The Armenians and the Jews: a look in the mirror

The other day, I happened to be in my local dry cleaners, when I heard a customer saying something to the owner, in a language that I did not understand.

“What did that gentleman just say to you?” I asked.

The owner replied: “He was wishing me a merry Christmas. It is the Armenian Orthodox Christmas.”

An awkward silence.

“You know,” I said, “I am a Jew,, and I have always felt a kinship with the Armenian people.”

He held up his hand, and said: “I know. I know.”

The poet Joel Rosenberg writes:

I count the ways we are alike

I cite the kingdoms of our former glory — which, for both of us, perhaps, had been a bit too much to handle,

As it has been ever since.

I cite our landless outposts

of diaspora, strewn close along the rivers

and the shores of human habitation

that branch outward from the founts

of Paradise. I cite our neighboring

quarters in the walled Jerusalem,

our holy men in black, our past

in Scripture, and our overlapping

sacred sites. I cite our reverence for family ties, the polar worlds of grandfathers and grandmothers…

Our Middle Eastern food, our enterprise, our reedy and Levantine tunes.

Our immigration histories, the grainy profiles

our ironic manner, our eccentric uncles. Our clustering in cities

Our cherishing of books

Our vexed and aching homelands.

Why should Jews be talking about this? Even as Armenians observe Christmas, the nation faces hostility from authoritarian Muslim neighbors. Armenian’s neighbor, Azerbaijan, still holds prisoners of war that it captured in 2020; it labors to physically eradicate all traces of Armenia’s ancient Christian heritage; and it covets control of sovereign Armenian land to establish an eastward corridor for Turkey.

So, this is a basic truth: Jews, who are another democratic minority in a Muslim region, should not be silent.

But, there is something else. Because when we look at the Armenians, it is as if we are looking in the mirror – and it is not even the sweet truth that our quarters, the Armenian and the Jewish, are adjacent to each other in the Old City of Jerusalem. (I have visited the Museum of the Armenian Genocide, in the Armenian Quarter, and found it heartbreaking – especially because I was the only one there.)

Let us go back, to more than a century ago. In the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians were seen as a foreign element in Turkish society — and, in this sense, they occupied the same place as the Jews of the Ottoman Empire.

Like the Jews, the Armenian Christians challenged the traditional hierarchy of Ottoman society.

Like the Jews, they became better-educated, wealthier and more urban.

Like Germany’s “Jewish problem” the Turks talked about “the Armenian question.”

The Turkish army killed a million and a half Armenians. Sometimes, Turkish soldiers would forcibly convert Armenian children and young women to Islam. In his memoirs, the US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau wrote that the Turks had worked, day and night, to perfect new methods of inflicting agony, even delving into the records of the Spanish Inquisition and reviving its torture methods. So many Armenian bodies wound up in the Euphrates that the mighty river changed its course for a hundred yards.

In America, the newspaper headlines screamed of systematic race extermination. Parents cajoled their children to be frugal with their food, “for there are starving children in Armenia.”

In 1915 alone, The New York Times published 145 articles about the Armenian genocide. Americans raised $100 million in aid for the Armenians. Activists, politicians, religious leaders, diplomats, intellectuals and ordinary citizens called for intervention, but nothing happened.

The Armenians call their genocide Meds Yeghern (”the Great Catastrophe”). It was to become the model of all genocides and ethnic cleansing. It served the Nazis as a model — not only the act of genocide, but also the passive amnesia. “Who talks about the Armenians anymore?” Hitler quipped.

More than this: the way that Armenian theologians responded to the horror echoed the way that Jews responded to the Shoah.

In 1915, in the small town of Kourd Belen, the Turks ordered 800 Armenian families to abandon their homes. The priest was Khoren Hampartsoomian, age 85. As he led his people from the village, neighboring Turks taunted the priest: “Good luck, old man. Whom are you going to bury today?”

The old priest replied: “God. God is dead and we are rushing to his funeral.”

So, too, those post-Holocaust theologians, like the late Richard Rubenstein, who believed that the idea of God had perished in Auschwitz.

After the Shoah, Jews cried aloud to God: “O God, how could You do this to us, the children of Your covenant?”

After the genocide, Armenian theologians cried: “God, how could this have happened to us, for we were the first people to adopt Christianity as a state religion?”

Some Armenian Christians referred to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and asked: “Were there not even 50 Armenians who could have been saved?”

After the Shoah, Jews cried: “We must have sinned. God has used the Nazis as a club against us.” Armenians cried: “We must have sinned. God used the Turks as a club against us.”

After the Shoah, Jews pondered: “The ways of God and of evil are unknowable.”

So, too, the Armenians: “It is not understandable in human terms. God’s ways are not our ways. It is all a very great mystery now, but in heaven we will find the answers to our many whys.”

Some Jews have wanted to hoard the concept of genocide: “What happened to the Armenians was not as bad as the Holocaust!’”

True, but that is an extremely high and ghastly bar to set. No genocide has approached the scale of the Shoah.

Not all genocides are created equal.

Jews were killed wherever they lived in Europe; by contrast, Armenians outside of Armenia were relatively safe.

Antisemitism is a deep, pervasive moral illness; by contrast, there is no such thing as “anti-Armenianism” in the collective psyche of the world.

But, if Jews do not allow the world to compare the Holocaust to other genocides, then its relevance to the world will wither.

And when that happens, Jews would be inflicted by moral laryngitis, losing their ability to speak truth to the world.

We Jews wish our Armenian friends and neighbors: Շնորհավոր Սուրբ Ծնունդ. A blessed Christmas.

I hope to return to Jerusalem this summer. Among my first stops will be the Armenian Quarter – to admire the crafts, the pottery – and yes, as I always do, to study the maps on its walls that tell a story of darkness that mirrors our own.

About the Author
Jeffrey K. Salkin is the rabbi of Temple Israel in West Palm Beach, Florida, and a frequent writer on Jewish and cultural matters. He also blogs frequently at Martini Judaism: for those who want to be shaken and stirred, published by Religion News Service.