BY RABBI ELIE SPITZ
Congregation B’nai Israel
TUSTIN, Calif.—On Sunday, August 18h, members of the Jewish and Armenian community shared a kosher Armenian dinner mentored by Zov Karardian, a child of survivors of the Armenian Genocide and much admired proprietor of Zov’s Bistro. Afterwards, we enjoyed a public conversation with Professor Richard Hovannisian, a founding scholar of Armenian studies. Professor Hovannisian taught at UCLA, published extensively on Armenian history, and with his students interviewed close to eight hundred survivors of the Genocide of 1915-1918. He did so when there were still those alive to recount what they saw.
As a Jew and a child of survivors of the Holocaust of World War II, listening to Professor Hovannisian gave me a wider context for my people’s own tragedy. I learned that the nationalist Young Turks in an emerging new nation of Turkey saw the collapse of the once mighty Ottoman Empire as a national affront. Christian countries, such as Russia, were taking land away. In crafting the new Turkey, there was a desire to consolidate identity. Christians, Greek and Armenian, were seen as potential subversives and as lacking a commonality with the Islamic, Turkish majority. Under cover of World War I, the Turks were able in an organized, centralized fashion to direct the deaths of close to 60 percent of the more than two million Armenians who had lived in Turkey. Men were shot and most women and children died on brutal marches for relocation to the desert.
Professor Hovannisian described a parallel with World War II and the Germans. Forced to pay enormous penalties marking the end of World War I and beset by a world economic crisis, German nationalism and scapegoating grew. The Nazis sought to purify Germany of the foreigners, the Jews, as potentially disloyal and different in race and faith than the Aryan. Under cover of War the Third Reich was able to engage in mass extermination of the Jews.
A key difference between the Jewish and Armenian communities is the aftermath of our respective genocides. The Armenian Genocide meant that Armenians lost their historic homeland and were left to define themselves for the first time as primarily a Diaspora community. The Turkish government made it a crime to claim that the Turks perpetrated mass killings of the Armenians. Instead, the official line was that there were Armenian provocations and a kind of civil war during World War I. Turkey used much leverage against governments who were willing to recognize the Armenian Genocide. For instance, in 1982 there was the first international gathering on genocide, organized by institutions in Israel and to be held in Tel Aviv. Several hundred scholars from around the world were scheduled to participate. In anticipation of the event, an Israeli newspaper article noted that several scholars would address the Armenian Genocide. Turkish government leaders contacted their counterparts in Israel and said that if the Armenians participated, Turkey would close its borders to Iran during a time in which many Iranian Jews were fleeing toward freedom. Elie Wiesel, chair of the event, withdrew. He said that he could not deny the Armenian Genocide and would not want to jeopardize Jewish lives. The official Israeli sponsors withdrew their names from the conference, which still took place with the Armenian scholars participating, including Professor Hovannisian. Until now, both the United States and Israel have failed for political reasons to officially acknowledge the Armenian genocide.
Jews have had a long history of Diaspora and the events of World War II were part of a larger identity of suffering and dispersion. Germany acknowledged its responsibility and reparations were paid. In fact, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Jews regained a national land in the State of Israel, a product in part of international guilt for not having done more to prevent the horrific crimes. And Jews have memorialized their story through film, museums, and ritual events. Indeed, those museums have become places of learning the dangers of hate speech, political tyranny, and government sponsored crime.
I asked Professor Hovannisian, “How can we as wounded peoples heal?” Professor Hovannisian responded, “We need to make our particular stories universal, so that they will be meaningful to others, and we need to respond to suffering in the world.” As a Jew, I am much identified with his guidance for our people’s healing.