Turkish soldier 224.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Under pressure from the Bush administration and Turkey - a key US NATO ally - the Congressional leadership recently performed an about-face on a resolution condemning as genocide the mass slaughter and wholesale deportation of Armenian men, women and children nearly a century ago by Ottoman Turkey.
The Jewish community has been deeply divided over the moral quandaries raised by this resolution. It has brought into play Turkey's role in supporting US military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel's military alliance with the Turks, the relationship between Israel and American Jews, the Jewish memory of the Shoah - and our anguished moral consciences.
The moral question seems to have a clear-cut answer. Jewish tradition reflects a potent strain of ethical idealism, an absolute commitment to principle - even to the point that the consequences be damned. Maimonides exemplified this when he ruled that "if pagans should tell [the Jews], 'Give us one of yours and we shall kill him, otherwise we shall kill all of you,' they should all be killed and not a single Jewish soul should be delivered."
But there is another major stream in Jewish tradition which emphasizes that the Torah was given so that we may live by it. It implores us to choose life, raising the demand to save lives above virtually all the other commandments - pikuah nefesh. The Jewish commitment to the absolute inviolability of the individual and to human rights can be summed up by an ancient, non-Jewish aphorism: Do justice, urged the Romans, even though the heavens may fall.
But we live in a time in which the falling of the heavens is far from a remote possibility. If we gaze at the history of the past century, up to the present moment, we bear witness to a dark panorama of butchery, war, terrorism and genocide. The heavens have fallen - time and time again. And justice has, all too often not been done.
We Jews have been among the greatest victims of such barbarity. But we are hardly its only victims. Before the Holocaust of WWII there was another genocide, of over 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915-17. The Allied governments of Britain, France and Russia condemned the Ottoman government for committing "crimes against humanity and civilization," the first time such language had ever been invoked (the term genocide had not yet been coined).
The US, seeking to avoid involvement, refused to join the Allied declaration. Despite America's wish to be celebrated as a global beacon of human rights and liberal democracy, the US has often failed to speak out against genocide, or even to take modest risks to stop it in concert with our allies. Nor have the Europeans done much better, for all their commitment to peace, international law and human rights.
FROM TURKEY'S destruction of the Armenians, the Nazi Holocaust, and Pol Pot's Cambodian reign of terror, to Saddam's gassing of the Kurds, the Bosnian Serb slaughter of Muslims, and the Hutu evisceration of the Tutsi, America, and often its allies, failed to invest real capital into stopping genocide. Indeed, it sometimes even directly or indirectly aided those committing it. Samantha Power documents this sordid tale in her path-breaking book, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.
More recently, the US has failed to lead the UN Security Council (or given the UN's impotence in the face of Chinese oil investments in Sudan), NATO, the G-8 and the African Union, to take stronger action to halt the continuing atrocities in Darfur. Such steps include targeted sanctions against Sudan for obstructing the deployment of the multinational force, provision of NATO logistical support, equipment and additional funding necessary to provide the force with the capacity to defend itself against attacks by armed groups and to protect civilians. America stopped the horrors in Serbia and Bosnia; it can stop them in Darfur.
AGAINST THE backdrop of this sorry chronicle of moral bankruptcy, it behooves Washington to at long last to formally recognize the Turkish genocide of the Armenians. America bears a heavy moral obligation to do so.
And yet - must America do justice now even if the heavens will fall?
The Armenian genocide is not unfolding today; it is nearly a century old. Were it happening today, there would be no harm to American interests which could justify our failure to lead or participate in effective international intervention - from potent economic sanctions and the promise of war crimes tribunals and a willingness to arrest and try the perpetrators, to the deployment of a NATO-led or other multinational armed force.
But today several hundred thousand American troops are fighting deep in Iraq and Afghanistan, heavily dependent on Turkey to permit the transfer of weapons and material necessary to prevent an even greater loss of life. The removal of Turkish cooperation - a realistic prospect - could also prolong the presence of large numbers of US troops in Iraq.
Whatever American liberals believe about the justice of these wars - the war against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan is surely a just war, even if the Iraq war is not - if we hold dear the value of human life, we cannot remain indifferent to the jeopardy into which an untimely public recognition of the Armenian genocide would place American forces, along with Iraqi and Afghani civilians.
But it gets worse. Kurdish separatist guerrillas are attacking Turkish forces in Turkey, which is threatening to invade Iraq, a step which could draw Iran into the breach and further destabilize the Iraqi government. The guerrilla attacks, coupled with Turkish estrangement from the US, could strike the match that sets alight a great tinderbox, sparking a regional firestorm into which US forces could be drawn. And you thought the Iraq war was already going badly?
It gets worse still. Turkey is Israel's closest military ally in the Muslim world. Turkish military cooperation is vital to Israel's self-defense against Iran and Syria. A serious degradation in relations between Turkey and the US or Israel would represent a blow to Israeli deterrence, exposing Israel to greater security threats from Iran and Syria, increasing the risk of war with Israel.
We Jews bear a profound moral duty to recognize the genocide of the Armenians. The United States too must right its own historic wrong. But not when there is grave danger that the heavens may fall.
We must minimize harm to human lives here and now, and urge our leaders to take a courageous moral stand on historical truth when the cost to innocent lives, and world peace, is more bearable. This, I believe, the victims of genocide would themselves demand.
The writer, based in New York City, is national executive director of Ameinu: Liberal Values, Progressive Israel. www.ameinu.net