ISTANBUL (JTA) – When a U.S. congressional committee approved a resolution recognizing the World War I-era massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire as genocide, Turkey’s reaction was swift and harsh: Blame the Jews.
In an interview with the liberal Islamic Zaman newspaper on the eve of the resolution’s approval Oct. 10 by the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said he told American Jewish leaders that a genocide bill would strengthen the public perception in Turkey that “Armenian and Jewish lobbies unite forces against Turks.”
Babacan added, “We have told them that we cannot explain it to the public in Turkey if a road accident happens. We have told them that we cannot keep the Jewish people out of this.”
The Turkish public seems to have absorbed that message.
An online survey by Zaman’s English-language edition asking why Turks believed the bill succeeded showed at one point that 22 percent of respondents had chosen “Jews’ having legitimized the genocide claims” – second only to “Turkey’s negligence.”
U.S. Jewish community leaders reject that argument and privately say Ankara has only itself to blame for its failure to muster the support necessary to derail passage of the Armenian genocide resolution, which in Turkey is seen as anti-Turkish.
Lingering resentment remains in Washington over the Turkish Parliament’s failure to approve a March 2003 motion to allow U.S. troops to use Turkish soil as a staging ground for an invasion of Iraq.
And an official visit to Ankara in early 2006 by Hamas leader Khaled Mashal angered many of Israel’s supporters on Capitol Hill, who have been among Turkey’s most vocal proponents as part of a strategy of developing strong ties between Turkey and Israel.
“The Hamas thing was really serious,” said an official from a large Jewish organization who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue. “There is less sympathy for Turkey because of what some see as an anti-American, anti-Israel, anti-Jewish policy that is there.”
“I think there’s a sense on the Hill that Turkey is less of an ally. There is a sense that it’s a different Turkey,” the official said.
Soner Cagaptay, coordinator of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, echoes that thinking.
“The lingering effects of 2003 resonate,” Cagaptay said. “Some people are still angry with Turkey.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the Jews should not be blamed for the Armenia genocide bill, particularly not by Turkish officialdom.
“We regret that some officials there are trying to lay the onus of what’s happened on the Jewish community,” Hoenlein told JTA. “They shouldn’t allow some people to manipulate this initiative in Congress to the detriment of this relationship, which is beneficial for both sides.”
Hoenlein, who met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during last month’s U.N. General Assembly, said, “There is the same commitment on the part of the organized community to support Turkey.”
Observers in Turkey say the public perception of the Jews’ outsized role in the resolution’s passage is based on an element of fact mixed with a greater amount of fiction.
In August, the Jewish-run Anti-Defamation League, facing pressure from grass-roots activists, reversed its long-held policy of not recognizing the Armenian genocide when ADL National Director Abraham Foxman declared that what happened to the Armenians was “indeed tantamount to genocide.”
But Foxman maintained the ADL’s position opposing a congressional resolution on the matter. Such a resolution would strain U.S.-Turkey ties and jeopardize ties between Israel and Turkey, Israel’s main Middle Eastern ally.
Nevertheless, in Turkey the ADL’s reversal was seen as a major blow to the country’s diplomatic and public-relations campaign against Armenian efforts to get a genocide resolution passed in Washington.
“Obviously the ADL’s switch was not good news,” said Suat Kiniklioglu, a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party and spokesman for the Turkish Parliament’s foreign affairs committee.
Mustafa Akyol, an Istanbul-based political commentator who frequently writes about religious issues, says the strong reaction to the ADL’s policy switch and the perception that it somehow legitimized the Armenians’ claims are based on an “inflated sense” of American Jewish power among the Turkish public.
“There is a belief that [the resolution] couldn’t have happened without Jewish support,” Akyol said.
The House bill passed the committee by a 27-21 vote, with seven of the committee’s eight Jewish members voting in favor of Resolution 106. The full House of Representatives has yet to vote on the resolution.
Yet despite the vote, U.S. Jewish groups said they lobbied against the bill – just as they have done in the past.
“Behind-the-scenes support [from U.S. Jewish groups] has been quite powerful” in persuading congressmen to oppose the bill, said the Washington Institute’s Cagaptay. It may yet help prevent the bill from being brought to a vote in the full House.
Turkish Jewish community leaders declined to be interviewed for this story, but Turkey’s Jewish leaders published a full-page advertisement in the Washington Times on the day of the vote voicing their opposition to the House bill.
“We believe this issue should be decided first and foremost on the basis of evidence adduced by historians, not on the basis of judgments by parliamentarians or Congressmen, who naturally (and understandably) may be influenced by concerns other than historical facts,” the statement said. “There have been insinuations that our security and well-being in Turkey is linked to the fate of Resolution 106. We are deeply perturbed by any such allegations.”
Historically, Jews both in Turkey and the United States have been strong opponents of a congressional resolution on Armenian genocide. Jews consider their support for Turkey’s positions on the genocide bill and other issues on Capitol Hill key to maintaining strong ties between Turkey and Israel.
“There is a trilateral relationship, which is Turkey, Israel and the American Jews,” Cagaptay said. “The relationship is about good ties between Turkey and Israel, and good ties between Turkey and the American Jewish community, which makes up for the fact that Turkey has not had, historically, a strong presence on the Hill.”
This time, however, it seems Jewish opposition to the bill was not enough to overcome support for it by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a longtime supporter of Armenian-American issues. Pelosi has vowed to bring the bill to a full House vote.