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Jewish Journal

The Armenian Genocide debate pits moral values against realpolitik

Time to take sides?

by Tom Tugend

May 3, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Rabbis Harold Schulweis, left, and Edward Feinstein flank Armenian Archbishop Hovnan Derderian at Valley Beth Shalom. Photo by Jeremy Oberstein

Rabbis Harold Schulweis, left, and Edward Feinstein flank Armenian Archbishop Hovnan Derderian at Valley Beth Shalom. Photo by Jeremy Oberstein

The Turkish ambassador to the United States, Nabi Sensoy, dropped in at The Jewish Journal a couple of weeks ago for an hourlong conversation with its editors. Last Friday evening, Archbishop Hovnan Derderian of the Armenian Church of North America stood on the bimah of Valley Beth Shalom, hugged its rabbi and called the occasion a turning point in Armenian-Jewish relations.

All the attention is flattering, but its underlying cause confronts the Jewish community with choices that -- perhaps oversimplified -- pits its moral values and sympathies against the realpolitik of American and Israeli policymakers.

At the root of the split is a wound that has been festering since 1915, when Muslim Turkey and its Ottoman Empire were fighting Russia, France and Britain during World War I. Charging that the Christian Armenian minority in eastern Turkey was collaborating with the invading Russians, Turkey deported, starved and brutalized much of its Armenian population.

According to the Armenians, backed by predominant historical analysis, between 1915 and 1923, Turkey killed 1.5 million Armenian civilians in a planned genocide. Turkey maintains that some 300,000 Armenians died, but that an equal number of Turks perished, and that both sides were victims of chaotic wartime conditions, disease and famine, not a predetermined extermination.

Turks refer to the wartime slaughter by the Arabic word mukapele, which Sensoy translated during a phone interview as "mutual massacre."

Year after year, Armenian Americans have commemorated the beginning of the slaughter by demanding that modern Turkey formally acknowledge the persecutions and deaths of their ancestors as the Armenian Genocide. Just as consistently, the Ankara government has refused.

This year, the inflammation of the old wound has intensified, marked by the introduction of a congressional resolution that the U.S. government officially recognize the killing of Armenians as a genocide. Both on Capitol Hill and on the grass-roots level, the strongest outside voices supporting the Armenian cause are those of Jews, Los Angeles Jews at that, and the reasons seem obvious.

"How can we, the people decimated by the Holocaust, stand on the sidelines?" asked Rabbi Harold Schulweis. "Perhaps if the world had stood up against the first genocide of the 20th century against the Armenians, the Holocaust might have been prevented.

"It is obscene for us, of all people, to quibble about definitions," said Schulweis, spiritual leader of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and long in the forefront of social and interfaith initiatives.

In 2004, Schulweis channeled his demand for action against world genocides by founding Jewish World Watch, focusing first on the ongoing massacres in Darfur. This year, the nonprofit was organized well enough to expand its reach, sponsoring a joint commemoration of "the 92nd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide" at Shulweis' temple.

At a dinner preceding the Friday evening Shabbat service, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Derderian and Janice Kamenir-Reznik, president of Jewish World Watch, struck a common theme. Jews and Armenians, two ancient peoples who have preserved their faiths and cultures through long diasporas, must be as one in remembering both their genocides and preventing such catastrophes in the future.

At the overflow dinner for 500, the majority Armenians, Rabbi Edward M. Feinstein of the host synagogue noted other striking similarities between the two ethnic groups.

"We both like to talk, loudly, we both like to eat and we both have reverence for our churches and synagogues, even if we don't attend services," he said.

Derderian, a youthful-looking prelate at 49 and a striking figure in a black robe and hood, pointed to some demographic similarities, as well. There are some 450,000 Armenians in Los Angeles, compared to 550,000 Jews, he said, and as primate of his church's Western Diocese, encompassing 14 states, he leads a flock of 800,000.

During the Shabbat service attended by some 1,100 Jewish and Armenian worshippers, Schulweis summarized his position, saying, "Of genocides, we cannot say, 'Mine is mine and yours is yours,' because both are ours."

The combined choirs of Valley Beth Shalom and St. Peter Armenian Church movingly concluded the evening with the singing of the Armenian and Israeli national anthems, both expressing the longing for lost homelands, followed by "America the Beautiful."

The Jewish and Armenian communities will come together again on May 15, when Jewish World Watch, now supported by 54 synagogues, will honor two Armenian scholars and activists at Adat Ari El synagogue. The honorees of the I Witness Award will be filmmaker Michael Hagopian and UCLA professor Richard G. Hovannisian.

Jewish support for the Armenian grievances has not been unanimous. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who represents a large Armenian constituency and has introduced House Resolution 106 calling for U.S. recognition of the 1915 genocide, has sent letters to four Jewish organizations criticizing their positions.

The Jewish legislator admonished the American Jewish Committee (AJ Committee), B'nai B'rith International, the Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), which had jointly transmitted to House leaders a letter from the organized Jewish Community of Turkey.

In the letter, addressed to the AJCommittee, the Turkish Jewish leaders expressed their concern that the Schiff resolution "has the clear possibility of potentially endangering the interests of the United States" by straining Turkey's relations with Washington and Israel.

JINSA supported the letter's view, while the Jewish Telegraphic Agency quoted ADL National Director Abraham Foxman as stating that "I don't think congressional action will reconcile the issue. The resolution takes a position, it comes to a judgment."

Foxman added that "the Turks and Armenians need to revisit their past. The Jewish community shouldn't be the arbiter of that history nor should the U.S. Congress."

In his written response, Schiff took the action of the American Jewish organizations as "tantamount to an implicit and inappropriate endorsement of the position of the letter's authors." Tracker Pixel for Entry

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