As long as I can remember, I’ve known that there was only one unique Holocaust in the history of humankind. We learned that the Armenians had suffered a “genocide” and that “a people’s massacre” had been perpetrated in Rwanda. We learned that Israel’s Arab citizens experienced a catastrophe, known in Arabic as the “Nakba,” when the state was established 70 years ago and they were uprooted from their homes. We were told that the use of the term “Shoah,” Hebrew for “Holocaust,” to characterize atrocities committed after World War II does a moral and historic injustice to the 6 million Jews exterminated by the Nazis.
However, a sea change has now occurred, and senior elected officials have ceded the Jewish monopoly over the Holocaust. On May 16, Education Minister Naftali Bennett used “Shoah” in calling on Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to “promote Israeli recognition of the holocaust against the Armenians carried out by Turkey.” Last month, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan of the Likud used the same term in urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to recognize the “Armenian Holocaust.”
Knesset member Amir Ohana, also of the Likud, drew a direct line between Nazi crimes and the massacre of an estimated 1.5 million Armenian people by Ottoman forces during World War I. “When Hitler presented the Wehrmacht officers with his plan for mass extermination,” Ohana wrote on Facebook, “he reassured those worried about the reaction of the world by saying: ‘After all, who mentions the extermination of the Armenian people anymore?’” He added, “If for no other reason, that is why we should have already recognized this murder officially.” An original and winning argument? Not really. A quick glance through the Knesset minutes from February reveals that Yair Lapid, chair of the Yesh Atid opposition party, presented this argument virtually word for word three months ago to
present proposed legislation recognizing the Armenian genocide.
“The question facing the Knesset today is not a practical one, it is not a foreign relations issue, it is a fundamental moral issue,” Lapid said. “Can we as Jews ignore a holocaust?” Himself the son of a Holocaust survivor, the late Knesset member Yosef Lapid, he added that the State of Israel could not afford to ignore the genocide of another people, the murder of its children, women and elderly. “It is not moral, it is not just and we have a commitment,” Lapid concluded. And how did his fellow Knesset colleague Ohana vote? Like the 15 other Likud members who bothered turning up for the debate, he voted “nay.” So did the Knesset members of Bennett’s HaBayit HaYehudi. Their leader, along with the Likud’s Erdan, skipped the vote altogether. Deputy Minister Michael Oren, who said during a 2015 Knesset debate, “It’s time for us as a state to recognize the massacre of the Armenians and do it justice and close the circle,” also voted against the proposed bill. So did all the members of his center-right Kulanu. The Knesset voted down the proposal to recognize the Armenian genocide by 41 to 28.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely informed the Knesset in that same session that her ministry was opposed to the legislation proposed by Lapid’s party. She conceded that it was important to recognize the suffering of the Armenian people and the tragedy they experienced, but despite “our deep identification with them stemming from the experience of the Jewish people, there’s no room to take a stand on the issue.” She went on to explain, “Given the complexity and the diplomatic repercussions, and the clear political context, there’s no place for a step that could necessarily be interpreted as recognition of the Armenian genocide.” Hotovely added, “This situation is not expected to change anytime soon.”
It is unclear yet whether the verbal clash between Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the killing of Palestinians during violent demonstrations along the Gaza-Israel border changed the “situation” to such an extent that the government is at long last heeding calls for recognition of the Armenian genocide. But if it does so, the world in general and the Armenians in particular will see through the claims of morality and conscience and recognize the move for what it is: taking cynical advantage of a genocide to exact diplomatic retribution and score PR points.
It’s true that joining the 29 other states, among them 11 members of the European Union, that have recognized the genocide would undermine the prospects of eventual reconciliation with Erdogan’s regime. To resolve its previous contretemps with Turkey over the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla that sought to breach the Israeli siege of Gaza, Israel relented and paid compensation to Turkish victims of its commando raid on the vessel. It will not be able to go back on its recognition of the Armenian genocide. Such decisions cannot be made in the heat of the moment, nor as public relations ploys. The Talmud had this to say about such situations: “Woe unto me from my creator and woe unto me from my inclination.”
Knesset member Yair Tzaban (Meretz), who first proposed recognition of the Armenian genocide some 30 years ago, told Al-Monitor that such a move now would raise an issue of Jewish law that questions the value of a good deed born in sin. Tzaban suggests instead adopting the approach of conscientious Israelis who take a stand on each issue on its merits rather than conducting moralistic scorekeeping. The opportunity now emerging for Israeli recognition of the genocide, he advised, should not be missed.
Turkish criticism of the current right-wing Israeli government, harsh as it may be, “will not turn me into a fan of Erdogan and his dark and oppressive regime, which have inflicted deep scars on the bodies and souls of Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian freedom fighters and lovers of democracy,” Tzaban said. At the same time, he added, no condemnation of Erdogan and of Hamas rulers of Gaza will blunt his harsh criticism of Netanyahu and Co. for leading Israel on a dangerous road that stifles the Jewish people’s hopes of national revival and of peace.