By S. H. ROLEF
The Jerusalem Post
Until recently, Israel chose to ignore the genocide in the Ottoman empire.
In 1915-16, during World War I, the Turks were responsible for the massacre of as many as 1.5 million Armenian inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire. Among the first to warn about the nature and scope of the atrocity was Aaron Aaronsohn – the renowned agronomist from Zichron Ya’acov who established the Nili spy ring, which in the course of the war collected information about Ottoman military movements and other strategic issues and passed it on to the British authorities.
Several of Aaronsohn’s relatives and colleagues actually witnessed the bloody manifestations of the massacre. In November 1916, Aaronsohn sent the British authorities a memorandum entitled “Pro Armenia,” in which he described the atrocities.
The previous month, he had sent a long letter to Judge Julian Mack – a leading American Zionist – in which he tried to convince him to adopt a pro-British position, inter alia describing the massacre of the Armenians and claiming that the Ottoman policy against both the Armenians and the Jews (who he feared might suffer a similar plight) had “made in Germany” written all over it. The Ottoman Empire, it may be recalled, was an ally of Germany in the war, and at the time Aaronsohn was writing, many Jews held pro-German or neutral positions. The Jewish yishuv in Palestine, the Zionist Organization and the State of Israel since 1948 could not claim ignorance of what happened to the Armenians.
And yet until recently, Israel has chosen to ignore the event, with numerous excuses, each of which is shameful in its own right.
The first is that since Turkey denies that a systematic massacre of Armenians ever took place, as well as minimizing the numbers involved (a number that justifies the term genocide), and since for years Israel regarded Turkey as a strategic ally – one of the few Muslim states it could regard as such – Israel would do well not to “let sleeping dogs lie.”
The fact that other states, including the US, adopted a similar policy seemed to justify Israel’s position.
The second excuse was that referring to the massacre of the Armenians as genocide might belittle the enormity of the Holocaust – an Israeli attitude that applies to other cases of genocide as well (and is, in my opinion, not just unjustified, but disgraceful). The Jewish Holocaust – in terms of both its circumstances and its manifestations – is without doubt unique. Nevertheless, this does not justify our belittling or ignoring the horrors that have occurred to other peoples.
The third excuse is that since we do not like others criticizing our treatment of the Palestinians, we should avoid criticizing other states for the way they treat their minorities. This excuse is simply foolish, and may easily boomerang, because no matter how problematic our record of treating our Arab citizens (and the Palestinians in general) might be, it bears no resemblance to the sorts of acts we are talking about. On the contrary, given the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict, our record – though certainly not free of blemish – cannot be described as involving massacres or acts of genocide at all, as some, including the Turks, can. The Turks are the first who should be confronted with the difference, and it is a shame that only now, when Israel’s relations with Turkey have deteriorated to unprecedented levels due to unbridled Turkish attacks, Israel has finally decided to have its public say on the Armenian genocide.
For years, various MKs from Meretz have tried to get the Knesset to hold a public debate on the subject. Until last week, the only sort of debate to which the Foreign Ministry, speaking in the name of the government, would consent was one in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, whose proceedings are confidential and whose minutes are not published.
On May 18, the plenum finally decided, following a motion brought forth by MK Zehava Gal-On, to hold an open debate on the subject in the Education, Culture and Sports Committee – the proceedings of which are public, with full minutes published on the Knesset website.
No one opposed the subject’s being referred to the committee, and all the speakers, from Right and Left, religious and secular, spoke in its favor. All one can say is: “better late than never,” but what a shame it took so long.
The writer is a former Knesset employee.