armenian memorial 88.
(photo credit: )
As one of the first authors and editors of Myths and Facts, a Record of the Arab-Israeli Conflict I know what it means to instinctively jump to defend Israel's reputation. In the face of barrages of canards and accusations, we countered that Israel did not expel millions of Palestinians, did not commit wanton massacres, and did not use an omnipotent Washington lobby to subvert American interests in the Middle East.
I was one of the founders of HonestReporting.com, where we encouraged tens of thousands of activists to leap to Israel's defense when publications and networks failed to label terrorists correctly, blamed Israel unfairly or distorted Israel's defensive campaign to stop suicide bombing attacks.
Israel's defenders intuitively denounced and challenged the Ahmadinejads and David Irvings of the world, who denied the fact of a genocidal campaign against the Jews that we call the Holocaust. We recognize that these anti-Semitic deniers seek to delegitimize the Jewish state of Israel and lay the groundwork for another attempt to wipe out the Jewish people.
All nations have sacred memories and traditions surrounding their creation and their sacrifices. These are national legends that take on mythic proportions about the nations' founding fathers and the circumstances of the nations' formation. Sometimes, and often after difficult introspection, citizens recognize that their histories and heroes are not all black-and-white, and that a true national narrative involves a rich palette of greys as well. But that realization requires a national maturation, one that also demands the cognitive involvement of all parties to the narrative.
SUCH AN introspection took place among Americans in their historical narrative some 35 years ago. The publication of Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee in 1970 upset a nation used to Hollywood's version of valiant and white Indian-fighters taming the Wild West. The slaughter of Native Americans - "Indians" - and the military campaigns against the Navajos, Apaches, Sioux and Cheyenne tribes between 1860 and 1880 were eventually woven into the American historical tapestry. Finally in 2004 the National Museum of the American Indian opened on the National Mall of Washington D.C.
A similar museum to the African-American experience is still missing on the Mall. While the American public obviously knew of the history of slavery in the United States and Abraham Lincoln "setting slaves free," it probably wasn't until the release of Alex Haley's Roots and its romanticized television version in the 1970s that many Americans came to grips with the nation's racist, supremacist past.
Indeed, American historians still debate the nature of the relationship between the iconic Founding Father Thomas Jefferson and his quadroon slave and purported mistress, Sally Hemings. It is difficult for some Jefferson idolaters to fathom such a pairing. Two hundred years after Jefferson and Hemings spent time together, Hemings's descendants underwent DNA testing to determine whether Jefferson sired Hemings's children.
National legends and myths are not easily shaken.
IN ISRAEL, some of our national beliefs were stirred by the so-called new historians, who challenged many of our basic historical narratives. Perhaps the Israeli public is mature enough to examine the country's origin, but the rejection of the new historians' broad-stroke claims also reflects the failure of our Palestinian interlocutors to accept the notion that our intertwined histories are not black-and-white. Most Palestinians see no grey.
"There comes a stage in any revolutionary process when the movement relaxes its hold on the official narrative," historian Benny Morris told The Washington Post earlier this year. "The difference is that when that moment came in Israel, our long struggle with the Arabs remained an existential threat, as it still does today."
For the Palestinians, their nakba is their Truth; their "right of return" is their messianic vision; and their concept of any Jewish history in the land is that it is a total fabrication. To confront such absolutist, irredentist claims, Israel's defenders cannot afford to equivocate.
AS AN adviser for five years to the Turkish embassy in Washington, until earlier this summer, I understood why the Turkish government and people jump to deny claims that their ancestors committed a "genocide" against Armenians some 90 years ago.
It occurred during a maelstrom of battles and massacres. It was allegedly carried out by founding fathers who were bringing their country into an enlightened 20th century. And it was waged against an enemy guilty of the still unspoken crime of massacring hundreds of thousands of Muslims and thousands of Jews.
Armenians and Turks see no shades of grey, and for now, at least, demands are made only of Turkey to change its monochromatic narrative.
Israel's government and Jews in the United States must be careful when treading through the minefield of Armenian claims against Turkey. Jewish leaders in Armenia reported that they have heard local claims that Jews organized the 1915 massacres of Armenians (www.eajc.org/program-art-e.php?id=39).
There are accounts of Armenian massacres, between 1914 and 1920, of 2.5 million of Armenia's Muslim population (www.cs.utah.edu/~kagano/ermeni.htm).
Recently, Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan requested assistance in building a monument to 3,000 Azeri Jews killed by Armenians in 1918 in a pogrom about which little is known (www.tomgrossmedia.com/mideastdispatches/archives/000730.html).
AND WITHIN our own lifetime - just some 15 years ago - Armenian troops massacred hundreds of Azeri Muslims. This from Newsweek, March 16, 1992:
"Azerbaijan was a charnel house again last week: a place of mourning refugees and dozens of mangled corpses dragged to a makeshift morgue behind the mosque. They were ordinary Azerbaijani men, women and children of Khojaly, a small village in war-torn Nagorno-Karabakh overrun by Armenian forces on Feb. 25-26. Many were killed at close range while trying to flee; some had their faces mutilated, others were scalped."
Both Turks and Armenians have their grisly tales of persecution and their vehement denials of genocidal designs. It is the task of the Jewish community to express sympathy for all the victims and outrage at all the perpetrators on both sides of the conflict. The US Congress and the Jewish community should encourage historians on both sides to objectively examine what took place.
Nations mature when they can look at themselves in the mirror and see the grey, the wrinkles and the blemishes.
The writer served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Israel's Embassy in Washington.