WASHINGTON (JTA) – In a battle recently described as “pitting principle against pragmatism,” some in the American Jewish community have chosen a third way to handle the longstanding and bitter dispute between Turks and Armenians – “the path of least resistance.”
I first understood the meaning of the term when working on Capitol Hill in the early 1990s. An irate and borderline irrational letter arrived from one of the congressman’s constituents and, instead of informing the writer precisely how many steps he should take in order to jump off the Santa Monica Pier, the preferable method was assuring him that his representative would give his concerns “all due consideration.”
That term resurfaced in my consciousness following August’s events involving a group of Armenian-American activists and the Anti-Defamation League’s regional director in New England. They pressured him to oppose his national organization’s position against a controversial congressional resolution that, if passed, would recognize the tragic events during the chaotic final days of the Ottoman Empire as “genocide” against Armenians; in response he publicly repudiated the ADL policy.
The resulting firestorm led to an embarrassing crisis in Turkish-Jewish relations and could ultimately threaten U.S.-Turkish ties at a time when the American military relies heavily on Turkey for its ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee was expected to approve a resolution this week, over strenuous objections from Turkey, which asserts that hundreds of thousands of Armenians perished in intercommunal violence that also killed many Turkish Muslims and not as a result of an Ottoman conspiracy to liquidate an entire people.
For many years a radical segment of the otherwise honorable Armenian-American community has bullied Jewish organizations, synagogues and politicians to endorse its view of what caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians during World War I.
Instead of pursuing a congressional resolution that, if passed, may threaten the security of American service members, these Armenian-American activists should invest more of their time in beseeching the Armenian military to pull its soldiers out of territory in Azerbaijan, an American ally. Doing so would allow Yerevan to stop relying on Tehran and Moscow for regional support.
In lieu of pressuring Jews and the Israeli government to equate the massacres of 1915 with the Holocaust, they ought to be urging the Armenian government to unequivocally condemn Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s denials that the Holocaust ever took place.
Their motives are at least twofold: to put the massacres on par with the Holocaust and to label anyone who dares question whether the events really did constitute genocide as a despicable “Holocaust denier.”
Never mind that a highly respected group of scholars, including but not limited to Bernard Lewis, Andrew Mango, Norman Stone, Stanford Shaw, Guenter Lewy and Justin McCarthy, recognize that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were killed during WWI but decline to categorize the tragic events as genocide.
For example, Lewy, a professor emeritus of political science of the University of Massachusetts and author of “The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide,” has argued that “major elements of the decision-making process leading up to the annihilation of the Jews of Europe can be reconstructed from events, court testimony, and a rich store of authentic documents,” but “barring the unlikely discovery of sensational new documents,” he says “it is safe to say that no similar evidence exists for the tragic events of 1915-16.”
What is so disturbing is that an increasing number of Jewish organizations, in the face of pressure from Armenian-American activists and in the absence of an effective Turkish-American counter lobby, have chosen the path of least resistance and endorse the disputed Armenian-American narrative. In the process, however, they have trivialized the importance of centuries of Ottoman and Turkish protection of Jews.
To be sure, other forces are also at work. Many left-wing Jewish groups are already taking action against what many believe to be ongoing genocidal violence in Darfur, rendering them easy allies for those who have long sought recognition of their own claims of genocide. In the process, these left-wing groups fail to acknowledge the acute concerns of Turkey, a democratic nation of 70 million Muslim inhabitants that Israel considers a close ally.
Alternatively, there is a loud minority of marginal voices on the right who take an “all-Muslims-look-alike” approach in how they view Islam. In their world there is no variance between a Turk, an Arab and a Persian, and certainly little difference between an observant Muslim and one who elects not to practice.
“Jewish leaders should refuse to be blackmailed by Muslim extremism,” Steven Goldberg thundered in a recent opinion piece in The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, completely unaware and/or indifferent to the fact that secular Turks are perhaps even more outraged than their religious brethren at being labeled “genocide deniers,” as they perceive the charge as an attack against the modern Turkish state’s founder, Kemal Mustafa Ataturk.
Admittedly, national Jewish organizations are not without blame. Most have tended to shy away from educating regional leaders or local synagogues on the complexities of this topic; that the Jewish community in Turkey is understandably offended by the facile comparisons to the Holocaust; that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed in 2005 the creation of an independent commission of scholars to review both sides’ claims (according to the Turkish government the offer remains on the table); that Armenian-American organizations need to call upon Armenia to rethink its close ties with Iran and Russia.
Not surprisingly, the Armenian-American activists filled this vacuum by skirting the New York and Washington headquarters of the ADL, B’nai B’rith International and the American Jewish Committee, and instead targeted local Jewish communal leaders.
Jak Kahmi, a successful business executive in Istanbul and longtime leader of the vibrant Turkish Jewish community, argued last month that the “particular Jewish duty to protect historical truth” should lead the Jewish community “not to silence scholarly argument by pretending a consensus exists, nor to dilute the Holocaust with comparison to events of a completely different nature, but to facilitate the establishment of the historical truth in the first place.”
Too bad that, for more and more Jewish officials, and particularly those at the local level, the path of least resistance is far more appealing.
Jason Epstein is a consultant based in Washington. He was an adviser to the Turkish Embassy in Washington from 2002 to 2007.