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Armenia and reality

M.J. Rosenberg at the Huffington Post sees the vote yesterday in the House Foreign Affairs Committee recognizing the Armenian genocide as a genocide as typical of Israel lobby machinations:

The lobby has always opposed deeming the Armenian slaughter a genocide largely because Turkey has (or had) good relations with Israel. And the lobby, and its Congressional acolytes, did not want to harm those relations.

But, since the Gaza war, Turkish-Israeli relations have deteriorated. The Turks, like pretty much every other nation on the planet, were appalled by the Israeli onslaught against the Gazans. And said so.

Ever since, the Netanyahu government has made a point to stick it to the Turks. 

(snip)

That battle is now being carried to Washington. The Israelis are trying to teach the Turks a lesson. If the Armenian resolution passes both houses and goes into effect, it will not be out of some newfound compassion for the victims of the Armenian genocide and their descendants, but to send a message to Turkey: if you mess with Israel, its lobby will make Turkey pay a price in Washington.

And, just maybe, the United States will pay it too.

I think this assessment is wrong, but I first have to admit a degree of culpability; M.J. bases this assessment on a parsing of a brief I wrote on the vote, and his parsing is fair enough; there’s just so much I could pack into the brief, and stuff I left out might have led him to different conclusions.

First, let me make clear: I don’t think Israel or the pro-Israel lobby is behind this vote. What I was trying to report in the brief is that while Israel and the pro-Israel lobby helped squelch previous efforts to pass this non-binding resolution, this year — based on a bunch of conversations I’ve had over the past year — I can safely say that the pro-Israel community is hanging back and telling the lawmakers, "Do what you feel is right. We’re not spending political capital on the Turks this season."

I honestly did not get the sense that anyone in the pro-Israel lobby is eager for this resolution to pass; just that they did not feel motivated to burn themselves by helping to kill it.

In fact, this resolution carried in committee at least once before — in 2007 — and it carried because seven out of eight Jews on committee voted for it. (The single Jew who voted against was Robert Wexler of Florida, who was a friend of the Turkish lobby.)

So if the Jewish members favored the "genocide" label in the past, why did I choose to make a news item of yesterday’s vote? Because there was a subtle — but significant — difference this time. Last time, the chairman of the panel, the late Tom Lantos of California, did not sponsor the bill — but he ended up voting for it, after agonizing about it in his opening remarks. So too did the other six Jews who voted to call the massacres a genocide. And some of them explicitly agonized because of Turkey’s good relations (at least then) with Israel. "This has been tough for me," Gary Ackerman of New York said then. Eliot Engel of New York voted "with a heavy heart."

This time, Lantos’ successor as chairman, Howard Berman of California, did not dither at all and, in fact, co-sponsored the bill. And despite his urgings, it passed by a much tighter margin than in 2007: 23-22 yesterday as opposed to 27-21 in 2007. (It never reached the full House in that session.) This year, Wexler’s out of Congress, and all seven Jews on the panel were in the "aye" column.

So what does this really tell us about the Israel lobby? It says, first of all, that its frontline — Congress’ Jewish members (and please, this is not unusual, Hispanic groups look to Hispanic members as their frontline, etc.) — will at times defy the lobby’s wishes. They did so in 2007, when pro-Israel groups lobbied very, very hard against the resolution. That they felt freer to vote in favor yesterday is significant, but the bigger picture underscores that they are not the lobby’s pawns.

It also means that lobbies align themselves with existing interests. Previous defeats of the bill — whether in committee, or by keeping the resolution from reaching the House floor — were not the Israel lobby’s alone. As M.J. notes, the Obama administration, like its predecessors, lobbied hard against the bill. Notably, Republicans on the committee who are seen as stalwarts of the pro-Israel lobby voted nay both times, including Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Mike Pence of Indiana, and presumably for the same reason: They have close ties to the Pentagon, which, because of Turkey’s NATO membership, does not want it to pass.

It also means that there are other, competing, lobbies. Adam Schiff of California, the perennial sponsor of this resolution, happens to be Jewish — and also happens to represent an Armenian-heavy constituency in California. Berman is and Lantos was, not coincidentally, also Californians.

But finally, it means that American foreign policy — and this is something we wonks forget — is driven, perhaps to a greater degree than in any other country, by conscience. By moral choice.

I’m not saying yesterday’s vote is the correct moral choice. The doctrine of "realism" in foreign policy implies legitimate moral choices of self-interest — and this vote may not be in Amerca’s self-interest. And I don’t know whether the resolution will go farther than the committee — Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, kept it from the House floor in 2007, and may do so again.

But there’s no question what recent Jewish theory teaches out about the Armenian genocide: That it was, indeed, a genocide. In 1986, I took Yad Vashem’s 3-week intensive study course on the Shoah, and I’ll never forget what Yehuda Bauer — the preeminent Shoah scholar — taught us: The Armenian genocide was the Holocaust’s "cousin if not its brother." What persuaded him, he said, was evidence that the Ottomans looked to physicians to facilitate the massacres — a precursor of the science the Germans used to speed up their genocide just decades later.

Yesterday’s vote might not have been in U.S. interests, according to a "realist" foreign policy read. It probably was not in Israel’s interests, despite the recent coolness between Israel and Turkey. (Notably, one Israeli voice who has consistently defied his  country’s "realist" approach and advocated for recognizing the Armenian genocide as such is Yossi Sarid — also a father of the peace movement.)

American support for Israel has never had a purely "realist," or self-interested, cast — and via Goldblog, Walter Russell Mead at the American Interest makes this case better than I ever could. The support has been, mostly, a moral choice, whatever you make of the morality.

And whatever one makes of the wisdom of the vote yesterday — or in 2007 — I remember feeling immensely moved as seven Jewish members voted not in the "realist" interests of the State Department or the Pentagon or of Israel; but in the interests of never again denying that a genocide occurred.