Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Hedging on 'genocide' -- the plight of the Armenians

Hitler.JPG"Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?"

Hitler reportedly asked that question of his commanding generals in 1939, as he prepared to rid the world of Jews. Holocaust historians site this quotation when trying to explain Hitler's rational for how his acts would escape world condemnation. And yet, Jews -- who have so much in common with Armenians -- have struggled to embrace Armenians as true kindred spirits, diaspora people like Jews, who, though they did not suffer the Holocaust, suffered a holocaust.

Today marks the 92nd anniversary of the beginning of what most historians call the Armenian Genocide. And though most Western countries have recognized the acts as genocide, the United States and Israel have not. The U.S. has not wanted to offend an important military ally, and Israel has been hard pressed to condemn the founding fathers of the best friend in the Muslim world.

But the tide has shifted.

Two years ago, the Daily News' Lisa Friedman reported that Rep. Mark Lantos, Congress' only Holocaust survivor, had changed course and now supported a resolution to call the slaugthering of Armenians by Ottomon Turks a genocide. Media outlets have been all over the story this year, the year handicappers predict Congress might finally pass a non-binding resolution calling the atrocities genocide. (The LA Times had a front-page story Saturday and an Opinion cover Sunday.) A January headline in the Turkish Daily News proclaimed, "US Jewish lobby warns Turkish MFA: Even we might not be able to block the Armenian genocide bill if you don’t move."

Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative Encino synagogue, has begun pushing for Jewish recognition. I covered an event the synagogue held in January that brought together Armenian and Jewish youth for a screening of the moving "Screamers," a documentary following the rock band System of a Down's campaign to have the genocide acknowledged across Europe and the U.S.

"Amnesia of the past foreshadows amnesia of the future. Forget yesterday's tragedy and the threat to tomorrow is denied. Forget the first genocide of the 20th century -- the murder of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 -- and the memory and atrocities of the first genocide of the 21st century in Darfur turn invisible, and the world response is muted," Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom wrote in this week's Jewish Journal.

" ... Every genocide is singular. But a kinship of suffering unites us all. To play the shameless game of "one-downsmanship" is an invidious sport. My blood is not redder than yours, my suffering not more painful than yours. Hatred consumes us all indiscriminately."

Schulweis, who founded the group Jewish World Watch, which is working against the genocide in Darfur, also will preside over a shabbat dinner for Armenians and Jews at his temple Friday night. He will be joined by His Eminence Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate, Western Diocese/Armenian Church of North America.

Turkey does not dispute that more than a million Armenians were killed from 1915 to 1923, but it attributes the deaths to civil strife and notes that many Turks died then, too; there are even statues to who lost their lives.

"Let's unearth the truth about what happened in 1915 together," the Turkish embassy said in a full page ad on the back of the LA Times A section Monday. "We can face the truth about our past; we call upon the Armenians to do the same."

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