Dr. Pamela Steiner

The Armenian Genocide, Morgenthau’s Witness, Israel’s Silence


By Dr. Pamela Steiner


Dr. Pamela Steiner gave the following speech at Hebrew University on April 22, in Jerusalem, at a program commemorating the Armenian Genocide. It has been shortened for space.

For me, this event is the culmination of nearly three years of varied negotiations over the publication in Hebrew of the important book by Henry Morgenthau, my remarkable great-grandfather. I warmly thank the organizers of this event as well as those who generously helped in different ways. They include five individuals who are present, Prof. Bedross Der Matossian and Prof. Reuven Amitai, and, in the audience, Ariela Bairey Benishay and Yona and Uri Shamir. Each person’s support has given me the privilege of speaking about Morgenthau’s witness of the Armenian genocide, Israel’s silence on the topic, and why it all matters.

Morgenthau as Principled, Strategic, Non-Secular Humanitarian

Morgenthau was a principled and strategic political actor. As well as supporting people whatever their ethnicity, he stood against inhumanity and corruption. Armenians worldwide rightly honor him. Morgenthau was principled but not a pacifist.  He returned to the United States from his ambassadorial post in Turkey in part to convince President Wilson to bring the United States into World War I.

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One of Morgenthau’s other commitments was demonstrated from late 1913-early 1916, during his tenure as U.S. ambassador to Turkey.  I refer to his actions to enable the survival of the Jews then living in Palestine, a fascinating, sometimes amusing story brilliantly told in an essay by his historian granddaughter, Barbara Tuchman. Morgenthau’s efforts at complex money-raising and even more complex money-delivering began in August, 1914, two months before the Ottoman Empire entered the war. They continued for months afterwards. In a moment I will name the important figure who at the time declared that Morgenthau’s efforts were responsible for the survival of Jews in Palestine. For what Morgenthau accomplished, this person wrote, “’no word can be too strong, no expression too exaggerated.’”

Another of Morgenthau’s commitments was to a cohort of Greeks. Some history is needed to explain the new mission he undertook in the Near East following his tenure as ambassador.   For centuries, western and northern Turkey had been home to significant numbers of ethnic Greeks. Eastern Greece had similarly been home to significant numbers of ethnic Turks. After World War I, those countries decided that the ethnic Greeks of Turkey would move to Greece and the ethnic Turkic Muslims of Greece would move to Turkey. But this population exchange sorrowed both peoples who were very reluctant to move, and very poor, like Greece itself. Acting for the Refugee Settlement Commission of the League of Nations, Morgenthau successfully helped plan for the ethnic Greeks’ resettlement and raise the international loans to enable it. He even advised about re-establishing Greek democracy. So in 1924 at the ceremony of the rebirth of the Republic of Greece, the new Premier, Alexander Papanastasiou, spontaneously passed Morgenthau a card, saying, “This is for the Father of the Republic.”1

Now we turn to the matter of Morgenthau’s commitment to a Jewish home in the form of Zionism. Although he had enabled the survival of Jews in Palestine, Morgenthau was an outspoken anti-Zionist for most of his life. A Jewish home in Palestine would be, in his words, “the blackest error.” He thought it was unnecessary. This is why. He had been only 9 when his family emigrated from Germany, where he had experienced anti-Semitism, to the United States, where he never reported having that experience. He found the United States welcoming to Jews, as to all, and thus the home that Jews needed. He had a second reason. The Arab inhabitants of Palestine would be not be welcoming. In the words of Barbara Tuchman, these Arabs “resented the Zionist program” and would, in Morgenthau’s words, “’use every means at their command to frustrate it.’”

Morgenthau’s anti-Zionism did not preclude friendships with important Zionists. One of his closest friends was the American-born and educated Judah Magnes. Morgenthau was interested in and impressed by Magnes’s long-held belief in a bi-national Arab-Jewish state. In the late 1920s, Magnes left the United States for Palestine where he became a founder, the first chancellor, and the first president of the Hebrew University. It was Magnes who attributed the survival of Jews in Palestine to Morgenthau’s efforts.

Taken together, Morgenthau’s exertions on behalf of the Armenian people, of the Jews in Palestine, of the resettlement in Greece of ethnic Greek refugees from Turkey and of a safe, tolerant place where Jews could live and call home, if they wished, tell us that he was a principled, strategic, humanitarian, and non-nationalist political actor. I want to stress that his being critical of the idea of a Jewish state did not make him an anti-Semite any more than those today who are critical of Israel’s actions regarding Palestinians are necessarily either anti-Semitic or against the existence of the state of Israel.

Turning to Morgenthau’s witness and Israel’s silence, the Armenian Genocide was, among other things, a political event. Should memorializing a genocide take account of political considerations? I cannot see how that can be avoided. There are no limits to what can be political. As a political event, it seems to me that the memorializing and even addressing the Armenian genocide ought to do so, however, based on combining the bio-social imperative (let me call it for short) and a moral purpose.

Morgenthau would of course have urged the state of Israel to recognize and memorialize the Armenian genocide on behalf of a combined such imperative and moral purpose. Why particularly Israel?  The Wallenberg Foundation reacted to the Israeli government’s refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide and answers the question, why particularly Israel? I read from the Jerusalem Post’s report on February 26 this year, in which the Foundation’s statement is quoted: ‘With all due respect, we are not able to understand, let alone justify this stance. Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, who suffered an indescribable plight during the Shoah. … Twenty-five-years earlier, the Armenian people endured another unspeakable tragedy, which, in light of the world’s silence, many believe had encouraged the Nazis to perpetrate their atrocities against the Jews during World War II.’ The foundation believes that of all the nations in the world, the Jewish state should have ‘the intellectual honesty and the spiritual generosity to recognize the horrific tragedy of the Armenian people. Alas, the Israeli government and its Knesset have lost this opportunity time and again. There is no political reality that could provide a reasonable excuse for that.’

So why has Israel not recognized the Armenian genocide? Recently Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, explained in the Knesset that Israel will not recognize the Armenian Genocide because of the issue’s — in her words – “complexity and diplomatic repercussions and because it has a clear political connection.” Her statement is a dodge. In more direct language, Hotovely meant that Israel’s current economic and strategic ties with Turkey and Azerbaijan are far more important to the security and flourishing of Israel, as her government understands both, than recognizing the tragic events the Ottoman Empire foisted upon a small, struggling people 103 years ago. I recognize and understand the Israeli government’s priorities. But I disagree with them. Their position does not meet my bio-social-moral criteria.

There may be a deeper reason for Israel’s rejection of acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide. In her prize-winning 2015 book, Denial of Violence, the Turkish sociologist, Fatma Muge Gocek, wrote about her country of birth: “Among all sets of violence committed directly or indirectly by states and their governments, those that are temporarily closest to the nation’s creation myth are silenced and denied the most and the longest because they constitute foundational violence. It is foundational because any discussion is framed as a direct threat to the legitimacy and stability of the state and society in question.”

Similarly to Turkey, if Israel’s government and that government’s supporters recognize the Armenian genocide, they would be faced with questions about Israel’s legitimacy—not accusing Israel of genocide of Palestinians—no one accuses Israel of committing genocide against Palestinians. The question is of Israel’s legitimacy about how it has treated Palestinians, which is wrong enough. Israel’s great novelist, David Grossman, has spoken about this critical and valid concern for Israel’s sake.

This internal loss of faith … in the just existence of the state of Israel … strengthens the view, among certain circles, that the entire State of Israel – not only the settlements – is an act of colonial, capitalist injustice, carried out by an apartheid regime, detached from historical, national, and cultural motives, and therefore illegitimate.4

It is not only the victimized who have been traumatized by those at the top. Those at the top, those with power, may have themselves been traumatized and also be recipients of transmitted trauma. The many symptoms for those with power, just like those without it, can include loss of judgment, of moral compass, and of belief in decency. David Grossman again: “The survivor ignores anything that may complicate his worldview or delay his reactions, and so he tends to ignore the gray areas, the nuances, without truly facing the complex and contradictory nature of reality, with all the chances and promises it offers. He thereby all but dooms himself to exist forever within this partial, distorted, suspicious, and frightened picture of reality, and is therefore tragically fated to make his anxieties and nightmares come true time and time again.

“… our continual and automatic refusal to recognize, even ever so slightly, the suffering of the Palestinians, lest this detract from our justness in some way, has now completely disrupted our common sense and our natural familial instinct. Thus, gradually, the sense of affinity and solidarity felt by many Israelis with other groups in our society has waned. Thus a deep hostility is developing between secular and religious, between new immigrants, older immigrants, and native Israelis; between rich and poor; between Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis.

“Thus, the very fundamental Jewish value of mutual responsibility is eroding.”


Currently many people in the United States, Israel, and Armenia have good reason to be convinced that we, these countries’ citizens, have saddled ourselves with corrupt leadership.  Also deeply corrupt are Turkey and Azerbaijan, Israel’s greatly valued trading partners. The two are tightly united in denial of the Armenian genocide. Moreover, Turkey and Azerbaijan are anything but free societies. In Turkey, for example, it is a punishable crime to talk about the Armenian genocide.

The political philosopher, Michael Sandel recently wrote in the New York Times: “public discourse has become hollow and shrill. Instead of morally robust debates about the common good, we have shouting matches on talk radio and cable television, and partisan food fights….. People argue past each other, without really listening or seeking to persuade.

“This condition … give[s] rise to a danger: A politics empty of moral argument creates a vacuum of meaning that is often filled by the vengeful certitudes of strident nationalism.”

Like Sandel, I am frightened about our common condition. I see political choice today less as a right/left split than one between belief and insistence on the rule of law, honoring international obligations and human rights, and vigilantly ensuring uncorrupt government, on the one hand, or no moral compass, no belief in others, no willingness to listen and learn from each other, on the other. Will we choose to build on what the world has achieved since the end of World War II about a democratic, public life worth having? Morgenthau’s anguished witness of the Ottomans’ treatment of Armenians would have led him today to side with rule of law, human rights, democracy, and decency: to acknowledge and memorialize the Armenian genocide and to denounce Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

(Dr. Pamela Steiner is a Senior Fellow with the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health where she directs the Intercommunal Trust Building Project. The project aims to contribute to an improvement in the relationship between Armenian and Turkish communities and between Armenian and Azeri communities. She is

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