Israel’s murky relationship with recognizing the Armenian genocide - analysis

While the Armenian genocide was a precursor to the Holocaust, there were also other Jewish connections to the tragedy of 1915.

 MK Mossi Raz at the ceremony marking the Armenian Genocide, in Armenia, April 24, 2022. (photo credit: Spokesperson For MK MOSSI RAZ)
MK Mossi Raz at the ceremony marking the Armenian Genocide, in Armenia, April 24, 2022.
(photo credit: Spokesperson For MK MOSSI RAZ)

Armenians around the world commemorated the Armenian genocide on Sunday, April 24, as they do every year. Countries around the world remembered the terrible crimes that took place more than 100 years ago when Armenians were subjected to ethnic cleansing, massacre, rape, mass murder and genocide in what was then the Ottoman Empire.

Meretz MK Mossi Raz traveled to Armenia to take part in a ceremony marking the genocide. However, his voice does not represent broader recognition of the genocide among Israeli officials. While he and others in Israel have said it is Jerusalem’s duty to commemorate the massacres of Armenians that took place 100 years ago, there are murky historic reasons that stopped Israeli governments from recognizing the genocide.

US President Joe Biden issued a statement that the commemoration of the genocide marks the April 24, 1915, deportation of Armenian intellectuals, which signaled the beginning of the genocide.

“Thus began the Armenian genocide – one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century,” the statement said. “Today, we remember the one and a half million Armenians who were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in a campaign of extermination, and mourn the tragic loss of so many lives.”

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement to honor “the memory of the victims of the Armenian genocide – one of the darkest chapters in human history.” Toronto’s mayor attended events relating to the remembrance.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits the Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum in Yerevan, Armenia October 13, 2018. (credit: REUTERS/Melik Baghdasaryan/Photolure)Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits the Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum in Yerevan, Armenia October 13, 2018. (credit: REUTERS/Melik Baghdasaryan/Photolure)

California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a proclamation declaring April 24, 2022, as “A Day of Remembrance of the Armenian Genocide.”

In Israel, there was no official recognition of the genocide. This is despite the efforts of Israeli lawmakers and activists going back decades who have sought to have the Jewish state recognize the mass murder of Armenians.

It would seem natural for Israel to commemorate the genocide since it is a state in part built by survivors of the Holocaust. It is well known that the perpetrators of the Armenian genocide largely escaped justice and that Adolf Hitler believed he could get away with his crimes because nothing had been done for the Armenians.

Researchers have noted that the racist attitudes and nationalist extremism that led Turkish extremists in the Ottoman Empire to target minority Armenians helped inform the policies of fascism and Nazism.

While the Armenian genocide was a precursor to the Holocaust, there were also other Jewish connections to the tragedy of 1915. Henry Morgenthau, the US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during World War I, was outspoken about the persecution of Armenians, Greeks and other minorities by the Ottoman Turkish leadership.

This means that Jewish voices have been at the forefront of documenting the massacre of Armenians. Yet, 100 years later, some in Israel still cannot get official recognition.

THERE ARE complex reasons for why the genocide is not commemorated officially in Israel. First of all, many countries have only recently begun to officially recognize the genocide with proclamations and official days to memorialize it. The White House, for instance, refused for many years to recognize the genocide because of pressure from an active Turkey-backed lobby in Washington. Turkey has bankrolled lobbyists, academics and media to try to prevent recognition.

Biden was the first to finally recognize it last year, standing up to Ankara’s bullying and threats. Today, some 33 countries recognize the genocide. Most of the countries that recognize the genocide are in Europe and the Americas. Most recognized the genocide in the last two decades.

This means that Israel is now becoming an exception among Western countries, although its lack of recognition is normal in the southern hemisphere and parts of the Middle East.

Israel’s initial reasons for not recognizing the genocide had to do with close relations between Ankara and Jerusalem. This relationship also had the effect of generally making some Armenian activists more pro-Palestinian.

It is worth considering that Israel also has close relations with Azerbaijan. Pro-Azerbaijan writers have often tried to portray Armenia as being behind atrocities against Azeris, creating multiple layers of genocide accusations, with each side trying to get Israel and Israeli media to recognize different claims.

Turkey over the last two decades has become one of the most outspoken anti-Israel countries under the leadership of the far-right AK Party. In 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan compared Israel to Nazi Germany at the UN.

When prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in charge in 2018, he stood up to Erdogan’s comments of hate, accusing Turkey of “massacring Syrian and Kurds” after Erdogan compared Israeli leaders to Hitler.

The anti-Israel rhetoric from Ankara led some Israeli lawmakers to begin to consider recognizing the Armenian genocide. On the Israeli Left, there have been voices long supportive of recognizing the genocide. These include Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg, who submitted a bill in 2018.

In the past, Yair Lapid and Gideon Sa’ar appeared to support recognizing the genocide. Lapid even tweeted recognition in 2020. Last year, some MKs, including from Shas and Likud, submitted a bill to recognize the day.

However, in Israel, recognition of the genocide is always political. When the Likud was in power, it would find a way to stop Knesset recognition from moving forward, and now it appears the current government does the same.

This is likely due to a desire not to “offend” or “provoke” Turkey. Ankara has pretended it wants reconciliation with Israel. The logic dictates that “offending” Ankara, even though Ankara has compared Israel to the Nazis, is a step too far. Recognition of the Armenian genocide might “offend” Turkey.

Apparently, it is okay to offend Israel by comparing it to the Nazis, the Nazis who put Jews in gas chambers, but Turkey must never be offended. This logic dictated how the US was fearful of Turkey for a whole century as it pressured American presidents to never mention the word “genocide.”

Indeed, Turkey’s current leadership has gone to great lengths to go after independent media, dissidents or anyone who dares to “insult” it by mentioning the genocide. There are brave voices in Turkey or the Turkish diaspora who want recognition of the massacres and deportation of 1915, but Ankara’s current regime will not allow discussion. In fact, hopes that the AK Party might ditch historic denial have been dashed as the current leadership has become more right-wing.

Recognition of the Holocaust is mainstream, in part, because the country whose leadership planned and perpetrated the Shoah never tried to deny it or lobby Western countries to deny it. Jews have been more lucky historically than Armenians in this respect because the persecutors of Jews in places such as Germany have generally commemorated the crimes of the Shoah. Armenians have had an upward battle by contrast.

In Israel, politics and fear of angering Turkey continue to overshadow recognition of the mass murder of Armenians 100 years ago. It is one of the strange twists of history that Israel, which is founded as a place of refuge for Jews and where many people say “never again,” has had an uphill struggle to recognize the genocide that was a precursor to the Holocaust.

This is an example of how powerful lobbies of authoritarian regimes such as Ankara are able to overshadow not only history but modern-day, human-rights issues. With the conflict in Ukraine, we see once again how massacres of civilians can go unpunished and also how larger foreign-policy issues can get in the way of truly caring for human rights and historical fact.