August 31, 2007

Armenian Serendipity and Israel Loses Moral Authority

Last month, while browsing the collection of a used book store, I was drawn to a small book titled, Passage to Ararat, by Michael J. Arlen, about a man exploring his Armenian identity. I quickly picked up the book, as it resonated with me on two levels.

First, as someone who has read the subject of ethnic identity widely and given much thought to the issue, I was intrigued with Arlen's quest to find his own Armenian identity despite (or, because of) his late father's seeming indifference to it. Second, I had opportunities a couple of years ago to visit Armenia. During these trips I got a chance to travel widely in the country and talk to many Armenians. I quickly developed a fondness for the country, its people, and their rich heritage. Arlen's book piqued my interest as it gave me an opportunity to learn more about this fascinating country and its people.

Last week I finished reading Passage to Ararat. Arlen's exploration of Armenian history and its impact on modern the Armenian psyche was truly exceptional writing as well as enlightening reading. As circumstance would have it, just days after I finished reading the book I came across news that a small crisis was brewing between Israel, Turkey, and American Jewish interest groups, particularly the Anti-Defamation League. If you have no idea what the connection is between Armenia, Turkey, Israel, and the Anti-Defamation League, read this. If you are not inclined to read that, here's the Cliff's Notes version: Armenians claim that, in 1915, the Turks of the Ottoman Empire (the predecessor to today's Turkey), committed genocide against Armenians. Through the years, Turkey has steadfastly denied the charge of genocide. Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, the Anti-Defamation League stated that the ethnic cleansing of Armenians in 1915 by the Ottoman Turks was "tantamount to genocide." This got the Turks in a hizzy and now Israel, so as to not endanger its ties with Muslim Turkey, is pressuring American Jewish groups to not recognize what happened to Armenians as a genocide. Ironic, huh?

Issues of identity abound in this conflict. If you ever read Passage to Ararat, and I hope you do, you will note the centrality of the Armenian genocide to modern Armenian identity. Even more central is a sense of Armenian "self-hate," to use Arlen's words, at the inability to prevent the genocide and, later, their inability to make Turkey acknowledge its role. Reportedly, anywhere from 1 to 2 million Armenians were systematically slaughtered in their Ottoman homeland (this is a significant number in absolute as well as relative terms, as there aren't that many Armenians to begin with--certainly not as many Armenians as there were Jews during WWII).

A much more well-known act of genocide is the Jewish Holocaust during WWII. And even as the Jews received some justice and had their day in court, this event too is a central theme in modern Jewish identity. Or is it?

The fact that Israel has made a deal with Turkey to deny the Armenian genocide speaks volumes to the fluid nature of identity. It also speaks to Israel's values. The Israeli State has become a genocide denier for political expediency. This is their right, and likely good politics, but I can't help feeling a sense of loss and disappointment. In my eyes, Israel can no longer claim the moral high-ground when it comes to the dark issues of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

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