Jews must deal with historical truths on Turks, Armenians

From 2000 to 2002, I led a graduate seminar entitled “Post-Holocaust Ethical and Political Issues” at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Among the topics covered was the politics of memory.

One case study we explored was the controversy surrounding language and its power. We looked in depth at the massacre of Armenians and how its depiction had become a subject of fierce debate, primarily between Armenians, who insisted on calling the events of 1915 a genocide, and Turks, who adamantly refused to countenance the g-word.

The basic Armenian argument was that up to 1.5 million Armenians were deliberately targeted and massacred by the Ottoman Empire, eight years before the modern Turkish Republic came into being.

At the time, the word genocide didn’t exist.

It was Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-born Jew, who coined the term. The Holocaust was the most immediate frame of reference for him, but he was also haunted by the slaughter of the Armenians — and by the need to prevent a repeat of any such occurrences — throughout his career.

But had it been in use, it no doubt would have been invoked by Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. envoy to Turkey at the time and one of the primary sources on the tragedy cited by the Armenians.

No, replied the Turks. This was a time of war. The Armenians sided with Russia, the enemy. Many people, both Turks and Armenians, were killed. But that was the regrettable, if inevitable, consequence of conflict, and not a deliberate campaign to wipe the Armenians off the face of the earth, as the Nazis later sought to do to the Jews.

In recent years, survivors and eyewitnesses have disappeared. But each side has marshaled as much documentary evidence as it could to buttress its assertion. Yet neither side has been talking to the other. Instead, both have been appealing to the rest of the world, seeking supporters.

Not surprisingly, each has sought to draw the Jews to its ranks. The Jews’ moral voice, they reckoned, far exceeds actual numbers. The people of the Shoah are best positioned to tip the scales in one direction or the other.

The Armenian position has been straightforward. As victims of the Holocaust, who can better understand the Armenian ordeal and anguish than the Jews? Fearful of the danger of Holocaust denial, aren’t the Jews most aware of the slippery slope of distorting historical truth? And wasn’t it Adolf Hitler who reportedly asked, “Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?”— essentially paving the way for the Final Solution.

Meanwhile, the Turkish stance has been that Jews shouldn’t simply accept the Armenian version of history lock, stock and barrel because it’s fraught with distortion and deceit. Instead, Jews should bear in mind the traditional Turkish welcome of minority communities, especially the embrace of dispersed Jews from Spain by the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 15th century.

Turkish leaders have also at times taken a tougher line, suggesting, in barely veiled language, that a Jewish acceptance of the Armenian version of history could have negative consequences for other Jewish interests, whether in Turkey or beyond.

And it is in this vise that many Jews have lived for years, essentially pitting principle against pragmatism. For armchair observers, that may look like an easy choice. But in the world of policy, where actions can have real-life consequences, it’s anything but.

Look at successive governments of the United States, whether under Democratic or Republican leaders. All have reached the same conclusion: Turkey is of vital importance to U.S. geo-strategic interests, straddling Europe and Asia, bordering key countries and serving as the southeastern flank of NATO.

Each administration has essentially punted when asked about the Armenian question, seeking to discourage the United States Congress from recognizing the events of 1915 as genocide, while arguing that a third-party parliamentary body isn’t the right venue to settle a heated historical dispute.

And now I come back full circle to my Johns Hopkins classroom. I had four or five Turkish students in the course. All but one proudly defended Turkey’s historical record, stubbornly refusing to consider any competing narrative.

But there was one young woman who came to me and said that for the first time she doubted the official Turkish version of events. There were simply too many compelling accounts of the suffering of Armenians to swallow whole the Turkish line. She then went a step further and shared her thinking with our class.

Regrettably, the other Turkish students distanced themselves from her, but the other students admired her for her courage. They instinctively understood that it wasn’t easy for her to express her sorrow and confusion, but that, under the circumstances, it seemed the right thing to do.

I, too, admired her.

I have a strong connection to Turkey, a country I have visited on numerous occasions and I feel very close to. Few countries have a more critically important role to play in the sphere of international relations. I remain grateful to this day for the refuge that the Ottoman Empire gave to Jews fleeing the Inquisition. I am intimately connected to the Turkish Jewish community and admire their patriotism and enormous contribution to their homeland.

I also deeply appreciate the link between Turkey and Israel, which serves the best interests of both democratic nations in a tough region.

And I value Turkey’s role as an anchor of NATO and friend of the United States.

At the same time, I cannot escape the events of 1915 and the conclusions reached by credible voices, from Ambassador Morgenthau to Harvard professor Samantha Power, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “A Problem from Hell: American and the Age of Genocide,” to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, about the nature of what took place. It was a genocide, they determined, albeit one that occurred more than 30 years before the term was coined.

From my experience in tackling difficult relationships, I believe that engagement, not avoidance, is the best strategy.

In a perfect world, Armenian and Turkish historians would sit together and review the archival material, debate differences, and seek a common understanding of the past.

To date, that hasn’t happened in any meaningful way.

I continue to hope that it will. It should. We at American Jewish Committee have offered our services, if needed, to help facilitate such an encounter. Ninety years of distance ought to allow for the creation of a “safe” space to consider contested issues.

Meanwhile, as the issue once again heats up in the United States, it’s important to be clear. In the book “Holocaust Denial,” published by the AJCommittee in 1993, the author Kenneth Stern noted that “that the Armenian genocide is now considered a topic for debate, or as something to be discounted as old history, does not bode well for those who would oppose Holocaust denial.”

He was right.

Picture a day when a muscle-flexing Iran or Saudi Arabia seeks to make denial of the Holocaust a condition of doing business with other countries.

Sound far-fetched? It shouldn’t.

We have many interests as a Jewish people. Protecting historical truth ought to be up there at the top of the list.

David A. Harris is the executive director of the American Jewish Committee. This column previously appeared in the Jerusalem Post.