Friday, January 30, 2009

Israel, Turkey and the politics of genocide

Globe and Mail Update

President Obama — I love saying those words — has momentarily united the world. Almost. Among the exceptions, though barely noticed by the mainstream media, is the estrangement of Turkey and Israel, previously staunch allies in the turbulent Middle East.

At first blush, this alliance may seem counterintuitive, but in fact it makes good strategic sense for both countries. Israel gets a warm working relationship with one of the largest Muslim countries in the world, while enriching Israel's all-important industrial-military complex. Less than two months ago, for instance, came the news of a deal worth $140-million to Israeli firms to upgrade Turkey's air force. In the hard-boiled, realpolitik terms that determine Israel's strategies, it's a no-brainer. Almost.

In return, Turkey gets military, economic and diplomatic benefits. But it also gets something less tangible, something that matters deeply for reasons hard for outsiders to grasp. As part of the Faustian bargain between the two countries, a succession of Israeli governments of all stripes has adamantly refused to recognize that in 1915 the Turkish government was responsible for launching a genocide against its Armenian minority. Some 1.5-million Armenian women, men and children were successfully killed.

I should make clear that this Israeli position is not held casually. On the contrary. Over the years Israelis, with a few notably courageous exceptions, have actually worked against attempts to safeguard the memory of the Armenian genocide. (The bible on this issue is the excellent book by an Israeli, Yair Auron, called The Banality of Denial: Israel and the Armenian Genocide, 2003.)

For many, this may well be a pretty esoteric sidebar to the world's many crises. But readers need to understand that every Turkish government for almost a century now has passionately denied that a genocide took place at all. Yet the vast majority of disinterested scholars of genocide have publicly affirmed that it was indeed a genocide, one of the small number in the 20th century (with the Holocaust and Rwanda) that have incontestably met the definition set down in the UN's 1948 Genocide Convention.

For Armenians in the Western world, even after 94 years, nothing is more important than persuading other governments to recognize this. For Turkish authorities, even after 94 years, nothing is more important than preventing that recognition. In that pursuit, Israel has been perhaps Turkey's most powerful ally. After all, if the keepers of the memory of the Holocaust don't acknowledge 1915, why should anyone else?

But the Israeli-Turkish bargain goes well beyond Israel. Not only is Israel, of all the unlikely states in the world, a genocide denier, but also many established Jewish organizations in other countries, especially the United States, have followed suit. In the United States, those who argue that denying the Holocaust is psychologically tantamount to a second holocaust have taken the lead in pressuring presidents and Congress against recognizing the reality of 1915. Resolutions calling for recognition are regularly pushed by American-Armenians and their many supporters. Jewish groups regularly lead the opposition. Some believe that members of these groups in fact understand perfectly well the rights and wrongs of the case. But a mindset that backs any and all Israeli government initiatives trumps all else. And successfully. Repeated attempts in Congress to pass this resolution has failed, even though the list of nations that now recognizes the Armenian genocide has grown steadily and, thanks to Stephen Harper, now includes Canada.

It is this rather unseemly, if not unholy, Israeli-Turkish deal that has been among the many victims of the latest Israeli attack on Gaza. Whether the Israelis anticipated it or not, the Turkish government turned against its erstwhile ally with a vengeance, pulling few punches. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan accused Israel of "perpetrating inhuman actions which would bring it to self-destruction. Allah will sooner or later punish those who transgress the rights of innocents." Mr. Erdogan described Israel's attack on Gaza as "savagery" and a "crime against humanity."

Israel formally described this language as "unacceptable" and certain Israeli media outlets have raised the stakes. The Jerusalem Post editorialized that given Turkey's record of killing tens of thousands of Kurds in northern Iraq, "we're not convinced that Turkey has earned the right to lecture Israelis about human rights." Israel's deputy foreign minister was even more pointed: "Erdogan says that genocide is taking place in Gaza. We [Israel] will then recognize the Armenian-related events as genocide." Suddenly, genocide turns into a geopolitical pawn.

It isn't easy to choose a winner in the cynicism stakes here. Here's what one Turkish columnist, Barcin Yinanc, shrewdly wrote: "When April comes, I can imagine the [Turkish] government instructing its Ambassador to Israel to mobilize the Israeli government to stop the Armenian initiatives in the U.S. Congress. I can hear some Israelis telling the Turkish Ambassador to go talk to Hamas to lobby the Congress."

I'm guessing some readers work on the naïve assumption that an event is deemed genocidal based on the facts of the case. Silly you. In the real world, you call it genocide if it bolsters your interests. If it doesn't, it's not. It's actually the same story as with preventing genocide.

What happens now? Candidate Obama twice pledged that he would recognize the Armenian claim of genocide. But so had candidate George W. Bush eight years earlier, until he was elected and faced the Turkish/Jewish lobby. Armenian-Americans and their backers are already pressing Mr. Obama to fulfill his pledge. With the Turkish-Israeli alliance deeply strained, the position of the leading Jewish organizations is very much in question this time. Whatever the outcome, be sure that politics, not genocide, will be the decisive factor.

Gerald Caplan, author of The Betrayal of Africa, writes frequently on issues related to genocide.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

When it comes to Gaza, leave the Second World War out of it

Robert Fisk's World: When it comes to Gaza, leave the Second World War
out of it

How do Holocaust survivors in Israel feel about being called Nazis?

Saturday, 17 January 2009 Web

Exaggeration always gets my goat. I started to hate it back in the
1970s when the Provisional IRA claimed that Long Kesh internment camp
was "worse than Belsen". It wasn't as if there was anything nice about
Long Kesh ` or the Maze prison as it was later politely dubbed ` but it
simply wasn't as bad as Belsen. And now we're off again. Passing
through Paris this week, I found pro-Palestinian demonstrators carrying
signs which read "Gaza, it's Guernica" and "Gaza-sur-Glane".

Guernica, as we all know, was the Basque city razed by the Luftwaffe in
1937 and Oradour-sur-Glane the French village whose occupants were
murdered by the SS in 1944. Israel's savagery in Gaza has also been
compared to a "genocide" and ` of course ` a "holocaust". The French
Union of Islamic Organisations called it "a genocide without precedent"
` which does take the biscuit when even the Pope's "minister for peace
and justice" has compared Gaza to "a big concentration camp".

Before I state the obvious, I only wish the French Union of Islamic
Organisations would call the Armenian genocide a genocide ` it doesn't
have the courage to do so, does it, because that would be offensive to
the Turks and, well, the million and a half Armenians massacred in 1915
happened to be, er, Christians.

Mind you, that didn't stop George Bush from dropping the word from his
vocabulary lest he, too, should offend the Turkish generals whose
airbases America needs for its continuing campaign in Iraq. And even
Israel doesn't use the word "genocide" about the Armenians lest it
loses its only Muslim ally in the Middle East. Strange, isn't it? When
there's a real genocide ` of Armenians ` we don't like to use the word.
But when there is no genocide, everyone wants to get in on the act.

Yes, I know what all these people are trying to do: make a direct
connection between Israel and Hitler's Germany. And in several radio
interviews this past week, I've heard a good deal of condemnation about
such comparisons. How do Holocaust survivors in Israel feel about being
called Nazis? How can anyone compare the Israeli army to the Wehrmacht?
Merely to make such a parallel is an act of anti-Semitism.

Having come under fire from the Israeli army on many occasions, I'm not
sure that's necessarily true. I've never understood why strafing the
roads of northern France in 1940 was a war crime while strafing the
roads of southern Lebanon is not a war crime. The massacre of up to
1,700 Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatila camps ` perpetrated by
Israel's Lebanese Phalangist allies while Israeli soldiers watched and
did nothing ` falls pretty much into the Second World War bracket.
Israel's own estimate of the dead ` a paltry 460 ` was only nine fewer
than the Nazi massacre at the Czech village of Lidice in 1942 when
almost 300 women and children were also sent to Ravensbrück (a real
concentration camp). Lidice was destroyed in revenge for the murder by
Allied agents of Reinhard Heydrich. The Palestinians were slaughtered
after Ariel Sharon told the world ` untruthfully ` that a Palestinian
had murdered the Lebanese Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayel.

Indeed, it was the courageous Professor Yeshayahu Leibovitz of the
Hebrew University (and editor of the Encyclopaedia Hebraica) who wrote
that the Sabra and Chatila massacre "was done by us. The Phalangists
are our mercenaries, exactly as the Ukrainians and the Croatians and
the Slovakians were the mercenaries of Hitler, who organised them as
soldiers to do the work for him. Even so have we organised the
assassins of Lebanon in order to murder the Palestinians". Remarks like
these were greeted by Israel's then minister of interior and religious
affairs, Yosef Burg, with the imperishable words: "Christians killed
Muslims ` how are the Jews guilty?"

I have long raged against any comparisons with the Second World War `
whether of the Arafat-is-Hitler variety once deployed by Menachem Begin
or of the anti-war-demonstrators-are-1930s-appeasers,
most recently
used by George Bush and Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara. And pro-Palestinian
marchers should think twice before they start waffling about genocide
when the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem once shook Hitler's hand and said `
in Berlin on 2 November 1943, to be precise ` "The Germans know how to
get rid of the Jews... They have definitely solved the Jewish problem."
The Grand Mufti, it need hardly be added, was a Palestinian. He lies
today in a shabby grave about two miles from my Beirut home.

No, the real reason why "Gaza-Genocide" is a dangerous parallel is
because it is not true. Gaza's one and a half million refugees are
treated outrageously enough, but they are not being herded into gas
chambers or forced on death marches. That the Israeli army is a rabble
is not in question ` though I was amused to read one of Newsweek's
regular correspondents calling it "splendid" last week ` but that does
not mean they are all war criminals. The issue, surely, is that war
crimes do appear to have been committed in Gaza. Firing at UN schools
is a criminal act. It breaks every International Red Cross protocol.
There is no excuse for the killing of so many women and children.

I should add that I had a sneaking sympathy for the Syrian foreign
minister who this week asked why a whole international tribunal has
been set up in the Hague to investigate the murder of one man `=2
Lebanese ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri ` while no such tribunal is set
up to investigate the deaths of more than 1,000 Palestinians.

I should add, however, that the Hague tribunal may well be pointing the
finger at Syria and I would still like to see a tribunal set up into
the Syrian massacre at Hama in 1982 when thousands of civilians were
shot at the hands of Rifaat al-Assad's special forces. The aforesaid
Rifaat, I should add, today lives safely within the European Union. And
how about a trial for the Israeli artillerymen who massacred 106
civilians ` more than half of them children ` at the UN base at Qana in

What this is really about is international law. It's about
accountability. It's about justice ` something the Palestinians have
never received ` and it's about bringing criminals to trial. Arab war
criminals, Israeli war criminals ` the whole lot. And don't say it
cannot be done. Wasn't that the message behind the Yugoslav tribunal?
Didn't some of the murderers get their just deserts? Just leave the
Second World War out of it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Thousands of Turks Apologize to Armenians

While I have received a number of personal letters from individual Turks apologizing for the Genocide, this one is addressed to all Armenians: “My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them.”

The thousands of Turkish signatories of the apology statement are not saying sorry for the genocide itself (which they call “the Great Catastrophe,” translating from the Armenian Metz Yeghern). The apology is for the convenient “ignorance” and “denial” about the WWI extermination of Ottoman Empire’s indigenous Armenians for about nine decades. The message, as I see it, is not recognizing a historical fact but recognizing humanity. To recognize genocide means to recognize a victim group’s humanity. The reverse can, apparently, be true as well.

What is also true is that there are thousands of Turks who are willing to risk their lives and comfort in order to break an ancient silence. As one Turkish friend told me, “[i]t’s a bit like putting your name on a ‘wanted’ list.” The “wanted list” is pretty big: over 22,000 signatures on the main website,, by December 24, 2008, and over 3,400 on Facebook (as of Dec 20) with their real names and photographs (the Facebook event list seems to have since become a private one).

On the other hand, all that Armenians have received for losing a homeland and memory through genocide is a 90-year-late “apology” by a group of people some of whose signatories don’t hide its strategy. One initiator, for instance, has been quoted as suggesting in one Turkish-language newspaper that the apology is a service to the Republic of Turkey in the sense that it will kill genocide recognition by other countries. Furthermore, earlier this year, in my indigenous politics class, the professor and many students were not satisfied with Australia’s and Canada’s official apology to their indigenous peoples for genocidal policies. So in general, an “apology” is not well received by victim groups.

What is undeniable, nonetheless, is that this apology has full of potential. One would not even imagine such an apology five years ago. One would not imagine that Turkish parliamentarians would discuss the matter, even some of them using the Kurdish term “genocide” to refer to the Armenian extermination.

The apology has also brought out the paradoxical Turkish society. Turkey’s ceremonial president Abdullah Gul has defended the signatories (unlike the “real” Turkish leader, vice president Erdogan). At the same time, though, Gul is suing a nationalist Turkish parliamentarian for saying the president has Armenian roots and that’s why he defends the apology. This is also the same Gul who has attended a ceremonial killing of Armenian soldiers in Turkey. But this is also the same Gul who visited Armenia this year and wanted to improve relations.

Nevertheless, Turkish media are openly calling Canan Arıtman, the female member of a social-democratic party who suggested Gul is a traitor because of his alleged Armenian origin, a “fascist” and a “racist.” Suggesting that the politician be expelled from her party, one Turkish columnist writing for Sabah says, “Arıtman is racist. What place can racism and questioning ethnic origins have in social democracy, an ideology that has freedom, equality and brotherhood as its fundamental tenets?”

Writing even harsher, a liberal Turkish columnist asks what if all Turks have Armenian origin:

“Arıtman and those like her are the strongest reason we have to apologize to the Armenian community. If these people can readily put into circulation statements that are racist, low and self-aggrandizing, the entire community is responsible for that. We all have a share in this crime. I have questions to ask people who approach this issue reluctantly and who think that it is unnecessary as an agenda item. Have you ever thought about this? Maybe we are all really Armenians. We may all have people in our lineage who were forced to act like Muslim Turks.”

A Zaman columnist says Turks “should thank the racist CHP deputy” for reminding the history of her political party. Apparently that political party is the hereditary of the chauvinist “Union and Progress” that committed the Genocide in 1915.

Furthermore, some of Arıtman’s colleagues in the parliament have compared her to Hitler: “”It was a similar stance that led German dictator Adolf Hitler to burn thousands of people of Jewish origin. Arıtman sees Armenians as enemies.”

When was the last time when any media in Turkey was outraged against insulting Armenians? Indeed this is unprecedented and demonstrates the power of the apology – no matte how vague and not-enough it may be. This maybe the reason why there is so much ultranationalist outrage in Turkey against the apology (even if some self-perceived progressives silently suggest the apology serves Turkey’s national interests). The website of the apology, for instance, was “suspended” according to a message which appeared on it around 1:30 AM standard US eastern time on December 23, 2008. Days ago it was also hacked. Furthermore, a group of nationalists have opened their own website called “I don’t apologize.” Almost 50,000 nationalists have signed it as of December 24. Another counter campaign claims twice as many supporters, although neither websites have received much - if any coverage - in Turkish or other media.

Hated by Turkish ultranationalists, the apology initiative has inspired similar (though low-profile) campaigns in the region. I have received a text that is being circulated among Cypriot Turks and Greeks asking both communities to apologize to each other:

“Initiative for Apologizing for the atrocities committed by ones’ own community

1. This is an initiative to collect signatures on a document apologizing for the atrocities committed by ones’ own community against the other. Following the initiative of 200 Turkish intellectuals, who found the courage to apologize for the Armenian genocide, we believe it is time for Cypriots to assume responsibility for the crimes allegedly committed in their name and to express regret and condemnation.

2. The initiative also aims at putting an end to the decades- long practice of concealing the truth about the events, of denying that they ever took place or attempt to justify them. This amounts to a crime of massacre denial which can no longer be tolerated. At the same time each one of us must assume responsibility for the actions we can take as parents, teachers, activists, journalists, politicians to put an end to the decades-long conspiracy of silence about our regrettable past.

3. We call on all interested persons and organizations to engage in a process of consultation on how best to promote this initiative and to formulate the text to be signed.”

Full of more potential for good than for bad, the Turkish apology is one that surprises many. In fact, it might not have been possible without one person. According to the Irish Times:


Others attribute the initiative to the shock that followed the murder of the Armenian-Turkish editor Hrant Dink. A leading advocate of a more humane debate on the Armenian issue, Dink was gunned down by a nationalist teenager in January 2007.

“When he died, it was as if a veil had been torn from the eyes of the democratic-minded citizens of this country,” says Nil Mutluer, a feminist activist who signed the letter. “People realised there was no time to be lost.”

The road ahead looks hard. The chief organisers of the 1915 massacres continue to be commemorated in street names across the country….”

The road is a hard one, but not unprecedented. Around the globe, there is a global recognition of indigenous rights which have often been repressed through genocidal policies. One such injustice was recently corrected by the country of Nicaragua when it gave title of traditional land to a native nation. A simple apology seems to please many Armenians, though, even it comes froma group of liberal Turks who are ashamed of a 90-year-old campaign to silence and rewrite history.

When I gave my father a print-out of the apology in western Armenian, his initial reaction was: “They took all of our land and memory and all they give us is an apology by a group of small people who don’t even use the word genocide?” To my surprise, he then added, “I accept their apology.”

And earlier this April, when a group of Turkish lobbyists and community organizers denied the Armenian genocide during a commemorative lecture at University of Denver, an Armenian friend of mine (who openly calls himself a nationalist), said to the audience that if a Turk told him “sorry” for the Genocide he would give that Turk a “big, Armenian hug.”

My friend owes 20,000 Turks big, Armenian hugs. Let’s hope the number grows so big that he will never be able to give so many hugs in 90 years.

Turk Gives Away Family Land as Genocide Reparation

Blogian on 09 Jan 2009

Encouraged by the recent apology to Armenians by thousands of Turkish intelectuals and disissidents, a Turkish citizen has done the unprecedented: Berzan Boti (not his real name) of Siirt is giving all the land he inherited to an Assyrian organization. Along with Armenians, indigenous Assyrians were also victims of the WWI genocide at the hands of Ottoman Empire’s government during WWI:

Boti’s letter to Sabri Atman, founder and director of the Assyrian Seyfo Center in Europe who will now be responsible for the returned land (south of the Lake Van), states:

“When I found out that the properties that I and my brothers inherited from our father wasn’t our own, but properties taken from the murdered Assyrians in 1915 I felt an indescribable feeling of guilt and shame. I’ve been thinking long and hard before I have come to this decision. I tried to put myself in their position. I have personally apologized to every Assyrian and Armenian I’ve met. But this does not get rid of the crime our ancestors committed. Even if I am personally not responsible for what happened in 1915, I felt as I had to do more than just to apologize. Finally, I came to the decision to give back all properties that I inherited from my forefathers to Seyfo Center, which works for the recognition of the Seyfo (Assyrian) genocide in 1915” (slightly edited - Blogian).

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

“Sorry” Seems to Be the Hardest Word: Turkish elites agonize over apology campaign

A Commentary by Jirair Haratunian
Trustee, Armenian Assembly of America Published: 09 January, 2009

For the past few weeks Turkey has been agonizing over an internet petition initiated by a group of Turkish intellectuals apologizing for the 1915 “Great Catastrophe” that befell the Armenian population in Anatolia. The campaign ignited a counter movement led by former Turkish ambassadors and a sharp rebuke by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Prime Minister said, “If there was a crime let those who committed it apologize. My nation, my country has no such issue.”

Curiously, President Abdullah Gul initially characterized the petition as evidence that Turkey is committed to the democratic principle of free expression, but on January 1, after much criticism for his passive reaction to the apology campaign, he confessed that it was not helpful in the process of negotiations with Armenia.

Remarkably, the latest reports say that 26,000 signatories have registered their personal apology to the internet petition, and the Turkish media has headlined the campaign as a major news story for weeks. They also gave wide coverage to the Armenian Assembly of America statement quoting its Executive Director, Bryan Ardouny, who said, “An irreversible trend has commenced in Turkey. This public apology is a first step in that direction and will inevitably lead Turkey in coming to grips with its genocidal past.”

The petition’s authors carefully avoided using the “Genocide” label in their apology statement. Instead they called the horrors of 1915 “The Great Catastrophe,” a term that in Armenian is called “Medz Yeghern.” This was widely used by Armenians before Raphael Lemkin coined the word genocide. The petition also avoided asking the Turkish state to recognize the Armenian Genocide in any way. The campaign, the authors asserted, is a means for Turks to personally apologize for the horrors Armenians endured at the hands of the Ottoman regime.

The opposition arguments range from denial of any crimes against Armenians to the comparison of equivalent losses suffered by Turks at the hands of Armenian insurgents. They also recalled the assassination of Turkish diplomats by Armenian terrorists in the 1970s.

A most interesting phenomenon in Turkey took place on the 32nd day of the apology petition when the Turkish State Television network broadcast a debate between three advocates and three retired ambassadors who opposed the petition.

The moderator opened the debate noting its objectives. He said, “At the root of the issue lies what happened to the Armenians in 1915: was it a catastrophe, genocide, or deportation? Should we apologize? To whom and for what should we apologize?”

One of the authors of the apology petition, Dr. Cengiz Aktar, explained, “We apologized for not being able to talk about this for many years. We also apologize for not being able to share the pain of our Armenian brothers and sisters to a sufficient extent.”

In response, former Ambassador Sukru Elekdag said, in part, “First they are referring to ‘The Great Catastrophe’ which is a synonym for genocide.” He complained that the petitioners were only telling part of the story. “There was a deportation decision of course, but this was done in legitimate self defense during conditions of war. The Russian army was advancing and Armenians took up arms and joined that army.”

The moderator asked whether the apology petition makes a positive contribution to solving the difficult issues between Turkey and Armenia. Elekdag replied, “This campaign cannot serve a useful purpose.” He noted that secret negotiations exist between Ankara and Yerevan and that the Turkish proposal for a joint historic commission to examine the history of the period was part of the negotiations.

Opponents also declared that the petition strengthens the Armenian position on the issue in international quarters where the Armenian Diaspora campaigns for international recognition of genocide.

Dr. Aktar made a passionate defense of the petition. He said that the petition involved individual and personal apologies and does not address itself to either the Armenian or Turkish governments. He said responses from Armenians were positive. “They are giving a positive response with tears in their eyes because they are finally seeing a compassionate response after 90 years.”

He also addressed the assertions that it was only deportation that was sanctioned by the Ottoman government. He said, “The truth of the matter is that the deportations were one of the biggest calamities that ever happened in Anatolia. The Anatolian economy collapsed because of this irrational decision, and from that time until today the economy has not been revived in eastern Anatolia.”

This television debate was a watershed event in Turkey. It illuminated the differing sides of the genocide issue at a time when Ankara has indicated an interest in changing its rigid policy towards Armenia. It is a step away from past positions that sought to isolate Armenia politically and economically. Instead, despite opposition from Azerbaijan, Turkey has offered a program to establish a stability and security platform in the Caucasus that includes both Armenia and Russia. This, in addition to bilateral negotiations with Armenia, are positive but fragile developments that will hopefully ease tensions and lead to a more normal and stable relationship between Armenia and Turkey who, in the final analysis, are destined to remain permanent neighbors.