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Across the Former Soviet Union Some Armenian Jews Afraid As Country Takes in Hundreds of Lebanese Re

August 11, 2006
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Armenia’s Jewish community is bracing for a possible wave of anti-Semitism as hundreds of Lebanese Armenians taking refuge from the fighting in southern Lebanon stream into the former Soviet republic. Weeks after Israel began its retaliation against Hezbollah forces, more than 500 Lebanese Armenians and Armenian nationals living in Lebanon had arrived in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, on chartered flights from Aleppo, Syria.

More are expected to arrive as the fighting continues and creeps closer to the Armenian quarter in eastern Beirut.

“I’m really scared. I think that politically motivated anti-Semitism is beginning to show itself,” Inna Astvatsatryan, a contributor to Magen David, the community’s newspaper, told JTA.

Astvatsatryan was vague about the details, but her fear is echoed by many in Armenia’s tiny Jewish community, which numbers anywhere from 100 to several hundred.

The Israeli army is not targeting Beirut’s Armenian quarter, nor are there reports of Armenians being killed by Israeli fire, but Lebanese Armenians feel affected by Israel’s war on Hezbollah.

“People talk about the fact that they are only bombing south Beirut, but they don’t realize that Beirut is a tiny city. If you’re bombing one part, you’re bombing the entire city,” said Shogher Margossian, 23, a Lebanese Armenian who flew to Yerevan from Beirut a few days after the conflict broke out.

Lebanese Armenians have close ties with Lebanon, as harbored Armenian refugees fleeing the Turkish massacre of Armenians in the early 20th century. An estimated 80,000 ethnic Armenians live in a tight-knit community in Beirut.

On the streets of Yerevan, Lebanese Armenians are unanimous: They do not support Hezbollah’s military activity, but they consider Israel’s offensive unwarranted and counterproductive.

Some local Jews fear that anti-Israeli sentiments the displaced Lebanese Armenians are bringing with them may translate into anti-Semitic views that remain long after the rockets stop falling.

Other than the defacement of a Holocaust memorial stone in Yerevan two years ago in connection with the conviction of an extremist politician for inciting ethnic hatred, Armenian Jews are hard pressed to remember an anti-Semitic incident. Swastikas can be seen in graffiti around Yerevan, but they hardly seem fresh or connected to Israel’s conflict with Hezbollah.

Evgenia Kazaryan, editor of Magen David, is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“I think that it is only a matter of time for the effects to be seen,” she said.

According to Kazaryan, there have not been open cases of anti-Semitism because the Israel-Hezbollah conflict is too fresh.

“Not enough time has passed for the impression the Lebanese Armenians bring back with them to sink in,” she said.

The worry has prompted Rimma Varzhapetyan, chairwoman of the Jewish community of Armenia, to consider organizing an Armenian-Jewish roundtable to discuss Israel’s political motivation behind its conflict with Hezbollah, as well as Israel’s failure to officially recognize the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Turks almost a century ago.

Suren Gregoryan, an Armenian journalist, supports Varzhapetyan’s idea and believes disinformation and stereotypes about Jews flow into Armenia from the Armenian Diaspora in Syria and Iran. He insists there needs to be more freely available information in Armenia on Israel and Jewish culture.

Rabbi Gersh-Meir Burshtein remains skeptical about the possibility of anti-Semitism. Burshtein, who heads a small Chabad-sponsored community center, school and synagogue, rejects the idea that the Hezbollah-Israel conflict will cause a spike in anti-Semitic sentiment in Armenia.

Unlike Jewish communities in Georgia and Azerbaijan, which have long Jewish histories, Armenia’s current Jewish community is made up of Jews who began settling in the country from elsewhere in the Soviet Union during World War II.

Some came first as evacuees from the Nazi advance into Ukraine and, as word spread of the absence of anti-Semitism in Armenia, many other Jews came as professionals, Burshtein explains. He said he has walked the streets of Yerevan in Chasidic garb for more than 10 years without confronting bigotry.

Burshtein believes the fact that Israel does not recognize the Armenian genocide is not as important to the Armenian population as some think: Poverty, energy self-sufficiency and the possibility of conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan are more pressing issues.

For her part, Margossian doubts that the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel will affect Armenian Jews. She explained that her accounts of life under Israeli bombing make little impression on local Armenians because they have suffered so much: During the early 1990s, Azerbaijan imposed an energy and trade blockade that forced Armenia’s population to ration electricity and food.

Armenians do not feel sympathy for Lebanon because “most Armenians think of Lebanon as a Muslim country,” Margossian told JTA. “They view the conflict as a war between Israel and a terrorist organization in which civilian casualties are justified. And if Armenians viewed Lebanon as a Christian country, things would be much different for the Jews.”

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