BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin generated a major controversy after his January 28 speech at the UN General Assembly in New York.
As Speaker and member of the Knesset (Parliament), Rivlin had led the struggle for many years to have Israel recognize the Armenian Genocide. But, after becoming President, like Pres. Obama, Rivlin has been reluctant to reconfirm his principled position on this issue.
Last month, Pres. Rivlin delivered a powerful speech at the UN General Assembly’s annual International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust. Regrettably, Israel’s President made two serious errors. He called the Armenian Genocide a massacre and, to balance those comments, referred to the Azeri deaths in Khojalu during the (Karabagh) Artsakh war.
Here is an excerpt from Rivlin’s UN remarks: “In 1915, when members of the Armenian nation were being massacred, Avshalom Feinberg, a leading member of Nili, the Jewish underground which cooperated with the Allies during the First World War, wrote the following, and I quote, ‘My teeth have been ground down with worry, whose turn is next? When I walked on the blessed and holy ground on my way up to Jerusalem, I asked myself if we are living in our modern era, in 1915, or in the days of Titus or Nebuchadnezzar? Did I, a Jew, forget that I am a Jew? I also asked myself if I have the right to weep over the tragedy of my people only, and whether the Prophet Jeremiah did not shed tears of blood for Armenians as well?’Avshalom Feinberg wrote that exactly 100 years ago — 100 years of hesitation and denial! But in the Land of Israel of that time, in the Jerusalem where I was born, no one denied the massacre that had taken place. The residents of Jerusalem, my parents and members of my family, saw the Armenian refugees arriving by the thousands — starving, piteous survivors of calamity. In Jerusalem they found shelter and their descendants continue to live there to this day.”
Distinguished scholar Yair Auron, Professor at Open University of Israel, was irate at his President’s choice of words, despite his personal friendship with him. Auron is a long-time advocate of Armenian Genocide recognition by Israel and author of several books on this subject. He is currently teaching at the American University of Armenia.
On January 31, while I was delivering a lecture on the Armenian Genocide at the newly-opened Komitas Museum in Yerevan, Prof. Auron approached me and asked if he could address the audience. After obtaining my consent, he read a personal statement, titled: “Apology to my Armenian brothers”:
“The President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, made a remarkable speech with very touching sentences, identifying honestly and profoundly with the suffering of the Armenian people. But, intentionally, he did not use the term Armenian Genocide, neither in Hebrew nor in English.” Prof. Auron went on to disclose that Pres. Rivlin had told him personally that “he had not changed his opinion, but that he cannot declare it [genocide] as President of Israel. This, I can understand. But, in the last minute before the speech, somebody, probably from the Foreign Ministry of Israel, maybe even the Foreign Minister of Israel, Avigdor Lieberman, told him to include this terrible sentence: ‘Is our struggle, the struggle of this Assembly, against genocide, effective enough? Was it effective enough then in Bosnia? Was it effective in preventing the killing in Khojalu?’”
Prof. Auron continued his criticism: “Mr. President, you used the name of Khojalu in the context of genocide. You know well the difference between genocide and massacre. … Who proposed to you, Mr. President, who asked that you make this terrible error? You do not use the term genocide regarding the Armenian Genocide itself. Using the term genocide, in the context of one village in Nagorno-Karabagh, as if it was genocide, is unacceptable…. You do not dare to use the term genocide regarding the Armenian Genocide, and you define the massacre of this village, that I am sure you did not know its name just a few minutes before [your speech], as genocide. It is sacrilegious, and by it, you betray the legacy of the Holocaust and its victims.”
The righteous professor concluded his heartfelt remarks by pledging: “Let me, my Armenian brothers, apologize in my name and on behalf of many Israeli Jews. We are with you. We will not stop our struggle till Israel recognizes the Armenian Genocide.”