Events

Thursday, April 30, 2015

1990-2015: Massachusetts Commemorates the Armenian Genocide

I'm willing to bet that few of my readers are aware of the presence of a plaque in the Massachusetts State House honoring our Armenian community. (It dates from the Bicentennial year of 1976).



But most--especially this year--are probably aware of one of the historical situations described on it:
who reached these shores, having escaped from the tyrannical rulers of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. For centuries, the Armenians were subjected to political, social, and religious abuses, and the most degrading indignities of man's inhumanity to man, including mass genocide.
By tradition, the Turkish arrests of Armenian leaders in Constantinople on the night of April 24, 1915 have been taken to mark the beginning of a series of persecutions, atrocities, and massacres that have collectively become known as the Armenian Genocide: which, through the deaths of perhaps 1.5 million civilians, and the persecution and driving out of hundreds of thousands of others, eliminated the physical and cultural presence of this people in its historical homelands of Armenia and western Asia Minor.

The acknowledgement of this crime, which, committed in the context of an unprecedented murderous war, set the tone for further mass murders and ethnic cleansing in the subsequent hundred years of European history, has long been controversial in Turkey. The government of the modern state has not only rejected the terminology of genocide, but also claimed that whatever losses occurred were the result of either the general hardships of war or an open conflict between peoples for which the Armenians themselves bear some blame. (In one case, Turkey even pressured a Canadian local school board to drop the subject from the curriculum.) The current Islamist regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has been particularly vehement in its responses as the centennial loomed--witness the lengthy press release on "The Armenian Allegation of Genocide: The issue and the facts" (the title is revealing) from the Foreign Ministry.

It came as an increasing number of states and public figures not only marked the anniversary, but also made a point of speaking explicitly of genocide. The first to gain widespread attention for this step was Pope Francis, who called the atrocities "the first genocide of the twentieth century." Turkey called the statement "far from historic and legal truths" and "unacceptable." Denouncing the "unfounded claims," it recalled its ambassador. Davutoğlu accused the Vatican of “joining the conspiracy” of an “evil front.”

When the European Union spoke out on the genocide, Turkey called the resolution a "preposterous" repetition of "the anti-Turkish clichés of the Armenian propaganda" "mutilating history and law," and ascribed characterization of the events as genocide to "religious & cultural fanaticism." Other states have this spring earned similar rebukes and diplomatic retaliations.

Some nations, groups, and leaders were more circumspect.


A Genocide By Any Other Name?

Admittedly, defining genocide on the level of history and international law can be more complex than it seems at first sight to the layperson. The Süddeutsche Zeitung (in my opinion, still the best German newspaper, despite certain marked flaws and idiosyncrasies when it comes to foreign affairs) correctly points out that, legally, this was a matter of intentions and other factors beyond mere numbers (or else Chairman Mao, whose policies killed millions, would appear in the list). The resultant infographic may appear confusing.



The reprehensible but isolated murders of some 762 to 3500 Palestinians at Sabra and Shatilla carried out by Lebanese militias in the context of a civil war during the Israeli invasion in 1981 appear as a "genocide"  because some UN body asserted they were such, and yet this puts them on a par with the systematic murder of 1.5 million Armenians and ethnic cleansing of this population from its ancestral lands simply because both have thus (in some sense) been declared to be genocides while neither has been the subject of a formal trial. Meanwhile, the Serbian ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims has not been officially declared a genocide or prosecuted; thus only the massacre at Srebrenica is listed. The Khmer Rouge butchery in Cambodia is likewise not classified as a genocide, though it has been prosecuted.

The Süddeutsche further argues that the intention of the killers is difficult to determine in the case of Armenia. Some scholars share this view, not necessarily denying the extent of losses, but arguing that the overall picture is too complex to justify the designation. Others see a growing consensus that the crimes were indeed part of a deliberate and systematic policy and thus did constitute a genocide: a recent review of three new books in The Financial Times is a case in point. Middle East Forum has just published a very useful backgrounder, providing an overview of the issue and links to articles representing the full range of viewpoints.

The Economist, in a piece similar to that in the Süddeutsche, observes:
The “g-word” has considerable power. If mass slaughter is recognised as genocide when it is happening, it is harder for outside forces to sit idly by. When it is over, official recognition that it was genocide can give the survivors some grim satisfaction. But when that recognition is withheld, whether because of a technicality or political expediency, it can feel like the final insult. And some human-rights activists and legal scholars feel that genocide’s status as the “crime of crimes” sometimes overshadows the horror of other crimes against humanity.
Part of the problem, then, is that the subject involves legal, historical, moral, and emotional issues at once.

A case in point has been Israel's reluctance to use the "g-word." It is ironic in some ways. Jews were among the first to call attention to and commemorate the slaughter. It was the US Ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau, Sr. who reported on the massacres and confronted the Turkish government. Franz Werfel produced the first great literary representation of the suffering of the Armenians in his novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh (1933; English, 1934; a reference to an Armenian stronghold in 1915). And it was Polish Holocaust refugee Raphael Lemkin who coined the term "genocide" and explicitly cited the Armenian example.



Although the State of Israel and its leaders have consistently called for commemoration and condemnation of the crimes committed against the Armenians, they have, officially, at least, shied away from using the word genocide.

This is sometimes said to derive from the concern that doing so might dilute the significance of the Holocaust, but it is not the real reason and is in any case a groundless fear. Yad Vashem, the Israel Holocaust remembrance authority, refers to the Armenian genocide in honoring Armenian Holocaust rescuers and likewise speaks of genocides in Rwanda and Darfur and includes survivors of those murders in its educational programs. The real issue has been geopolitics, pure and simple: specifically, a reluctance to harm relations with Israel's erstwhile regional ally Turkey, and now, new regional ally Azerbaijan. (Raphael Ahren provides perhaps the best and most nuanced overview.) The centennial has sparked a welcome new debate, with echoes in the worldwide Jewish community. (1, 2, 3).

The U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations was even more equivocal. "[C]oncerned about alienating a key ally, Turkey, through one-sided declarations," it noted:
we share the pain suffered by Armenians during this period. We also believe that any acknowledgment by religious or political leaders of the tragedy that befell Armenians should be balanced, constructive and must also recognize Turkish and Muslim suffering.

In this respect, characterizing the events of 1915 as genocide without proper investigation of these events by independent historians will not only jeopardize the establishment of a just memory pertaining to these events, but will also damage the efforts aimed at achieving reconciliation between Turks and Armenians. 
Calling for further investigation by historians has, of course, always been the preferred delaying tactic and escape strategy for those unwilling to call the killings a genocide. (Rule of thumb: outsiders defer to historians only when there is an ulterior motive; we don't get much respect otherwise.)


Those Who Have Power Yet Do Not Speak Truth

Although the stance of the Israeli government strikes many as problematic or even morally indefensible, it is at the least understandable in the world of Realpolitik and the struggle for survival. One struggles in vain to find an explanation for the behavior of those who are more powerful and can act with impunity.

Above all, the stance of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon was disappointing. He referred to "atrocity crimes," and a spokesman said
the secretary-general firmly believes that the commemoration and continuing cooperation between Armenians and Turks “with a view to establishing the facts about what happened should strengthen our collective determination to prevent similar atrocity crimes from ever happening in the future."
The United Nations, founded in the wake of the worst genocide in history, unanimously approved the Genocide Convention in 1948, and is supposed to be the leader in moral issues, not a splitter and trimmer.

Barely less disappointing was the backtracking of US President Barack Obama. As a candidate in 2008, he boldly declared, to the plaudits of Armenian-Americans:
Two years ago, I criticized the Secretary of State for the firing of U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, John Evans, after he properly used the term 'genocide' to describe Turkey's slaughter of thousands of Armenians starting in 1915. … as President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.
Now no one who has reached the age of reason should be surprised that candidates make promises that they cannot (or perhaps do not even intend to) fulfill. But this was a candidate who made a point of promising something different: hope and change and an end to partisanship and politics as usual. The bigger the failed promise, the greater the disappointment. According to CNN, a presidential spokesperson addressed the issue in the clinical language of bureaucracy and diplomacy:
"We know and respect that there are some who are hoping to hear different language this year," the official said. "We understand their perspective, even as we believe that the approach we have taken in previous years remains the right one -- both for acknowledging the past, and for our ability to work with regional partners to save lives in the present."
Representative Adam Schiff (D-California) said:
"How long must the victims and their families wait before our nation has the courage to confront Turkey with the truth about the murderous past of the Ottoman Empire?" "If not this President, who spoke so eloquently and passionately about recognition in the past, whom? If not after one hundred years, when?"
Armenians and Armenian-Americans were outraged. The hashtag #ObamaLied was soon trending on Twitter.

Unfortunately, it is part of a consistent pattern on the part of a president whose foreign policy has been an almost complete disaster (1, 2).  (full disclosure: I voted for him twice, eyes wide open). In a region in chaos, he declined to support the Iranian "green revolution" or the real democrats of the "Arab Spring" and instead perversely chose to throw in his lot with the anti-democratic, obscurantist Islamists: Morsi in Egypt and the Erdoğan-Davutoğlu regime in Turkey. The former is out of power, but the President naively and vainly seeks to curry favor with the latter, in defiance of both historical truth and basic political judgment. The Armenians, among others, are paying the price.

Meanwhile, by contrast, quietly and outside the corridors of power, some Turks joined Armenians in marking the centenary in Turkey, and that is ultimately far more important than the words of an American president: dialogue and reconciliation on the ground, among the peoples concerned.


Here in the Commonwealth

Our Commonwealth, which is the home to several significant Armenian communities, has had no such hesitation.

Already in 1990, on the 75th anniversary of the tragedy, the Massachusetts legislature designated April 24 as a day of remembrance.

This year, newly elected Governor Charlie Baker reiterated the Commonwealth's stand on the issue:
Today we have a chance to reaffirm our record on the Armenian genocide as Massachusetts and 42 other states have already done. I’m proud that our state continues to stand firm on this issue and educates our students about the history of the Armenian genocide in public schools through the Facing History program.
Our neighboring town (and county seat) of Northampton has held a memorial rally on April 24 for 15 years now, and indeed, I saw the Armenian flag flying there last week.

I am pleased and proud that the Town of Amherst will acknowledge this crime against humanity on the occasion of its centennial, calling upon residents to honor the dead and the survivors and to draw the appropriate lessons in the continuing struggle for human rights in our own world.

On April 27, the Select Board approved a memorial proclamation.

On April 30, at 5:00 p.m. in front of Town Hall, Town officials will read the proclamation, and along with other residents, speak to the historical and enduring significance of this issue. (Town Meeting and League of Women Voters member Adrienne Megerdichian Terrizzi has generously taken the lead in organizing the event.)

At 7:00 p.m. at Amherst Books, my Hampshire College colleague, Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy, will read from her provocative new book: Sacred Justice: The Voices & Legacy of the Armenian Operation Nemesis.  This work combines narrative, memoir, and primary sources to tell the story of a group of Armenian men who undertook a covert operation created to assassinate the Turkish architects of the Genocide.

I hope that we will have a strong turnout.

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