An Armenian protester holds a banner reading ‘1915 never again’ as she takes part in a demonstration near the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in January.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Exhibiting his characteristic moral clarity and sensitivity, Pope Francis referred to Turkey’s brutal massacre of about 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children during World War I as genocide.
The “first genocide of the 20th century” was how the pope referred to it during a Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican to mark 100 years since the Armenian killings.
In his speech, Francis intertwined that genocide – perpetrated by Muslims against Christians – with contemporary persecution and massacres of Christians in the Middle East, Africa and Asia at the hands of Muslims.
Ahead of April 24, the Armenian Day of Remembrance, the State of Israel should follow the pope’s lead and recognize the premeditated massacre for what it was – genocide.
It was on that day a century ago that 250 prominent Armenians – poets, doctors, bankers and a member of the Ottoman parliament – were arrested in Istanbul. They were split up into groups, loaded onto trains, shipped off to remote prisons, and eventually murdered.
Over a million Armenians – particularly in Turkey’s Anatolia region – were rounded up from their homes.
Men were separated from women and children and summarily executed. Those who remained alive were deported to concentration camps in the Syrian Desert.
In areas where ammunition was in short supply, killing squads relied on whatever weapons were at hand – axes, cleavers, even shovels. Adults were hacked to pieces, and infants dashed against the rocks. In the Black Sea region, Armenians were loaded onto boats and thrown overboard. In the area around Lake Hazar, they were tossed over cliffs.
Official Israeli recognition of what happened – essentially the destruction of a civilization built up over four millennia – is important for a number of reasons.
As Francis pointed out, failing to honor the memory of those Armenians systematically murdered because of who they were amounts to concealing and denying evil. Denial allows this evil to fester, like a wound that remains untreated.
Hitler and the Nazi regime looked to Turkey’s festering moral wound for inspiration for their own genocide.
As Stefan Ihrig points out in his book Ataturk in the Nazi Imagination, “The Nazis had grown up with both the rise of the New Turkey and the Armenian Genocide and they had not forgotten either…. Nazis saw the New Turkey as vibrant and hypermodern because it was following its Fuhrer unquestionably and because it had ‘solved’ the ‘minority problem.’” Though Ataturk did not rise to power until 1920, well after the Armenian Genocide, he benefited from the ethnic cleansing that had taken place and that facilitated Turkey’s reclamation in 1923 of Anatolia after it had been taken away by the Allies after World War I. And the Nazis admired this.
They also took note of the fact that those Ottomans in power at the time of the genocide were never punished.
Beyond the moral obligation to acknowledge and denounce genocide, which applies equally to all humanity (only 20 countries have so far officially recognized the Armenian Genocide), Israel has a special duty.
Founded in the shadow of the Holocaust, the State of Israel is a living testament to the failure of the international community to prevent genocide. It was in large part out of international recognition of this failure that legitimacy for a uniquely Jewish state with its own armed forces and sovereignty was born. Israel has an obligation to live up to that legacy by using its political sovereignty to prevent genocide not just against Jews but against any group.
As a minority religious group living in a predominantly Muslim Middle East, the Jewish people are the natural allies of the region’s Christians. The Armenian Genocide is a chilling reminder of the dangers that Christians, Jews and other religious and ethnic minorities face in this part of the world. The chances of a future genocide are greater in the Middle East than anywhere. Those who deny genocide tend to be those who want to see one happen again. Iran’s mullahs are promoters of Holocaust denial who regularly vow to wipe Israel off the map.
Pope Francis has publicly recognized the Armenian Genocide. Now it is Israel’s turn.