Book Review: Israel’s Failed Response to the Armenian Genocide

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The new book by  Prof. Israel Charny, Israel’s Failed Response to the Armenian Genocide: Denial, State Deception, Truth Versus Politicization of History, is a brave effort taking on wrong doing in one’s own backyard, among one’s own people, who for a variety of reasons, thwarted — or tried to thwart —justice.

Charny has succeeded in presenting the background of a major conference that was almost derailed but went on thanks to the moral backbone of several actors. It is an important addition to the study of the Armenian Genocide and genocides in general, showing how good people can make very bad decisions. It is also important in offering an insider’s view of how the Israeli government regards the Armenian issue.

The book, published by Academic Studies Press of Boston this month, tries to untangle the web of tactics deployed by the Israeli government to scupper the 1982 landmark “First International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide,” in June in Tel Aviv, whose primary organizer was Charny, with the participation of several other Israeli scholars and organizations.

The conference was historic as it was the first known major international academic conference on genocide to link the Holocaust and other genocides, specifically the Armenian Genocide. It was also the first ever to feature Armenian scholars, including Professors Vahakn Dadrian and Richard Hovannisian.

While the conference went on, the size and scope of the conference was narrowed, with major sponsors and speakers dropping out, including Yad Vashem Holocaust center in Jerusalem and Elie Wiesel, the noted Holocaust survivor and human rights activist.

The story thus far has been that the Israeli government was worried about the safety of Jews in Israel, as well as Jews in Iran and Syria who were trying to leave and arrive on the relatively safe shores of Turkey. And because of specific threats, they were trying to get rid of the Armenian component of the conference.

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But was that true?

The answer, Charny arrives after much research, is a resounding no. Charny writes that if there were credible evidence on actual threats, he and his fellow organizers would have agreed to postpone it, but those citing the threats were not able to produce any evidence to support it.

He also proverbially wags his finger at the government of Israel for so easily acquiescing to demands to exclude the Armenian Genocide. “Just imagine our Jewish-Israeli response to a non-totalitarian government that would promote Holocaust denial and exclude Jewish speakers from a bona fide academic conference!”

The book paints the Israeli government in a negative light, juxtaposing its moral high ground as a nation composed of survivors of attempted mass extermination, with a government that wants to curry favor with a nation that has built its fortunes on the back of implementing the very same act of near-extermination to a minority.

In his preface, Prof. Yair Auron, professor emeritus at Open University of Israel, writes, “This book is a major contribution to the study of the Armenian Genocide and the process of denial of known genocides altogether.”

He receives major help in writing and compiling the book by oft-persecuted Turkish publisher Ragip Zarakolu, eminent historian Prof. Richard Hovannisian and US Holocaust Museum Board Member Michael Berenbaum.

“Bringing in these three leaders in their various ethnic groups is a very symbolic, meaningful and wise decision, each of them being a distinguished representative both of their identity groups and of the quest for human decency,” Auron writes.

The book is based primarily on declassified cables and telegrams from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs which showed that Turkey pressured Israel to remove the subject of the Armenian Genocide from the conference. The story that Wiesel and the other opponents got was that the Turkish government will harm Jews there as well as those in Syria and Iran. Except, that did not happen.

“It was Israel that set out on the cruel juggernaut effort to cancel the conference based on entirely fabricated stories of Turkish threats to Jewish lives. At first the threats were defined as aimed at Jews in Turkey and this was what appeared in early New York Times stories, but then the ministry clarified — though at first as top secret until this too became international news — that the most serious threat was that Turkey might stop giving safe passage to Jewish refuges escaping from Iran and Syria through Turkey and therefore their lives were at risk.”

One character who gets a thorough going over in the book is the late Elie Wiesel, a legendary scholar and defender of human rights, who just happened to do everything possible to shut down this conference. Wiesel originally had agreed to serve as the official president of the conference. Not only did he resign, but he used every weapon in his arsenal to try to stop the conference from going forward if the Armenians’ participation continued. Those actions included canceling a grant from his foundation for the conference that he had promised.

While Charny made clear in his interview that he does not blame Wiesel and understands the pressures he was receiving from the Israeli government, the readers can draw their own conclusions when seeing Wiesel was so readily able to not only back out of this seminal conference, but do everything in his power to try to cancel it altogether.

In the book he details his lingering devotion to Wiesel as a man and scholar, as well as someone who endured unspeakable tragedy, though he makes sure to detail his shortcomings.

“Is the Holocaust unique? Of course it is — very much so. But so are other cases of genocide unique in other ways, each in its own story of development and executing and aftermath. But there is also a basic and horrendous commonality: In all genocides, people are being cruelly tortured and murdered en masse. For me, this commonality is the largest fact and no intellectualization whatsoever — what I have called ‘definitionalism’ or an endless obsessive controversy about the proper definition of genocide — can be allowed to obscure these masses of dead bodies or fail to give them a meaningful category name,” he writes.

The book treats the issue like a detective story.

“What is now being revealed for the first time is that previously classified documents of the IMFA make it entirely clear that the alleged threats to detain or to possibly return the escaping Jews from Iran and Syria to their countries of origin were fabricated — made up — no less than by the Israeli government and attributed to the Turks,” he writes.

It seems the primary difference between Charny and several fellow Israeli scholars is how they see the Holocaust in the global context of other genocides.

Charny walks a tight line between spelling out the ugly sins of Wiesel while pointing out that on the whole, his legacy should survive intact.

“Without taking away from Wiesel being a hugely heroic symbol of Holocaust agony and survival, as well as his going on to be a courageous promoter of the meaning of the Holocaust as calling for the life safety of all peoples everywhere, we report here the extensive damages Wiesel’s actions did to the conference and our own hurt, frustration and anger, but we still offer a thoughtful and not entirely unsympathetic analysis of his motivations in doing so and of his basic greatness,” Charny writes.

A tight rope walk indeed.

As for Yad Vashem, “They were clearly uncomfortable but they were also adamant and put their finger directly on the key issue for them. It was not Turkey’s demands to get rid of the Armenian Genocide subject. It was the uniqueness of the Holocaust and the fact that some of their own staff gave them hell for ever agreeing to host our Opening, for we were, after all, quite unkosher, notwithstanding their ‘respect for the conference.’”

Regarding his own treatment, Charny lists the personal hurts he endured, not only in terms of friendships affected and being put in a moral quandary, as well as even developing cancer, but also how his own livelihood was affected by being denied tenure at Tel Aviv University as a result of the conference.

He does note, however, “I still feel I was privileged to live out such a basic challenge between self-interest and critical ethical values. I am also happy to add that I sued Tel Aviv University and won a substantial out of court settlement, let along that there soon came five years when I was simultaneously drawing my Tel Aviv pension while serving as a professor and head of an innovative department that I had been invited to establish at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It was a ‘Turkish delight.’”

The book often offers not so much a narrative but offers essays in addition to documentation of all that was included — or expected to be included — at the conference, including speakers, sections, as well as communication from the participants afterwards.

Charny writes that the policy of Genocide non-recognition does not help Jews or Israelis.

“However, the story of Israel’s failures to recognize the Armenian genocide, which in plain English constitute denials of the authenticity of the genocide, go back a long way before this specific conference, to man y instances when there were no concerns about Jewish lives begin lots that were invoked to justify the denials. Israel’s informal policy of non-recognition of the Armenian Genocide through all the years continues to this day, though most Israeli people and the culture as a whole very much recognize and honor the Armenian Genocide.”

Only time will tell if the Israeli government will change its position.

 

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