Jews becoming increasingly aware of Armenian Genocide and its commemoration

Spurred in part by the current Tayyip Erdogan-led Turkish government’s increasing tilt toward Iran and hostility toward Israel, members of local Jewish communities are paying more, some might say overdue, attention to the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, as well as to the Turkish government’s continuing minimization of the numbers and nature of the massacres that occurred.

In April 1915, with World War I underway, the Turkish-dominated government of the Ottoman Empire systematically and quite horrifically murdered somewhere between 1.0 million and 1.5 million of its Armenian (Christian) citizens, in the event that has become known as the Armenian Genocide.

The massacres have been recognized as a “genocide” by 22 countries, including Uruguay (the first to do so, in 1965), Canada, Argentina, Sweden, Vatican City, Russia, Germany, Venezuela and Lebanon but not the United States or Israel. 43 individual U.S. states – Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware all included – also have recognized the massacres as a “genocide.”

The official Turkish position, in place since the “Young Turks” reform government took power shortly after World War I, states there was no will by the Ottoman government to exterminate the Armenian population and that the 1915 massacres were simply the consequences of war. Last year, around this time, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu condemned President Barack Obama’s statement marking the 96th anniversary of the 1915 events (which stopped short of recognizing the events as a “genocide”). Mentioning his wish that President Obama would share Turks’ pain from the World War I era, Davutoglu also added that “a one-sided statement is not sufficient from the viewpoint of understanding historical events.”

Israel’s position on this issue has been complicated by the fact that Turkey was, in 1949, the first Muslim state to recognize Israel. Israel has had a much more cooperative relationship for decades with Turkey than with other neighboring Muslim countries, although this relationship has lately been in a state of deterioration. Most notably, this deterioration became obvious in late May 2010, when Israeli forces raided a Turkish aid flotilla aiming to violate Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, claiming nine lives. The Turkish government has described this event as an act of “state terror” on Israel’s part.

Pro-Israel and Jewish organizations, if not necessarily Jewish religious groups, have in the past been active in working against efforts to label the massacres of 1915 a “genocide.” In an August 2007 statement, Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), while mentioning that “the painful events of 1915-1918 perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenians [were] massacres and atrocities,” stated that “[the ADL continues] to firmly believe that a Congressional resolution on such matters is a counterproductive diversion and will not foster reconciliation between Turks and Armenians and may put at risk the Turkish Jewish community and the important multilateral relationship between Turkey, Israel and the United States.”

As described in a June 2010 Washington Times article titled “American Jewish community ends support of Turkish interests on Hill,” pro-Israel groups have changed their tune considerably toward Turkish interests in general in the last two years or so. In October 2000, for example, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was directly involved in providing grassroots support, with the help of the State Department, in lobbying President Bill Clinton to write to then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert to say that bringing a vote on commemorating the Armenian Genocide would cause strategic damage to the U.S.’s strategic relationship with a crucial NATO ally.

This coming Saturday, April 28, hundreds of Philadelphia-area residents are expected to attend the annual Philadelphia Armenian Genocide Walk for Justice. The date of the event was selected to correspond to the week of the 97th anniversary of the beginning of the Genocide, in the form of the April 24, 1915 round-up and massacre in Constantinople (now Istanbul) of hundreds of Armenian poets, musicians, publicists, editors, lawyers, doctors, deputies and other intellectuals.

The event on Saturday will consist of a two-mile walk commencing at the Philadelphia Art Museum, followed by a cultural performance and remarks from political and civic leaders.

Starting at noon, hundreds will gather at the Mher Statue by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and will walk through the streets of Philadelphia to rally and bring exposure to the cause. At the conclusion of the walk, a program will be held on the lawn of the Independence Visitor Center featuring Turkish scholar, Dr. Taner Akçam as keynote speaker.

Dr. Akçam is a Turkish historian and professor who is considered one of the leading international experts on the Armenian Genocide. Autographed copies of Dr. Akçam’s new book, The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire, will be available for purchase at a discounted price the day of the event.

The program will also include performances by Jampa Band and Hamazkayin Meghry Dance Group, and closing remarks by Dr. Ara Chalian, Armenian National Committee Pennsylvania Chairman.

Last year, the event was keynoted by a speech by Armenian-American Los Angeles attorney Mark Geragos, who brought a landmark case to court against the New York Life Insurance Company which sought payment for life insurance policies of Armenian families victimized during the Genocide. The case settled with over $20 million in disbursements.

Lance Silver of South Jersey attended the Philadelphia event in April 2010 but regretted that Passover prevented him from doing so again last year. Asked what motivates him as a Jew to support the cause of commemoration of the Armenian Genocide, Silver replied, “To show support and talk to Armenians whose families experienced their Genocide, and to sympathize with them because of what happened to us.”

Although he had not done so previously, Rabbi Albert Gabbai of Center City’s Congregation Mikveh Israel brought up the Armenian Genocide during shabbas morning services last year, which happened the shabbas before Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). On one level, Rabbi Gabbai feels a certain responsibility to the numerous Armenian friends he had attending Catholic school while growing up in Cairo, Egypt. Beyond that, however, he expresses a certain duty as a rabbi “to increase awareness of what happened. Many people are simply not aware of this massacre. Our own people having gone through the Holocaust, we know what it means to be persecuted. We have to be able to say that what happened in the 1910s in Turkey was a massacre which occurred because they were Armenians and Christians.”

Rabbi Gabbai also last year wrote an op-ed on the subject, titled “It’s About Time to Recognize the Armenian Genocide,” which was published last year in the Philadelphia area’s Jewish Exponent weekly newspaper.

Along similar lines, Rabbi Eliezer Hirsch of Congregation Mekor Hebracha in Center City brought up the topic last year around this time. Rabbi Hirsch takes note of how the book The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, considered the leading classic literary novel of the Armenian Genocide, was written by a Viennese Jew, Franz Werfel (for whom there now exists a memorial in the Armenian capital of Yerevan). Rabbi Hirsch points out that “that novel was a particular source of inspiration to many Jews who fought the Nazis in the ghettoes during World War II, against all odds.” Furthermore, he notes that “the Nazi government banned that book and denied the Armenian Holocaust.”

Mildred Weinstock, a 95-year-old former history teacher living in the Art Museum neighborhood, finds the whole issue of Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide somewhat perplexing. Having attended West Philadelphia High School in the 1930s, she had numerous Armenian friends whose parents were refugees. She notes that the Armenian students tended to be “quiet about what had happened, and they weren’t interested in complaining about things. They did very well in school.” (According to her, her late husband, former LaBrum & Doak partner Lewis Weinstock, finished second in their class to a first-generation Armenian.) At the same time, she points out that the Armenian Genocide was something she never learned about in school herself or even was part of the history curriculum she taught in the Philadelphia public school system.

Mark Geragos, the keynote speaker at last year’s Philadelphia Armenian Genocide Walk, notes why Jews should be particularly sensitive to the memory of the Armenian Genocide: “I think the pre-Holocaust comment by Adolf Hitler of ‘Who today still speaks of the massacre of the Armenians?’ is enough to show the thread that runs between the two events. And Germany’s complicity with the Ottoman Empire [as a World War I ally] was well-documented. The Armenians were kind of a dry run for what later became the Holocaust.”

Geragos, while careful not to minimize the Holocaust at all,notes that there actually a “dissimilarity” between the role of the Holocaust in the lives of Jewish-Americans and that of the Armenian Genocide to Armenian-Americans. According to him, “As opposed to the Jewish community, virtually every single Armenian-American has a close relative who survived the Genocide. It was a universal event in the lives of just about every Armenian. I can’t think of another parallel to it with any other ethnic group.”

On that note, Albert Momjian, an Armenian-American long-time chair of the Family Law Department at Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis in Philadelphia emphasizes that his heritage may make him particularly appreciative of the significance of being a grandparent: “I never had a grand-dad or grand-mom myself. They were all killed in the Genocide. Very few of us had grandparents.”

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