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Remembering The Poor Armenians.

April 20, 2008

`Remember the poor Armenians’. That is how people used to refer to the Armenian Genocide in the period before and just after World War One. The Armenians were never really forgotten – despite the fact that in moving against the Jews Hitler once cynically stated, that just as the Armenians were forgotten, so would be the Jews.

No. It didn’t happen that way.

Political expedience – the need to ally itself with Turkey against the USSR in the 1920s – discouraged the British, French, Italians from raising the Armenian Question at Lausanne in 1923 where Turkish sovereignty was recognized and the Armenian Question, only eight years after 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered by Turkish authorities, was not even given a footnote. Today, political considerations dominate once again. Turkey’s key role in the `war against terrorism’, the fact that it is a bastion – a bit wobbly of late – of secularism in a growing see of Islamic fundamentalism (or is so perceived) and that it is a NATO ally, make it unlikely that the United States will raise the Armenian issue – now 93 years old – in any substantial manner.

In a like manner, Israel’s strategic alliance with Turkey makes it unlikely that the Jewish state will raise the Turk’s Armenian treatment publicly either. Mainstream Jewish organizations in the United States usually tend to do likewise, their uncritical support for Israel most of the time interfering with much overt sympathy for the horrific fate Armenians suffered at Turkish hands – not only in 1915 when the most heinous and unforgivable crimes were committed, but before and after. Turks killed several hundred thousand Armenians were killed in the 1890s. After 1915, the genocide continued well into the 1920s when there were simply too few left in Turkey to round up.

The Armenian Genocide and the Anti-Defamation League

These last few years though the Armenian issue has found at least a few Jewish allies. Sympathy for the Armenian fate – and its obvious parallel to that of Jews suffering at the hands of the Nazis – became an issue within the Anti-Defamation League last year in an episode that garnered national attention. It resulted in what can only be called a purge of a regional leader who raised the Armenian issue publicly. In July, 2007, the ADL fired Andrew Tarsey, its New England regional director. Tarsey, who considered the ADL’s position on Armenia `morally indefensible’, had publicly called on the ADL to reverse its silence on the issue and acknowledge the 1915 genocide.

According to the Boston Globe (Aug. 18,2007), Tarsey’s firing `prompted an immediate backlash against the ADL’s national leadership and its national director, Abraham Foxman’. Steve Grossman, a former ADL national board member from near Newton, Mass near Boston, was particularly sharp in his criticism of Foxman. He is quoted as saying `My reaction is that this was a vindictive, intolerant, and destructive act, ironically by an organization and leader whose mission — fundamental mission — is to promote tolerance.” Under what appeared to be intense pressure, the very next day, the ADL: caught between political expediency and moral principle, was forced to somewhat backtrack and in a written statement, acknowledged the Armenian tragedy as `tantamount to genocide’ while still, fearing Turkish diplomatic reaction against Israel, urged the US Congress not to pass a resolution more or less asserting the same thing.

And in Denver…

I do not know how or even if this issue was discussed within the ADL’s Rocky Mountain Region. Perhaps it was. Its regional director, Bruce Deboskey, is generally considered an admirer of Foxman. It is difficult to impossible for such an issue not to have filtered down in some way throughout the organization. Be that as it may, last April (2007), that is a few months before this flap went public in the national media, one could discern a modest shift in Denver mainstream Jewish thinking towards the issue. The Mizel Museum here hosted a talk sponsored by Armenians of Colorado by a Turkish human rights activist and scholar who argued for Turkish acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide and for the opening of a process of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation in tandem with it.

I could not help but notice that the Jewish museum was hosting the event, and it seemed some kind of shift if not breakthrough. Curiosity, along with a moral sense of acknowledging this particular crime against humanity, got the better of me, so, along with a Spanish friend in Denver at the time, I went. A police security force – small but noticeable – suggested some local resistance (from the local Turkish Community?) to the proceedings. Although I don’t know what might have happened behind the scenes, there were no disruptions. On the other hand, But despite the fact that the event was hosted at a prestigeous Jewish museum (or at one of its annexes) there was virtually no Jewish presence, none of the more prominent rabbis or other publicly known Denver Jewish figures were anywhere in sight. I found that curious and disappointing.

This year’s Armenian commemoration event, held at the University of Denver yesterday, had a similar chemistry in that a few prominent Jewish organizations and individuals lent their names to the proceedings in one way or another. The moderator publicly thanked Dr. David Schneer, currently Chair of the Judaic Studies Dept. at DU for helping secure the facility. This year the event was co-sponsored by the History and Political Science Departments of the University of Denver and an organization called Facing History and Ourselves. Facing History and Ourselves provides educational materials to teachers on the Holocaust and for the past few years, also on the Armenian Genocide. They are represented locally by Fran Sterling, a Jewish mother of 3, who addressed yesterday’s audience of about 100 people. But although the university’s official presence was noted and again, certain Jewish liberal voices lent their name to the event, the audience was overwhelmingly from Denver’s small but active Armenian Community and the university presence – from what I could tell – was light to non-existent.

Still…

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