Sunday, April 24, was Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. It is hard to believe, but the United States refused to recognize Turkey’s mass murder of perhaps as many as 1.5 million Armenian Christians in 1915-1916. Still, today some countries, including great democracies like the United Kingdom, Australia and Israel, as well as noted politicians and candidates for office in the United States, do not acknowledge that the Turks were guilty of one of the worst massacres of the 20th century and that the massacres constitute genocide.
Americans were not indifferent to the killings at the time. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum notes that American ambassador to Constantinople Henry Morgenthau Sr. tried to bring attention to the plight of the Armenians. Just as Americans today are responding to the mass killings in Ukraine, “the plight of the Armenians triggered an unprecedented public philanthropic response in the United States, involving president Woodrow Wilson, Hollywood celebrities, and many thousands of Americans at the grassroots level who volunteered both domestically and abroad and raised over $110 million (over $1 billion adjusted for inflation) to assist Armenian refugees and orphans,” according to the museum.
In the following decades, however, the US government said little or nothing. Since the time of president Ronald Reagan, officials occasionally made reference to the killing as genocide, and Congress made some half-hearted efforts to pass a resolution making it US policy to recognize that the Armenians had been ethnically cleansed and murdered during the First World War. Fear of jeopardizing relations with Turkey and angering citizens of Turkish descent always stood in the way.
As a candidate, senator Barack Obama pledged to recognize the Armenian Genocide, but once in office president Obama never did. And this was the case even as Pulitzer Prize-winning author and noted anti-genocide activist Samantha Power joined his campaign and pledged that Obama would be the first president to recognize the genocide.
Historically, the reason for silence was simply a matter of politics. The Turks become apoplectic anytime anyone recites the facts about the Ottoman policy of extermination – and countries that wish to have good relations with Turkey have been compelled to remain silent. Since Turkey is a NATO ally, fellow members have been especially reluctant to risk angering the Turks. Nevertheless, France, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Greece, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, and now the United States have all recognized the Armenian Genocide in some way.
Only antisemites and kooks deny the Holocaust, but no country is worried about offending the Germans, because they acknowledge their responsibility for the murder of six million Jews. The Turks, however, deny that the killings were intentional, insist it occurred in the context of war, remind everyone that Turks were also killed, and maintain that the number of Armenians who were murdered is exaggerated.
Historians, however, long ago concluded that the systematic massacres and forced deportation of Armenians committed by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1923 constituted genocide. The facts of the mass killings are established as historical and are absolutely undeniable.
One of two Democrats to vote “present” during the congressional vote to recognize the genocide was Ilhan Omar, the Minnesota congresswoman who has distinguished herself primarily by her antisemitic remarks and vitriolic criticism of Israel.
Omar’s explanation for her vote, intimating that there is no “academic consensus” about what happened, was denounced by Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, who said that she “effectively denies the Armenian Genocide” and has taken “a page from the Turkish Embassy’s denial playbook.”
Likewise, as noted above, though candidate Obama pledged to do so, the Obama administration did not recognize the Armenian Genocide during Power’s four years as UN ambassador, although after leaving office Power would admit that the Obama administration was “played a little bit” by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In April 2015 I wrote in The Washington Post, “The greatest disappointment of all is how Power has refused to challenge Obama’s broken promises to recognize the Armenian Genocide that began 100 years ago this week. In 2008, when he was campaigning and trying to attract Armenian votes, then-senator Obama famously said, ‘The Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion or a point of view, but, rather, a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable. As president, I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.”
Power, too, went to extraordinary lengths to get Armenian Americans to vote for Obama, recording a five-minute video telling them that he alone would never break his promise to recognize the Armenian slaughter – in which 1.5 million innocents died – as genocide.
Well, break promises they both did.
IT WAS not until 2019 that the House overwhelmingly (405-11) passed a resolution recognizing the genocide, rejecting the denial of the massacre, and calling for educating the public about genocide. The Senate later adopted a similar resolution by unanimous consent. Following in his predecessors’ footsteps, however, president Donald Trump rejected the resolution.
Finally, on last year’s Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, President Joe Biden recognized the mass killing and deportation of Armenians as genocide.
“Each year on this day,” he said, “we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian Genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring.” He added, “Let us renew our shared resolve to prevent future atrocities from occurring anywhere in the world. And let us pursue healing and reconciliation for all the people of the world.”
His commitment to that future is now being tested by the Russians in Ukraine, but his willingness to recognize the Armenian Genocide no doubt made it easier for President Biden to galvanize American support against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
Just as Putin rejects Biden’s classification of his actions as war crimes, so, too, did Turkish officials reject the US government’s policy after Biden’s statement. As is so often the case, however, the countries threatening us need us more than we need them. The Turks are still unhappy, but whatever tensions exist in US-Turkish relations have more to do with other issues, such as Erdogan’s authoritarian actions, purchase of a Russian missile defense system, and Turkey’s invasion of Syria and mistreatment of the Kurds.
I HAVE criticized my beloved Israel in the past for its reluctance to categorically state that the Armenian Genocide occurred. The failure to do so is particularly painful for the Armenians living in Israel (the Armenian Quarter is one of the four quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem).
I understand the politics. Israel is trying to be careful about what it says about Ukraine to avoid angering the Russians, whose support is needed to continue the air campaign against Iran’s efforts to establish a foothold in Syria from which to attack Israel. Similarly, Israel wants good relations with Turkey, which was once an integral part of its periphery strategy to form an alliance with non-Arab states.
Israel should know, however, that Turkey will act according to its interests rather than its emotions when it comes to issues that matter. Erdogan has found numerous excuses for refusing to restore full relations – though there have been positive signs recently – so he does not need another one. Thirty-one other countries have adopted resolutions, laws and declarations relating to the Armenian Genocide, and, as far as I know, Turkey has not cut off relations with countries like France, Denmark or Canada.
I also strongly encourage my good friend Dr. Mehmet Oz, candidate for the Senate in Pennsylvania, to emphatically recognize the genocide. I, of course, understand that since he is a Turkish-American, the issue is a sensitive one, and I also respect that he is proud of his heritage and does not wish to gratuitously offend the people of Turkey, who have always been proud of his achievements as the world’s most famous physician.
But as a serious candidate for the Senate, he needs to be unequivocally against all forms of hate and to call out authoritarians and human rights abusers, as Dr. Oz has. And as a Turkish-American running for high office, he is under a stricter microscope on the issue of the Armenian Genocide. But that stricter standard, however unfair, actually lends him a unique platform to promote genocide recognition and education by acknowledging the Armenian Genocide and holding the world to account for its pledge of “Never Again.”
Just as I do not blame today’s Germans for the Holocaust, I do not attribute responsibility for the Armenian Genocide to the people of Turkey.
Still, as Lauren Baillie of the US Institute of Peace noted, “The US recognition... underscores the egregious nature of genocide and mass atrocities and that the severity and impact of these crimes are not minimized by the passage of time.... Recognition of genocide brings a measure of accountability to perpetrators by acknowledging their culpability and inflicting harm to their reputation and credibility on issues of human rights.”
It “also sends a clear message that the United States stands in opposition to practices that violate its established international norms.”
The writer, founder of the World Values Network, is the author, most recently, of Kosher Hate. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @RabbiShmuley