Book explores why Israel failed to recognize the Armenian Genocide - review

Israel Charny explores how Turkey pressured the First International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide to silence talk of the Armenian Genocide.

 ARMENIAN DIASPORA members rally in front of the Turkish Embassy in Washington, after US President Joe Biden last year recognized the 1915 massacres of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire constituted genocide. (photo credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS)
ARMENIAN DIASPORA members rally in front of the Turkish Embassy in Washington, after US President Joe Biden last year recognized the 1915 massacres of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire constituted genocide.
(photo credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS)

In the spring of 1982, shortly before the First International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide was scheduled to begin in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the Turkish government demanded that the six sessions on the Armenian Genocide (out of 150 overall) be canceled, and Armenian speakers prohibited from participating. If the Israeli government, which was co-sponsoring the conference, did not comply, Turkish authorities threatened to end protection to Jews escaping from Iran and Syria through their country.

Under pressure from Israeli officials, Elie Wiesel resigned as president of the conference; Yad Vashem withdrew its offer to host the opening ceremonies; Tel Aviv University backed out as a co-sponsor; the Szold National Institute for Research in the Behavioral Sciences in Jerusalem and Hunter College of the City University of New York stopped participating; many speakers, including professors Yehuda Bauer and Alan Dershowitz canceled; donations from philanthropists dried up; pre-conference coverage in the Jewish press was curtailed; and the number of registrants shrank from 600 to 300.

Nonetheless, Israel Charny, the originator and director of the conference, decided to go ahead. The proceedings are now regarded as an important event in the development of the field of genocide studies, marking the first recognition of the Armenian Genocide in an international setting.

In Israel’s Failed Response to the Armenian Genocide, Charny, an American-Israeli psychologist, co-founder of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, author of How Can We Commit The Unthinkable: Genocide: The Human Cancer and editor-in-chief of the two-volume Encyclopedia of Genocide, revisits the conference, attempts by the Foreign Ministry to torpedo it, and issues a scathing indictment of Israel’s refusal, then and now, to officially recognize genocidal wars against other peoples.

Understandably, perhaps, even after 40 years, Charny approaches his subject with a mixture of pride and pain. Intent on setting the record straight and speaking truth to power, he steps on his analysis by going over familiar ground, repeating himself in clumsy prose, and inserting long lists of panels, presenters, book titles and extended excerpts from essays written by him and other human rights advocates in the 1980s and 1990s. And on occasion, Charny seems determined to settle scores.

Members of the Armenian community in Israel attend a demonstration against Israel’s stance on the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks outside the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem; the sign on the left reads: ‘Judaism is for acknowledgement of Armenian Genocide, the State of Israel against?’ (credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)Members of the Armenian community in Israel attend a demonstration against Israel’s stance on the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks outside the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem; the sign on the left reads: ‘Judaism is for acknowledgement of Armenian Genocide, the State of Israel against?’ (credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)

That said, serious consideration of Charny’s claim – “the basic and horrendous commonality” in all genocides, including the Armenian tragedy, should override obsessions about uniqueness and a consensus definition of the “category name” – is as urgently necessary as it has ever been.

Because he defied the Israeli government in 1982, Charny states, the rector of Tel Aviv University denied him tenure at the School of Social Work, despite favorable recommendations by the relevant committees. The decision “hurt deeply” and “may have contributed psychosomatically” to “the development of cancer a few years later.” Charny sued Tel Aviv University, was appointed a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and for a time collected a TAU pension along with his Hebrew University salary. Grateful in retrospect for being forced to choose between personal, professional and financial security and fundamental ethical values, the experience, he now believes, was “a Turkish delight.”

Charny maintains that in response to Turkey’s threats and the Israeli government’s intervention, he considered reducing the visibility of the Armenian sessions at the conference, but not eliminating them. He indicates as well, rather contradictorily, that he was convinced that “threats of this sort should never be honored to any extent whatsoever.” And then lets himself off the hook by adding that an official of the US State Department assured him, “almost without any reservation or uncertainty,” that the Turks were bluffing.

In any event, Charny makes a compelling case that the principal reason Israeli leaders opposed the conference was their determination to keep the Holocaust, the “unbearable cataclysmic tragedy” of the Jewish people, “at the ultimate untouchable apex of a hierarchy of genocidal suffering... the greatest evil ever seen in human history.” 

Wiesel, who “believed entirely – naively and, one might say, messianically – in the virtue, decency and integrity of the miraculous State of Israel,” Charny writes, warned him “not to use genocide in plural.”

When Jews deny genocide

Charny emphasizes that he is a Zionist, proud of Israel’s survival in the face of enemies determined to destroy the Jewish state, and its efforts “to achieve a secure country that is basically still largely democratic.” He also blasts Israel’s quest for exclusivity and superiority; for refusing to acknowledge “the genocidal massacre of unarmed civilian Arabs” in Kafr Kassem in 1956; for indifference toward the forced expulsion of the Rohingya in Myanmar; persecution of Uighurs in China; and “genocidal orgies” in Yemen; for arm sales to Azerbaijan, “where there are gathering storms of potential genocide;” and for recent “fascist trends,” including discrimination against non-Jewish people who are fully entitled citizens of Israel.

Irrepressibly candid and combative at age 91, Charny has thrown down the gauntlet. Whether or not they “claim to be the most important and chosen victim people,” he insists, those who have “experienced fiendish genocidal destruction” should have “heightened sensitivity and caring for others who became victims.” And it is unnecessary, unproductive and unjust for them “to continue denying hard historical facts” about the commission of brutal acts of genocide.

The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

Israel’s Failed Response to the Armenian GenocideBy Israel W. CharnyAcademic Studies Press267 pages; $26.95