Israel, Turkey, and a small matter of genocide

When it comes to recognizing the Armenian genocide, it’s not only about taking a moral position, but also about knowing one’s own history.

As recently as April 2021, current Foreign Minister Yair Lapid stated: ‘I’ll continue to fight for an Israeli recognition of the Armenian genocide.’  (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
As recently as April 2021, current Foreign Minister Yair Lapid stated: ‘I’ll continue to fight for an Israeli recognition of the Armenian genocide.’
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

In a recent article for The Jerusalem Post, Yonah Jeremy Bob explored the prospects for a high-stakes rapprochement between Israel and Turkey. Notably missing from the otherwise excellent analysis is what should have been a big elephant in the room, but is obviously not: a possible recognition by Israel of the Armenian genocide.

For someone not cynical enough to know the ways of politics, it might be surprising that Israel so resists such a move: after all, the most prominent members in the Israeli government, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, pushed quite strongly in the past for recognition of the Armenian genocide.

As recently as April 2021, Lapid stated in response to US President Joe Biden’s recognition of the Armenian genocide that this was “an important moral declaration… I’ll continue to fight for an Israeli recognition of the Armenian genocide. This is our moral responsibility as Jews.” Bennett expressed his support in 2018 for an official Israeli recognition of the Armenian genocide, when this was brought to the Israeli parliament, and so has Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar.

On the “leftist” side of the coalition government, the current head of the Labor party, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, was one of the parliament members behind a bill in 2018 to recognize the Armenian genocide; this also has been the traditional position of dovish Meretz party. But passionate causes from the opposition can become non-issues when you are in government and are compelled to consider national interests in the realm of realpolitik.

Bob’s article details many of these interests, in particular possible Israeli-Turkish collaboration in a joint natural gas pipeline to Europe. Indeed, the war in Ukraine and Europe’s need to overcome its dependence on Russian gas and other energy sources might give a new boost to this potential Israeli-Turkish collaboration, and thus might only bolster the traditional Israeli refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide.

 Minister of Justice Gideon Saar speaks at a swearing in ceremony for newly appointed judges at the President's residence in Jerusalem, on March 6, 2022. (credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90) Minister of Justice Gideon Saar speaks at a swearing in ceremony for newly appointed judges at the President's residence in Jerusalem, on March 6, 2022. (credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)

Beyond the meekness begat by Israel’s reluctance to (further) upset Turkey, the government’s position on this little matter of genocide also attaches to a misplaced perception among policymakers that recognizing the Armenian genocide would somehow make the Holocaust appear less unique.

It might surprise readers, but the fact is that officially Israel has not recognized any genocide other than the Holocaust so far. Not Rwanda. Not Bosnia. Not Cambodia. Nothing. This fact is deplorable enough, but it is also through the prism of Jewish history itself that the Armenian genocide is unlike any other.

Armenians and Jews share strikingly similar historical legacies: for hundreds of years they formed exile communities that lived as minorities among majority populations, often suffering persecution and discrimination while at the same time enjoying episodes of prosperity and enormous creativity, which allowed them to preserve and foster astonishingly rich cultures. 

In the 20th century, both peoples were victims of two of the most extreme genocides in human history, yet despite the deep trauma they managed to recover and eventually regain their political independence.

These legacies are not only similar but also bound together. As recent scholarship has shown, the Armenian genocide was an important precedent to the Holocaust: the Nazis openly discussed – and drew inspiration from – the “Turkish model” of a final solution to the “Armenian question” in their thinking of a solution to the “Jewish problem.”

Nothing perhaps symbolizes this deep connection between Armenian and Jewish history more than the fact that the most famous novel on the Armenian tragedy, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, was originally written by the Jewish writer Franz Werfel to warn against Hitler’s rise to power, and served as an inspiration for the Warsaw Ghetto fighters during the Holocaust.

No less importantly, Raphael Lemkin, the Jewish-Polish lawyer who coined the term “genocide” while most of his family was being murdered by the Nazis, and who did more than anyone else to bring about the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, referred to the Armenian genocide as a constitutive moment in his journey toward identifying this crime and integrating it into international law.

In short, when it comes to recognizing the Armenian genocide, it’s not only about taking a moral position, but also about knowing one’s own history. But even if we restrict ourselves to pure, “realist” national interests, it is not at all clear that Israel will be better off not recognizing the Armenian genocide.

For starters, there is the warming of ties with Turkey symbolized by President Isaac Herzog’s recent trip to Ankara. Turkey is now seeking rapprochement with Israel, and also with moderate Sunni Arab nations, for its own reasons, primarily a deep economic crisis, as well as out of recognition of the failure of political Islam in the region.

There is Israel’s moral position in the US, including among Jewish organizations and especially Jewish youth. Its leadership is not trying to reward “good Israeli behavior” – and it certainly does not value craven weakness. Deft diplomacy – a deployment of shared interests in the 21st century – should smooth over ruffled feathers.

Most importantly, though, the Armenian issue is far more relevant than appears in Israel’s uphill battle to maintain the strong support of Jewish communities in the US. That support is becoming more critical by the day as Israel faces unprecedented challenges in western countries, particularly efforts to “delegitimize” it by pro-Palestinian activists, often organized under the BDS movement.

One should not underestimate the challenge this assault poses. Shifting views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in American public opinion have had a notable effect on attitudes toward Israel in the currently governing Democratic party, which receives the large majority of Jewish votes. 

The fact that some of the most important social movements in the US, most notably Black Lives Matter, have been loud and harsh in their support of the Palestinians and their condemnation of Israel, is another indication that this is a tendency that’s likely to increase in coming years.

Most devastating is a growing generation gap. While the connection to Israel remains an important aspect of Jewish identity in the US, Jewish youth are increasingly distancing themselves from Israel, mostly because of Israel’s conduct toward the Palestinians.

This tendency has recently been exacerbated by multiple reports from human rights organizations accusing Israel of enacting a version of apartheid against the Arabs under its rule. The comparison is highly problematic, but so is the reality on the ground.

In such an environment, Israel would be wise to seize an opportunity for moral high ground – to do the right thing. This is where Armenia comes in.

Even before Biden’s recognition of the Armenian genocide, major Jewish-American organizations that in the past lobbied for Turkey in Washington (on behalf of Israel) changed their position, whether because of the deterioration of relations between Israel and Turkey or for moral reasons. Biden’s recognition has further pushed these organizations not only to support a wider recognition of the Armenian genocide, but also to call on Israel to recognize it.

Israel’s prospects of recovering its image among Democrats, including Jewish youth, depend to a significant extent on its ability to regain its moral stature among these audiences. Changing quite blatantly immoral positions on issues unrelated to the Palestinian matter – from selling military equipment to ruthless regimes to its refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide – might help in this task. In the long run this might prove to be more important than the most profitable collaboration with Turkey.

The writer, who specializes in genocide studies and political theory, teaches at the University of Haifa. He is the author of Hannah Arendt and Participatory Democracy: A People’s Utopia, and serves as a research fellow at the Weiss-Livnat International Center for Holocaust Research and Education.