An open letter from the Rabbinical Center of Europe recently criticized the use of “Holocaust terminology” to describe the humanitarian crisis inflicted by Azerbaijan on ethnic Armenians in blockaded Nagorno-Karabakh. As an Orthodox rabbi, I can attest that this letter is both factually inaccurate and fundamentally misguided on ethical and Jewish grounds.
Signed by 50 rabbis, the letter argues that “expressions such as ‘ghetto’ (and) ‘genocide’ (are) inappropriate … in any kind of political disagreement.” It called on Armenians and their supporters to cease “belittling the extent of the Jewish people’s suffering … through incessantly using phrases associated with the Holocaust.” Subsequent letters by rabbinic signatories warned of violating the sanctity of Holocaust memory via its comparison to any other event.
This campaign misrepresents the facts, misunderstands the fundamental moral significance of the Holocaust, and misses a major pillar of Jewish ethics.
As Prof. Israel W. Charny, a renowned genocide scholar and the editor of the Encyclopedia of Genocide, attests, the Jewish people have no monopoly on the term “genocide” or even “holocaust.” Indeed, his encyclopedia notes that “holocaust” was used to refer to the Armenian Holocaust in 1909 (and even earlier), and “genocide” was coined in 1942 by the Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin to describe the crime that had been committed against the Armenian people by Turkey and that was at that moment being committed by Nazi Germany against the Jews.
The encyclopedia concludes that “the word [holocaust] belongs historically to all people’s suffering.”
Rejecting all use of these terms to describe contemporary suffering is itself a desecration of the holy memory of the Holocaust. Simply put, it is wrong to stop the memory of the Holocaust from helping to prevent another genocide.
Are we only allowed to use “Holocaust terminology” once six million people have been wiped out? Would we ourselves not have wanted the world to heed our WWII cries and intervene in time? If “Never Again” is merely an assertion of uniqueness, it ceases to serve the cause of prevention, for all generations and all peoples. That is the true desecration of Holocaust memory.
This desecration is all the more grave when it is being used as a tactic to enable mass suffering. After all, these rabbis do not deny that 120,000 residents of Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed enclave known to Armenians as Artsakh, are in danger of starvation because of the blockade imposed last December by Azerbaijan. They do not deny that Azerbaijan is using mass starvation for political gain – hoping to compel the flight of the population or their surrender. No one can deny that in recent days Azerbaijan launched another attack on the enclave, causing many deaths and potentially sparking a massive ethnic cleansing.
Those who would silence Armenian criticism of Azerbaijan’s actions by playing the “Holocaust card” are themselves using the Holocaust for nefarious political purposes.
Shamefully, the 50 signatories are not the only rabbis who have decided to provide a “kosher certificate” for Azerbaijan’s atrocities. The Conference of European Rabbis recently proudly announced its annual conference would be held in Baku and “graciously hosted by the President” – the dictator Ilham Aliyev. Whether the rabbis know it or not, they too are being used by Azerbaijan to show bona fides and drown out the cries of the victims.
This is the last thing rabbis should be doing. Here’s how Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, quoting his grandfather Rabbi Chaim of Brisk, defined the function of a rabbi: “To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor.”
Indeed, Judaism teaches us that the significance of our own suffering in Egypt is a moral charge to ensure that others do not suffer similarly. Hillel summed up the message of the entire Torah thusly: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”
The Jewish people have experienced global indifference to our suffering, with lofty justifications often masking the grubby true purposes – like maintaining the good graces of oil-rich dictatorships. In the spirit of Hillel’s words, let us not do the same.
For these rabbis to raise their voices on the side of the oppressor is a desecration of Jewish values. In the spirit of this season of repentance, I call on the Conference of European rabbis – or at least on individual members of conscience – to display moral courage. They should remember their true rabbinical duty, and retract their disgraceful position.