100 years is a long time to come to grips with Armenian genocide

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Twenty-five years ago, the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco first debated whether to take a position on the subject of Armenian genocide by supporting a proposed Senate resolution to commemorate the event’s 75th anniversary. American Jewish organizations had overwhelmingly shied away from the issue because of explicit and relentless pressure from Turkey, which until recently was Israel’s best ally in the Muslim world. Our JCRC broke rank. We recognized the genocide through a letter to the Armenian bishop in San Francisco.

Our letter, signed by then JCRC chairman Ephraim Margolin, declared that we wanted “to offer our support for Senate Joint Resolution 212, Congressional Legislation to designate April 24, 1990 as a ‘National Day of Remembrance of the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923.’ ” It went on to explain that we unanimously adopted a resolution “to communicate to the Armenian community in San Francisco not only our support for this long overdue legislation, but for continued public education about the tragedy which befell the Armenian people in the early part of this century. …

“Nearly all nations have been victimized during the course of history. Yet being singled out for genocide is a horror that, fortunately, has been visited upon very few peoples. We in the Jewish community realize that no bill or even official recognition of the attempt at genocide can ever truly ease the pain of that period in our history. But, for the sake of those who died and for the sake of future generations, to forget would be the ultimate tragedy. We applaud the efforts of the Armenian community to educate those in this country about ‘the forgotten genocide.’ Please convey to the leaders of the Armenian community our most sincere support for this measure.”

By the way, Turkey’s pressure is real. After JCRC sent its letter, the Armenian newspaper in Fresno ran a front-page story commending our decision. Two days later, Turkish television showed up at the office of our JCRC chair to ask how we could possibly have taken such a position. Fortunately, Turkish TV had met its match in Mr. Margolin.

During our debate on another congressional resolution in 2007, it was clear that many active leaders of our community were torn between righting a moral wrong by calling greater attention to the Armenian genocide and abiding by the principle of realpolitik and not unduly offending Turkey.

photo/wikimedia commons Bodies of Armenian victims following a mass killing by Ottoman Turks in 1915

At that time, I received a call from Quentin Kopp, former San Francisco supervisor, state senator and judge. The voice message simply said something like, “Doug, Quentin Kopp, call me. I want to talk about this Armenian genocide issue.”

I was confident that he was calling to tell me that JCRC should stay away from the issue, that engaging on it could harm Israel. Imagine my surprise when he told me that his father was one of 75 members of the U.S. Army sent to the region in 1919 after World War I to assess and report on the situation and that Quentin grew up with stories on his father’s knee about the Armenian genocide. He urged us to do what was right. JCRC did reaffirm its previous recognition of the genocide.

Twenty-five years after JCRC first took a stance, there is widespread dismay over Turkey’s increasing hostility directed at Israel, a pattern tied to the move away from secular rule. Turkey’s increasing antagonism has opened up an opportunity for the American Jewish community and Israel to revisit the subject of Armenian genocide.

The balance is shifting and it should. As a community that has vigorously fought against Holocaust denial, the importance of acknowledging other acts of genocide takes on great import. Realpolitik should not be lightly dismissed as a consideration, but neither should it trump the moral necessity of acknowledging documented acts of genocide.

I am not an expert on the Armenian genocide. I have, however, on multiple occasions approached leading historians at U.C. Berkeley and elsewhere, and everyone I have posed the question to has confirmed that the term “genocide” is the accurate one to describe the murder of up to 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915.

I hope the day will come when Turkey will own up to its responsibility for what happened under the Ottoman Turks, just as Germany’s leaders have for the perpetration of the Holocaust under the Nazis. Reportedly, when Hitler gave an order to his Wehrmacht commanders in 1939, he chillingly said, “After all, who remembers the Armenians?”

The power of memory is strong, and the power of erasing facts from memory is equally strong. We have a special responsibility even when it is an inconvenient truth. Let us reach out our hands to the Armenian community, which suffered so greatly, without giving up hope that Turkey will some day both acknowledge the truth and repair its frayed relations with Israel.


Rabbi Doug Kahn is the executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.