Armen Sarkissian

By Armen Sarkissian

Large recent coordinated attacks against members of the Armenian community of Jerusalem are a matter of grave concern. These attacks have ranged from vandalism and destruction of property to physical violence against innocent civilians.

The seriousness of the situation was underscored in a statement released by the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which said that Armenian clerics are “fighting for their lives,” while the Armenian Quarter—one of the four sections of the old city of Jerusalem—is facing the threat of “a violent demise.”

The Armenian community has been left shaken by these incidents. Israel should be no less disconcerted. Armenians have lived peacefully for millennia in the Holy Land. Indeed, Israel is home to the oldest Armenian diaspora in the world. Armenian monks made their way to Jerusalem in the years following Armenia’s conversion to Christianity in 301 AD, but there was an Armenian presence in Jerusalem as early as 55 BCE. In the 12th century, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem made its home in the Cathedral of St James in the city’s Armenian Quarter.

The Armenian Church, with its fabulous treasure of antiquities, owns a third of Christian holy places in Jerusalem, while the city’s Armenian Quarter has a millennia-long history. The violence there stems from a dispute around a 99-year lease of approximately 25 percent of the Armenian Quarter to an Australian-Israeli businessman and his local partner who planned to build a luxury hotel on the site.

The so-called “Cows’ Garden deal” sparked outrage among the Armenian community because it would lead to the displacement of residents, demolition of homes and a seminary, and the loss of their cultural heritage.

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Two months ago, in response to the disquiet within the Armenian community, the Armenian Patriarchate decided to exit the contract. Rather than engage in talks, however, the developers mobilized construction equipment and began preparatory groundwork. The Armenian Patriarchate then initiated legal proceedings to annul its agreement with them. Once again, rather than walk the legal route, the disgruntled side, according the Armenian Patriarchate, reacted with violence.

In the past week, Jewish friends and Christian organizations from around the world have reached out to me to express their support and solidarity for Israel’s ancient Armenian community and also their profound concern about the war in Gaza. The attempts to terrorize the Armenian community is an ugly departure from the normality that has characterized relations between Armenia and Israel despite disagreements stemming from the fact that Israel, while refusing to recognize the Armenian Genocide, has sold weapons to Azerbaijan that have been used against Armenia.

By contrast, I saw a glimpse of the helpful side of Israel during my first visit to the Holy Land in the early 1990s as a callow Armenian diplomat. I was granted an audience with Yitzhak Rabin, then the prime minister of Israel. Rabin was a formidable figure, a man who inspired affection and admiration (and even loathing) in his people. But the person who received me was an avuncular teacher. He displayed a surprisingly deep knowledge of Armenia’s past and was curious to know about events in the country. He reminded me that we were both members of ancient civilizations that had survived every attempt to wipe them out.

“We are survivors,” Rabin said. “We should never forget that.” The generosity of the great man was as surprising as it was moving. But he wasn’t done. He offered me any and all assistance. Since survival and state-building were also Armenia’s primary goals at the time, I asked if I could visit the Jewish Agency and other government and non-governmental organizations. I wanted to observe how they worked, and apply that knowledge to newly independent Armenia. Rabin immediately picked up the phone and made all the arrangements.

In 2020, before Azerbaijan launched a war against Armenia, I returned to Israel as Armenia’s president, becoming the first head of state of my country to make an official visit to the Jewish State. The occasion that took me to Israel was the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Almost fifty other heads of state had come to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum. But as a senior Israeli official reminded me, Armenians could relate to the place and all that it memorialized in a “different” way.

As other leaders departed, I was extended an invitation to stay on a while longer. I accepted, and spent the time touring holy sites, visiting Ramallah, and going to Israeli universities. The most memorable portion of my trip, however, was spent discovering Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter, where I met monks, studied manuscripts, and got to the know the local community. The city’s Armenian heritage filled me with pride.

The Armenians who arrived as refugees from the genocide in the Ottoman Empire a century ago not only enlarged Jerusalem’s ancient Armenian community but also enriched the crafts of Israel by resuming in Israel the skilled ceramics works that had been decimated by the Ottoman Empire. The finest “Kuthaya Ceramics,” named after the Armenian city in Anatolia, are now to be found in Israel. Ceramic tiles crafted by Armenian refugees adorn some of Jerusalem’s most illustrious buildings, including the American Colony Hotel and the residence of the Israeli president.

Unfortunately, what is happening in and to the Armenian Quarter is threatening more than the concord that has defined the Armenian community’s presence in Jerusalem. It is imperiling the very foundation of Jerusalem’s unique character. And it demands immediate intervention by the authorities. Israel, as a nation founded on the rule of law, must take swift action to protect the Armenian community, their historic heritage, and the uniqueness of Jerusalem.

(Dr. Armen Sarkissian served as the fifth prime minister and fourth president of Armenia. His new book, The Small States Club: How Small Smart States Can Save the World, was published in December. This commentary originally appeared in Haaretz on January 15.)


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