Do you know that there are many publications in Hebrew which refer to the Armenian genocide as “Hashoa HaArmenit” or the Armenian shoah? This is because “shoah” intrinsically means extensive or cataclysmic destruction. The word became so identified with the terrifying destruction of the Jewish people and the Nazi intention to destroy all Jews everywhere that many of us retain a capital letter for the English translation of “shoah” when we are referring to this immense event of the Holocaust (capital H). But it is a mistake to think that either word –- in Hebrew or English –- is limited or “owned” by the Jewish people. In Hebrew, the word first appears in the Bible where it refers to total consumption by fire, and in English, there are many references through the ages long before the Holocaust to other holocausts, including of the Armenian people in the genocide by the Ottoman Turks 1915 to 1922.
Should Israel have recognized the Armenian genocide many years ago? Of course. The logic, fairness, and historical accuracy of this definition are obvious to a child. Israel’s choice to play such a serious version of realpolitik of lying blatantly about a solid piece of evidence in human history because it believed it would gain favor and benefits of such favor from the Turks was, in the eyes of many of us, disgraceful beyond words.
Moreover, it was pointed out frequently that this kind of “practical thinking” would be bitterly condemned were it applied by other countries to denial of the Holocaust — we Jews have been very fortunate that from the outset the German government has taken full remorseful responsibility for the horror it imposed on the Jewish people. Even so, there are thousands of cases of denials of the Holocaust in our world, and, quite properly, we react to them with angry scorn and whatever possible retaliation. Should not the same justice be our due when we assault another people’s minds and sensibilities by denying a known holocaust of their people?
Somehow, people get used to whatever is the prevailing norm in their lives, and stop fighting back, as even their own instincts incline them to do. Thus, prejudices and discriminatory and worse destructive behaviors by the huge authorities in our lives remain fashionable, practiced and accepted. In US history, for example, slavery for many years, or McCarthyism, or elimination of basic medical insurance for millions of people, or laws restricting the right to vote.
However, what is too little realized is that abject unfairness cannot help but be registered in the conscious and unconscious minds of people in the country responsible for hurting human lives severely. And they have consequences for the lives of people.
Both America and Israel take great pride in being democracies. Their pride in being free and caring societies streams enormous strength to the spirits of their citizens, and not at all surprisingly show up regularly in the rhetoric of their military security when one is called on to fight for freedom and democracy and not only for one’s specific country. Fighters are frequently encouraged that they are fighting for liberty, dignity, and decency in this world against enemies who are pictured as destructive to humanity.
Israel’s bizarre denials of the holocaust or genocide of another people brings enormous shame on Israel and works away inside of us Israelis to reduce and complicate our pride and faith in our country. In my opinion, before long, it actually weakens our spirit and resolve and becomes an insidious source of weakening our basic ability to fight for our safety and survival.
The United States has now overcome decisively its denials of the Armenian genocide — President Biden has issued full recognition, after the Senate voted amazingly unanimously for recognition, after the House of Representatives had voted overwhelmingly for recognition.
In Israel, over the years, we have had several indications of the Knesset’s readiness to recognize the Armenian genocide — in one case, just a few years ago, a major committee of the Knesset voted decisively for recognition. Key leaders such as presidents of Israel and Knesset speakers have championed the move. Our current alternate prime minister and future prime minister has taken a firm public position for recognition: “I will continue to fight for Israeli recognition of the Armenian genocide; it is our moral responsibility as the Jewish state.”
If Not Now, When? The price we pay for grossly immoral behavior is huge and far from a smart-alecky triumph of power and cleverness. We need to be powerful, but mixed and integrated with the emphases of historic Judaism — and universal common sense — to be good to human life.
It is high time for Israel to recognize the Armenian genocide, and it will only add if such recognition is accompanied by a sensitive apology for doing so much too late. It is no crime for us to note in such an apology that Israel is always deeply aware of the terrifying destruction of Jews through the ages and in our Holocaust, and as a result understandably emphasizes policies designed to maximize its protection against future attacks against the Jewish people and sometimes can err because it is so busy protecting itself. The apology of course should then be accompanied by warm wishes for the security of the Armenian people.
In general, if Israel is to fulfill the intrinsic and historic seeking of justice to which Judaism is committed, and if it is to be an honored leader among nations, it is time for a full policy of standing with any and all people, including Muslims such as in China and Myanmar today, and including Christians such as in many countries today who are being subject to genocide.