By Rabbis Eric Yoffie and David Saperstein
A recent split in the American Jewish community found the Anti-Defamation League under pressure from fellow Jews as well as the Armenian-American community over its reticence to use of the term “genocide” to describe the violence against the Armenians in 1915-17. We praise the ADL’s decision this week to join the global consensus in using the term genocide. But we are disappointed that the ADL affirmed its opposition to a congressional resolution commemorating the Armenian genocide.
One would think such a bill would sail through. That the 1915-1917 slaughter and displacement of Armenians by Ottoman Turkey was the first genocide of the 20th century (long before the word “genocide” was coined) and an instance of the ethnic cleansing that so blotted the remainder of the century — all this has long been accepted by most historians.
And one would surely be safe to suppose that the American Jewish community would be among the most vocal supporters of such a resolution. Yet instead, it has been nearly silent on the matter; many of the organizations most identified with advocating our communal agenda have either been silent or announced their abstention.
Why should this be so? Do Jews read the troubling history differently? Hardly. Much as the Turkish government and its lobbyists would like others to believe the historical foundation just isn’t there, the silence of the Jewish organizations has almost nothing to do with history. It is not what Jews know about Ottoman Turkey but what they feel about modern Turkey now that shapes their response.
The Jewish community is deeply appreciative of Turkey on two counts: First, Turkey has long been a voice of Muslim moderation, tolerance and pluralism, a vital bridge between the West and the Muslim world. Second, Turkey has been the Muslim country closest to Israel, with economic, political and military cooperation that Israel and its supporters hope will be a model for other Muslim nations. The last thing that the U.S., Israel, or the Jewish community desires is to offend Turkey at this critical moment.
Those are very real considerations. But the silence of America’s Jews, intended as an act of friendship and appreciation, serves neither the Turks nor the Jews. In the real world, that silence is heard as avoidance and evasion; it offers a stamp of approval to those who deny the claims of history — and that is something the Jewish community cannot, must not, allow.
For more than 30 years, the American Jewish community has appropriately done everything within its power to bring knowledge of the Holocaust into public consciousness. We have argued that to ignore or deny the Holocaust is to rob the Jewish people of their history and to dishonor the memory of the victims. How can the very groups that have led the effort to ensure that our genocide will never be forgotten now turn their backs on the genocidal tragedies of others?
In 1989, at the biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism, thousands of Reform Jewish leaders debated this issue and overwhelmingly endorsed the congressional resolution that establishing April 24 as the Day of Remembrance for the Armenian Genocide. The historical record and the role played by one of the first great Jewish diplomats, Henry Morgenthau Sr., in bringing these genocidal actions to the attention of the American government and to the world weighed heavily in their deliberations.
Then America’s ambassador to Turkey, Morgenthau famously sent a cable to the State Department on July 10, 1915: “Persecution of Armenians assuming unprecedented proportions … systematic attempt to uproot peaceful Armenian population and through arbitrary arrests, terrible tortures, whole-sale expulsions, and deportations from one end of the Empire to the other accompanied by frequent instances of rape, pillage and murder, turning into massacre, to bring destruction and destitution on them. These measures are … directed from Constantinople….” On Aug. 11, his cable described the Turkish actions as “an effort to exterminate a race.”
Modern Turkey is hardly the only nation with a sordid chapter in its past: South Africa had apartheid; Germany had the Holocaust; England had the slave trade; the U.S. had slavery, segregation and the mistreatment of Native Americans. And, more recently, Cambodia and Rwanda. Yet in each of these, there’s been an effort at cleansing — cleansing not by erasing the past but by confronting it. Such confrontation is a sign of a nation’s strength, not its weakness; it begets respect, not disdain.
The Armenian genocide was long ago, but as long as Turkey denies it, it will never be far away. No one doubts that Turkey, since Ataturk, is very different from what it was in late Ottoman times. Its many friends wish it well and pray that it will at long last have the fortitude to look unblinkingly at its yesterday, thereby immeasurably enriching its tomorrow.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Rabbi David Saperstein is the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
The Jewish Week, 08/31/2007
Special To The Jewish Week
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