Keep Dreaming: This week in Armenia

We cannot right the wrongs of the past, but we can recognize them. Doing so would go a long way toward healing an open wound.

Armenian quarter of Jerusalem (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Armenian quarter of Jerusalem
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Fascinating. I recently took part in a conference on Diaspora relations during which worries were expressed over the next generation’s detachment from the homeland, the waning impact of the Holocaust on identity formation, the shrinking percentage of children able to speak the language of their forebears, rising rates of intermarriage, challenges involved in bringing a dispersed nation home and the blatant hypocrisy of the Turks, who speak so stridently about human rights when their own record in this regard is so horrifically flawed.
“More of the same,” you’re probably thinking. “Why fascinating?”
Because it wasn’t our Diaspora the participants were concerned with. Then whose? That’s what I asked when I got the phone call inviting me to a seminar on state-diaspora relations in Armenia.
“How many Jews do we even have in Armenia?” I asked, somewhat bemused.
“Not our Diaspora. Theirs,” came the reply. “The invitation’s from the Armenian minister of the diaspora.”
Before the phone rang I’d never have imagined there was such a position. Now the person filling it wanted me as a consultant, figuring that after 10 years in the World Zionist Organization I’d developed some expertise in these matters.
Three weeks later, I found myself in Yerevan (yes, I also had to Google it), ready to dispense advice about something that a month earlier I didn’t even know existed. Sure, I knew there was this place called Armenia, though I admit I wasn’t even sure it was a sovereign country.
(It is.) I knew there were Armenians living in Jerusalem’s Old City, most of whom I imagined spent their time painting pottery. (They don’t.) I’d heard vague accounts of a Turkish-perpetrated genocide, which I’d always assumed were somewhat exaggerated. (They’re not.) But an organized diaspora? The thought had never occurred to me.
Unbelievable how ignorant a relatively well-educated person can be. Embarrassing, too, particularly when speaking of something so close to home. So, though it’s easiest to give advice about things one knows nothing about, I nevertheless determined to make my life more difficult and do a little research.
IT’S A Friday and my wife and I decide to make an outing of it. We wander into the Armenian Quarter and enter one of the few Armenian pottery shops we find. It’s beginning to dawn on me that not all the Armenians can be painting names on ceramic doorplates, but the elderly woman inside who actually does do this for a living is happy to share her story with us. She came to Jerusalem many years ago from Lebanon, where her family had fled to when the Turks had come for them nearly a century ago.
There are approximately 1,000 Armenians living in Jerusalem, she tells us, similar numbers in Haifa and Jaffa, and another cluster in Petah Tikva. All-inall, some 3,000 in the country. Fewer than I’d have thought, but still a sizable group I think to myself, until she tells us that there are some three million Armenians in Armenia itself, and an estimated seven million more living around the world. Almost as many of them as there are of us.
“How much contact do you have with another?” I ask. Lots, it turns out. There’s a very strong sense of community and regularly organized opportunities to congregate.
I thank her for her time, check the prices of her wares so I can compare them to the genuine article in the homeland, and move on.
Next stop, an Armenian café. My wife is far less inhibited than I when it comes to striking up a conversation – particularly when there’s a good-looking younger man involved – and she begins speaking with the one behind the counter.
An hour’s worth of talk later, our knowledge base has grown exponentially.
We learned that he is running the establishment, after having studied hotel management following graduation from the local Armenian school where virtually all of the Armenian kids study.
He talks animatedly about his homeland, which he’s visited several times over the last few years, and speaks passionately about it in terms reminiscent of the enthusiastic reactions of Birthright participants after their first trip to Israel.
“Any thoughts of moving there?” I ask, preparing for the conference I’ve been invited to. The response is familiar.
“I want to end up there,” he answers, “but I’ll probably head off to the States first. I want to get more experience, earn some money. It’s tough to make it in Armenia now.”
“You’ve got family there, I presume?” “No,” he says, “I just feel I belong. I didn’t expect that when my parents took me the first time, but something happened when I got there and I just have to keep going back.”
He’s more reticent when it comes to talking about this country.
“I really don’t want to make an issue of it,” he says hesitatingly, “but the truth is, it’s difficult for us here. It’s hard to get a job. The Jews don’t really like to hire us. They prefer people who do the army.”
He says this not with bitterness, but as a matter of fact. And he is as friendly as can be. So are all the other wonderful Armenians I encounter over the next few weeks. I’d love to share all their stories here, but the first will have to suffice as a stand in for the rest.
Let’s call him Serop. After leaving the café, meandering through the alleyways of the Armenian Quarter, we happen upon him playing ball with his son.
This time my wife’s audacity gets us invited in for coffee. He, too, came to Jerusalem from Lebanon to study at the seminary of the Armenian Church, where he served as a monk for six years.
Today he’s married with kids and works as an accountant in a prestigious Israeli firm. His wife, a music teacher, greets us warmly as we intrude upon her living room unannounced, interrupting the conversation she’s having by Skype with her sister in the old country. She offers us some freshly baked cake, and, noticing the kippa I’m wearing, assures us we have nothing to worry about. “It’s this,” she smiles, holding up a Duncan Hines box.
These details demonstrate just how completely Westernized the Armenians here are. At the same time, they are anything but assimilated, proudly expressing at every opportunity a deep connection to their culture, people and history.
FIGURING PROMINENTLY in that history is the calculated attempt by the Turkish government to exterminate the Armenian people, claiming the lives of three-quarters of the two million of them living in the Ottoman Empire at the time. My visit to the genocide memorial in Yerevan dispels any doubt that this holocaust was every bit as ghastly as that experienced by the Jews a few decades later.
And the questions generated by this cruel chapter in their history are the same as our own. From a booklet I pick up at the museum: “What degree of animosity could drive one group of people to slaughter another in cold blood? What level of contempt and what process of debasement could create an environment tolerant of mass murder? What reason could a government have to plan the extermination of an entire population?”
We cannot right the wrongs of the past, but we can recognize them. Doing so would go a long way toward healing an open wound. Unlike Germany, which has accepted full responsibility for the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis, Turkey refuses to acknowledge any culpability for the horrendous crimes that were committed, adding a century-long insult to a horrific injury. To little avail, the Armenians have long been insisting that at least the rest of the world hold Turkey accountable for its actions. All those I meet reiterate the same aching need. It is morally intolerable that Israel has not joined the list of countries to have done so.
In 1939, Hitler dismissed any notion that the the Third Reich would long be held responsible for its atrocities, concluding a speech on the planned extermination of the Jews with the words, “Who now remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?” The time has come to declare that we do. Diaspora relations are important. So, too, the relations with our neighbors.
The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive. The opinions expressed are his own.