With relations with Turkey at another low-point, Israel may move to right what many view as a historical wrong
A debate has long raged over whether to classify the mass murder of Armenians at the hands of the Turks during the First World War as a genocide; that is, whether Ottoman authorities set out to systematically eliminate the Armenian population. One thing is, however, for certain: namely, that a staggering 1.5 million Armenians, most of them Ottoman citizens, were massacred.
By 1914, the Ottoman leadership started a propaganda campaign presenting Armenians living in the Empire as a threat to security. The starting date of the period of mass killings is conventionally considered April 24, 1915, when an estimated 250 Armenian community leaders and intellectuals were arrested and deported (the majority of whom were later murdered) from Constantinople (today Istanbul) to Ankara and its environs. The killings took place in two stages; the first, targeting males and army conscripts, followed by women, children and the elderly and infirm being sent on death marches leading to the Syrian Desert.
What began as a discussion of historical facts has morphed into a heated dispute replete with major political ramifications. For years, Turkey has placed immense pressure on foreign governments to not recognize the killings as a genocide. Israel, which openly advocates for global Holocaust remembrance and education, is one of over 160 countries that have to date refrained from formally characterizing the event.
But as Israel’s relations with Ankara further deteriorate—the latest point of contention being last week’s killing of Palestinians during chaotic Gaza Strip protests—two members of the Israeli parliament have advanced legislation that would officially recognize the genocide.
Amir Ohana, a member of Israel’s governing right-wing Likud party and co-sponsor of the bill, contends that this “is an important issue for anyone who cares about justice and righteousness.” The bill’s other author, Itzik Shmuli from the opposition Zionist Union party, stressed the bi-partisan nature of the push, explaining to The Media Line that “it is not a right or left issue, but one about right and wrong.”
Ohana is cognizant of the fact that some could construe the move as a provocation, the latest in a tit-for-tat diplomat spat with Turkey that, ironically, has included accusations by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Israel is perpetrating genocide against the people of Gaza. Accordingly, the lawmaker rejected the basic premise held by those who maintain that the timing of the initiative is inappropriate, affirming instead that “it has always been the right time to recognize the Armenian genocide as it was an event that actually occurred in history, with devastating consequences.”
Nevertheless, Ohana conceded that, “over the years, the Israeli government hasn’t recognized it as a genocide because of its desire to improve diplomatic ties with Ankara,” before qualifying that “Turkey has now decided to side with Israel’s enemies, so the train has left the station—it’s the right time to challenge [Erdogan].”
By contrast, Father Koryoun Baghdasaryan, Chancellor of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, believes that any decision to recognize the genocide should be made exclusively on moral grounds. “We are not glad that [the matter] has become a political game and that it has become a tool to threaten [Turkey],” he told The Media Line.
“It is the moral obligation of the Jewish people to recognize the genocide and that push should come from the people in Israel, not the Armenian community,” Baghdasaryan asserted. “It would be an important step for the Jewish people, who also feel the pain of the unique, but yet similar Holocaust.”
Israeli officials have long been divided on the matter. Notably, in 2001, then-foreign minister Shimon Peres said that denoting the killings as a genocide was “meaningless.” In Baghdasaryan estimation, Peres and those of similar mind are motivated less by political considerations than by a desire to uphold the uniqueness of the Holocaust.
Georgette Avakian, head of the Armenian Case Committee, an Israel-based organization that promotes the recognition of the killings as a genocide, expressed hope to The Media Line that the Israeli government will approve the bill, as “every Armenian family lost someone in this tragedy.”
However, she concluded, “if Turkey were to issue an apology to Israel, it is likely that the members of parliament who actively support the initiative would reconsider their stance.”
(Benji Flacks is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)