Historical Journal Feature
By Stephen Kurkjian
(Jewish Journal) – For the Armenian people who have long had to suffer the world’s indifference to the attempt to extinguish them a century ago, there was a moment last April when all the frustrations and tribulations of that sad history seemed to wash away.
In the center of the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis celebrated a Mass with the top prelates of the Armenian Church to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Near the end of the Mass, the Pope called on the world to recognize what had happened to the Armenians in 1915 was indeed a Genocide – and then, in a transcendent gesture, stood with his hands cupped in the traditional pose of accepting the offering as the Lord’s Prayer was sung in Armenian.
It was a stunning moment for all Armenians. Practically every one of us lost a loved one in those massacres by the Ottoman Turks in 1915, and the losses have grown heavier during the ensuing century because of the lack of worldwide official recognition to that mass murder, no less justice from Turkey.
While many governments spurred by the historical record have adopted resolutions acknowledging the Genocide, three countries towards whom Armenians have looked the most – Turkey, the United States, and Israel – have failed to follow the Pope’s powerful words.
Turkey’s reasons are the most specious. It contends that the more than one million Armenians who were killed were not victims of an intentional campaign by the Ottoman regime but rather casualties of World War I. Yet the International Association of Genocide Scholars unanimously passed a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide in 1997 and sent a letter to the Turkish Prime Minister urging recognition.
The reluctance of the U.S. Congress and a succession of American presidents to adopt a resolution recognizing the Genocide is particularly painful for the estimated 1.5 million Armenians who live in America. As Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had done during their campaigns for president, Barack Obama pledged on running for the White House in 2008 that he would support the introduction of a Genocide Resolution in Congress.
And as Clinton and Bush had done, Obama retreated from that pledge on assuming the presidency. While Obama has stated that he continues to believe personally that a Genocide had taken place, the Turkish government has mounted a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign and presented him with an offer that he has been unable to refuse. Regardless of any questions of conscience or the historical and moral upper ground that would be gained by recognizing the Armenian Genocide, Turkey has stressed to the United States that as a NATO member, it is America’s strongest military ally in the increasingly hostile Middle East and to back the Genocide Resolution would be a diplomatic insult to it.
Particularly ironic in the debate is that one of the fiercest past advocates for recognizing the Genocide has been one of Obama’s closest foreign policy advisors. Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, authored the book “A Problem from Hell: America and The Age of Genocide.” In the book, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction in 2003, Power said America’s failure to act more forthrightly against attacks against ethnic or political minorities in the 20th century – whether against Armenians, Jews, in Cambodia, Rwanda, or Bosnia – has only ensured that the problem will carry over to the next century.
If there is a flicker of hope that this year’s commemoration might provide a revelatory moment of conscience as Pope Francis did last April on the 100th anniversary at St. Peter’s, it rests with Ambassador Power. If she needs a model, all she need do is view the last season’s episode of “House of Cards” in which the fictionalized U.S. ambassador to the United Nations – the wife of the U.S. President – decides at a press conference to unleash a withering verbal attack against the Russian president, standing a few feet away, because of his country’s inhumane treatment of homosexuals, a policy which has led to the suicide of an imprisoned American citizen. Her outburst costs her husband’s administration a diplomatic breakthrough with Russia but it is clear, at least in Hollywood’s eyes, that in some rare moments choices of conscience are the better course to take.
In the real world, however, President Obama has remained a resolute friend of Turkey, even looking past increased acts of repression by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan against the press, ethnic minorities, and political foes. The White House went so far as to block public display last year of a rug that had been woven by Armenian youths orphaned by the Genocide and given as a gift to President Calvin Coolidge and the American people in thanks for their life-saving generosity in the 1920s.
Nowhere is the moral argument for adopting of the Genocide Resolution seen stronger – and the loss felt deeper – than with Israel. But such recognition would breach the long-standing and deep strategic ties that exist between Turkey and Israel. Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize the new state of Israel with the two countries formalizing ties in 1949, and those early ties developed into military and economic cooperation between them, which pertain despite frequent anti-Israeli outbursts by Erdogan in recent years.
Yet, the Armenians and Jews too have bonds between them – in shared suffering. Thirty years after the Armenian Genocide, six million Jews were killed by Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime.
In fact, before Hitler began his murderous campaign in eastern Europe, a campaign that would soon lead to the Holocaust, he is said to have told his generals not to worry about the consequences.
“Who Still Talks Nowadays of the Armenians?” Hitler stated less than 25 years after the Genocide, a quote that is etched on the fourth-floor wall of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., as a permanent reminder.
How could this shunning persist, Armenians ask, especially when the two men who played integral roles in alerting the world to what was taking place and the need for worldwide condemnation of such acts were Jews. When Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, was unable to convince the Wilson Administration to stop the killings, he made certain his diplomatic posts were shared with the New York Times so the American public was made aware of the extent of the massacres.
A generation later, Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish lawyer from Poland who was outraged that the Ottoman Turkish leaders had escaped prosecution in their attempt to exterminate the Armenians began a seminal study of such mass killings. His work led to the coining of the term Genocide and the passage by the United Nations in 1948 of a convention banning such acts of atrocities against a people.
Similarly, despite the official position of the Israeli government it is the extraordinary understanding and support that individual Jews and Jewish-American organizations have given to the Armenians in their search for recognition of the Genocide that has helped keep the bond between the two people strong. And as was seen in Greater Boston almost a decade ago when a Jewish organization refuses to take a stand supporting Armenians, individuals within the organization have been willing to stand up and take a moral stand.
In 2007, the national Anti-Defamation League and its national director Abraham Foxman refused to adopt a forthright statement in support of the Armenian Genocide recognition, and Andrew Tarsy, the head of its New England office hesitated in speaking out. But within a short period, Tarsy criticized Foxman’s position, which resulted in his being fired as ADL’s regional director but served to rally most of the Jewish community to his side.
“I have been in conflict over this issue for several weeks,” Tarsy said at the time. “I regret at this point any characterization that I made publicly other than to call it a genocide. I think that kind of candor about history is absolutely fundamental.”
Stephen Kurkjian, a Boston native, is the son of a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. A retired investigative reporter and editor for The Boston Globe, Kurkjian won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting on two occasions, and also was a member of The Globe Spotlight Team, whose coverage of the sexual abuse scandal within the Boston Archdiocese won the Pulitzer Prize’s Gold Medal for Public Service in 2003. He recently authored a non-fiction book on the historic theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, “MASTER THIEVES: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off The World’s Greatest Art Heist.”
Photo Caption 1: People lay flowers at Armenia’s official memorial dedicated to the victims of the Armenian Genocide, built in 1967 on the hill of Tsitsernakaberd in Yerevan.
Photo Caption 2: President Barack Obama talks with Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, following a Cabinet meeting in 2013. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Photo Caption 3: Screen capture from YouTube video “Recognize The Armenian Genocide.”
Photo Caption 4: The memorial commemorates the victims and is situated at the Armenian Seminary in Bikfaya, Lebanon.