Jerusalem, Jan. 26, 2020. (Credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM, GPO)

Genocide, centuries of subjugation, unique peoplehood, dispossession from their ancestral lands, sprawling global diasporas, and extant conflict with neighbors. These are only some of the similarities which begin to describe striking parallels between the Jewish and Armenian people. 

Yet, despite what should be a natural solidarity between both groups, what has instead emerged is constant discordant pursuits and a shaky relationship between their respective polities. In essence, Israel’s realpolitik interests have trumped what should have in a vacuum been an affinity that’s inherently apparent.

This clash has most visibly taken form in two ways: one, Israel’s refusal to formally recognize the Armenian Genocide; two, its arming of Azerbaijan, with whom Armenia has a nearly three decades long conflict over the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as being part of Azerbaijan but is de facto controlled by ethnic Armenians. 

With the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict flaring up to a crisis level in recent weeks, Armenia was not able to look the other way with regards to Israeli weapon sales to Azerbaijan, and in protest withdrew its ambassador mere months after finally establishing a diplomatic correspondence to the country.

As was expressed in a quote widely attributed to former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.” The same is true for Israel, except here there was never friendship or enmity to begin with; only interests which have caused a passive neutrality vis-a-vis Armenia, while pushing it to befriend Azerbaijan. 

For the diasporic American Jewish community, particularly in areas such as Southern California where large numbers of Jews and Armenians live together, empathy for the Armenian community is natural. Many Jewish figures, such as US Representative Adam Schiff whose congressional district includes Little Armenia and other largely Armenian populated areas of Los Angeles County –, have been among the staunchest advocates for US recognition of the Armenian Genocide. 

In addition to a common experience of genocide, both Israel and Armenia conceive themselves as revived sovereigns amid millennia of foreign conquests and imperialism.

For Israel, the biblical and pre-common era period were marked by invasions and hegemony from the Assyrians, neo-Babylonians, and Seleucid Greeks; in the common era, it was most notably marked by the Roman plunder of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and the subsequent dominion of the Byzantines, various Islamic caliphates, Crusaders, Ottomans, and British in what had for the most part become a dwindled Jewish presence. For Armenia, this was subjugation to numerous empires such as Persia, Rome, the Russian Empire, Ottomans, and the Soviet Union. 

Moreover, Jews and Armenians both have a sense of ancient particularistic identities. Israel was the first nation to bring forth the concept of monotheism to the world; its religious and ritualistic components have gone hand-in-hand with its sense of nationhood; much of Jewish ritual is predicated upon separation from surrounding peoples; its alphabet and language are unique to it; and its “ancient Israel” nostalgia dates back to the reigns of King David and his son Solomon 3,000 years ago, marked by the unification of the monarchy, consecration of the Temple, tranquility, and large territorial control. 

Armenia similarly has a relatable dynamic. In 301 AD, Armenia became the first country to establish Christianity as its state religion when Tiridates III, the king of Armenia, converted to Christianity. In addition to being the first such country to embrace the faith on a nationwide level, the Armenian Apostolic Church has from inception remained distinct from the Eastern Orthodox Church, and adherence to it is intrinsically linked with Armenian national identity, where it is a state religion to this day. Armenians also have a strong history of isolation from their neighbors in their admixture, and, like Hebrew, use an alphabet and language not shared by other peoples. Its nostalgic sense of “ancient Armenia” goes back to Tigranes the Great in the first century BC, under whom Armenia was at its largest territorial and military expanse, becoming the strongest state to Rome’s east. 

Statue of Tigranes the Great in Yerevan, Armenia. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

From antiquity, dispossession from their lands has also been a defining characteristic of both peoples’ experiences. Already back in 589 BC, the neo-Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and exile of its leadership to Babylon spurred a pattern of Jewish migration which culminated in the majority of the Jewish population being outside of Judea at the time of the Roman destruction of the city centuries later in 70 CE. The latter conquest was far more devastating still: Josephus estimates that 97,000 Judeans were taken captive and over 1 million non-combatants killed in the rebellion crackdowns of the period. The subsequent foreign empires who took control of the land – as well as defining events such as the Spanish Inquisition, Eastern European pogroms, and the  Holocaust – generated an overall history of migration and vagrancy. Today, the Jewish diaspora, particularly novel by its (relatively) small population, has a presence and history through large swaths of the world. It also is larger than the population of Jews in Israel.

In the case of Armenia, the aforementioned hegemonies of surrounding neighbors over their lands has also caused large-scale dispossession. The sizable Armenian diaspora in Iran, for instance, dates back to Persian control when Shah Abbas forcefully relocated 500,000 Armenians from Nakhchivan (present-day Azerbaijan) to an area of Isfahan called New Julfa during the Ottoman-Safavid War of 1603-1618. Moreover, the empires which clashed for control over Armenian-inhabited lands caused realities such as the partition of Eastern and Western Armenia for centuries, with the Persians and then Russians controlling the former and the Ottomans the latter. 

The Vank Cathedral, established in 1606 by by newly arrived Armenians relocated from Nakhchivan, located in the New Julfa district of Isfahan, Iran.

The most notable act of dispossession and dispersion of Armenians in the modern era was the Armenian Genocide just over a century ago, when Ottoman Turks marched the Armenians of their eastern provinces in death marches across the Syrian desert. There they were subject to starvation, illness, mass shootings, and attacks from Kurdish and Turkish irregulars with Ottoman connivance, resulting in the deaths of at least 664,000 and possibly as many as 1.2 million people. The hundreds of thousands of Armenians in Syria, Lebanon, France, the United States, and other countries primarily descend from survivors of this event. Armenia, too, has more Armenians in diaspora than in the country itself. 

Finally, historical, contemporary, and survivalist conflicts with neighbors over historical lands marks both peoples’ experiences. 

For Israel, this was true from the moment it declared independence on May 14, 1948, when the following day five neighboring Arab armies, along with internal Arab Palestinian battalions, declared war upon the fledgling state. A nation that consisted of many people who had just survived the Holocaust, the impending threat a few years later posed another aspect to that collective trauma. The Six Day War in 1967, and especially the Yom Kippur War in 1973, were additional add-ons. While recent years have shown Israel attain military hegemony and even increased formal recognition in the region, much of its history was defined by systemic delegitimization and hostile relations from its neighbors. 

With Armenia, the national memory and scars of the Armenian Genocide cling steadfast. While it briefly attained independence after WWI in the eastern part of its lands in 1918-1920 (the western part having been retained by the Turks, as is the case to this day), the area soon became incorporated into the Soviet Union. Armenians were then subject to decades of Russification targeted at national minorities around the federation. 

After the USSR collapsed, a renewed war over the Nagorno-Karabakh region with the likewise post-Soviet nation of Azerbaijan (under whose jurisdiction the land was administered in the Soviet period) saw an Armenian victory. The de facto state that emerged, renamed the Republic of Artsakh as homage to its ancient Armenian legacy, has not been recognized by the international community and has since the war’s end in 1994 faced periodic skirmishes with Azerbaijan. Recent weeks have seen a reinvigorated push into the territory in a conflict which has killed and displaced thousands. 

Azerbaijan, like the Palestinians and Arab world historically, says that it’s in the right as it is fighting for the return of hundreds of thousands of displaced refugees stemming from the creation of the polity which has displaced them. It also similarly calls for the unconditional return of the occupied territories, which it claims is recognized by the international community and four UN Security Council resolutions. It insists that its fight is only limited to Nagorno-Karabakh (rather than “Armenia Proper”), and that it will protect the autonomous and communal rights of the Armenians therein. 

In this sense, it is akin to the status of the West Bank, which is likewise de facto controlled by Israel and is likewise deemed illegitimate by international law. Yet for both peoples, the internalized perception (legitimate or not) is that these lands represent their ancestral homeland; that the dispossession of “the other” was borne from self defense; and that a forfeiture of those lands would pose an existential threat. Assurances from the opposing side are met with nothing short of distrust, such sentiment borne from decades of bloodshed and a sense of vulnerability amid a far larger population of the out-group (Arabs in the case of Israel; ethnic Turkic people, including Azerbaijanis, in the case of Armenia). 

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Yet despite these parallels in the abstract sense, Israel’s pragmatic interests do not make it reconsider its years-long chartered course of being a loyal ally to Azerbaijan. Besides for not sharing much actual cross national history and relations (whereas, in contrast, Azerbaijan has an extant vibrant Jewish community of 30,000 and a fervently supportive Jewish diaspora in Israel as well as America), Israel also has no geopolitical inclination to favor Armenia over Azerbaijan. Israel wants peace and friendly relations with Armenia the way it does any state, and in and of itself has no interests or stakes in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. But if it must appease one at the expense of the other, it will without question be Azerbaijan. 

Street view of “The Red Town,” called Qırmızı Qəsəbə in Azerbaijani, in the Quba District of Azerbaijan. With a population of 3,598, it is believed to be the world’s only all-Jewish town outside Israel and the United States, as well as the last surviving shtetl. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Bordering Iran to its south, Azerbaijan provides a vital strategic outlet for Israel against its primary foe in the region. There’s speculation that Israel already conducts intelligence gathering from Azeri territory, and that it was planning on striking Iranian nuclear sites from there back in 2012. Regardless, it’s a key region of interest. Azerbaijan also provides Israel with 40% of its oil (especially significant considering the historical Arab, and later Iranian, boycott of Israel), and is in turn a consumer of Israel’s lucrative arms industry

Armenia shares a border to the south with Iran as well, but with its nearly non-existent relationship with Israel, it is not exactly keen to allow Israel to conduct covert operations from there; nor, frankly, could it afford to antagonize Iran. Landlocked and with its eastern and western borders blocked off by Azerbaijan and Turkey, respectively, its only border access points are through Iran and Georgia. 

In addition to its cordiality with Iran, Armenia has Russian bases in its country as well as a mutual defense pact with it, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). With its security, particularly the breakaway region of Artsakh, at constant existential risk, Armenia could hardly be blamed for this arrangement. Nor can it be blamed for not adhering to sanctions on Iran. Nonetheless, this is hardly likely to put it in the graces of the United States, which is a key backer of Israel and Azerbaijan and which seeks to limit Russian and Iranian hegemony. 

Entrance to the Russian 102nd Military Base in Gyumri, Armenia.

There is also a relatively muted pressure on Israel on the issue. In Western countries with large Armenian diasporas such as the United States and France protests and social media pressure have mainly been concentrated on Azerbaijan and Turkey. With the exception of Azeri Jews, who are overwhelmingly pro-Azerbaijan and have called on other Jews to show support as well, the American Jewish community has been decidedly quiet. On the Israeli front, the left-wing Meretz Party (which is not in government and has a mere 3/120 seats in Israel’s parliament), along with a handful of Israeli intellectuals and eccentric activists such as Elie Joseph, have come out in vocal opposition to supplying Azerbaijan with weapons. However, the public more generally – to the extent it is even aware of the conflict, which isn’t likely beyond niche circles – has hardly taken a stance. 

Among those who have, it seems to have been mostly limited to the country’s small Armenian community, which has been protesting Israel’s weapon sales and realpolitik refusal to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide for years. If anything, among the Jews who have taken to the street, many have been Azeri Jews, who have also recently clashed with Armenians in Israel

Genocide memorial in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem written in Armenian, English, Arabic, and Hebrew. (Source: my own photo, taken in January 2019)

Moreover, Israel being in Azerbaijan’s good graces keeps it from pivoting towards Iran, with which it shares a Shia majority population and historical roots. Indeed, it is precisely Azerbaijan’s amicable relationship with Israel which has in large part alienated the two countries. Iran also has a sizable ethnic Azeri minority – up to 25 percent of its population, twice the numbers of Azeris in Azerbaijan itself – which has been a source of concern for Iran which fears potential secessionist separatism within its borders. 

The sympathies of Azerbaijanis for their brethren over the Iranian border is an area which Israel undoubtedly detects as a rift between the two countries, and a source of tension which strengthens the Israel-Azerbaijan alliance (and potentially, serves as a powder keg for volatility within Iran itself). 

Lastly, it is likely that Israel’s weapon sales to Azerbaijan is as much about deterring Iran as it is about remaining in Azerbaijan’s good graces generally. While larger Western powers have remained loyal to the non-mandatory UNSC Resolution 853 and issuance from the OSCE in the early 1990s to refrain from exporting weapons to Azerbaijan due to concern of its usage against Armenians, this statute has been de facto assumed to be void since 2002. With Turkey arguably providing the most offensive military support, and actors like Russia playing both sides in weapon exports, there isn’t either a shortage of external actors funding Azerbaijan in any case. Most explicit evidence of Azeri drones have been Turkish, and Jerusalem’s official acknowledgment of weapon cooperation has been in the defensive sphere. Having an Azeri military that is modernized and capable is within Israel’s interests in terms of a Cold War-esque policy toward Iran. 

Unless the relevant interests in the region shift anytime soon, the candid reality is that Israel will continue its bilateral relationship with Azerbaijan. Common experiences in the abstract do not form relationships, anymore than the nominal similarities between Kosovo and Palestine translate to mutual recognition of each other (hint: it doesn’t). Until then, it seems that Armenia is caught at the crossroads of larger geopolitical forces at play. 

Should a newfound public pressure campaign against Israeli arms sales manifest, the most realistic demand would be for Israel to limit its support to purely defensive cooperation – at least for the time being. It’s unknown what the exact proportion of defensive vs. offensive systems are at play in Jerusalem’s exports to Baku, but Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev did confirm in a recent interview that Israeli drones were being used in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and a top foreign policy advisor of his praised Israel’s Harop drone in particular as “very effective.” 

Still, even if such a campaign were to find root, mediation from more influential world powers would be needed to avoid what has been warned to potentially become a humanitarian crisis. Azerbaijan, backed by a revamped military and widespread war fever in a nation that has become disillusioned with the peace process, will continue its advancements regardless. It is up to the world powers to bring the relevant parties to the negotiating table and lay out a concrete, implementable plan which would restore faith in diplomacy and address the core aspirations of both groups. This would likely be something which calls for the return of the occupied districts to Azerbaijan while pressing the Azeri side for compromise in the ability for the Nagorno-Karabakh region itself to have a corridor with Armenia and self-determine in one way or another while providing security guarantees.

In the past, remedial solutions to the conflict have failed due to organizations such as the OSCE Minsk Group refusing to take a firm stance and appointing low-level officials to deal with the issue, leading to the distrust which has culminated in the current trajectory. The Azeri demands for unconditional withdrawal of Armenian troops and not committing to the final legal status of Nagorno-Karabakh upfront is also unrealistic, particularly in a region where few Azeris believe Armenians would want to live side-by-side with them or are willing to accept them as neighbors. A newly invigorated peace process would need to show genuine commitment from relevant world powers (such as the OSCE co-chairs of the United States, Russia, and France), and to dismantle its position of neutrality and pursue an enforced agenda.

As for the primary outside actors of the reignited conflict, Eitay Mack, an Israeli human rights lawyer who himself opposes arms sales to Azerbaijan, notes in an op-ed on the matter: “…Care must be taken not to get carried away and focus public attention only on Israel’s ties to Azerbaijan. In this fight, Israel is only a supporting actor. The lead actor, and arguably the main perpetrator, is the madman from Istanbul.”

About the Author
A Brooklyn native, Daniel Edelstein is a Jewish issues writer, prospective law student, and Brooklyn College graduate, where he majored in political science.