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Jewish Journal

U.S. Jews enter debate on Armenian/Turkish history

by Ron Kampeas

April 26, 2007 | 8:00 pm


Armenians in Jerusalem mark the 92nd anniversary
of the Armenian genocide in this amateur video from April 24.
Click the BIG ARROW to view
United States Jewish groups are caught in the middle of a growing political struggle between two of their traditional friends, Turks and Armenians.

Top Turkish officials and Turkish Jewish leaders in recent weeks have sought help from U.S. Jewish leaders to stave off an effort in the U.S. Congress to define World War I-era massacres of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide.

Rep. Adam Schiff, a Jewish congressman whose district includes Burbank and Glendale and stretches to Temple City, represents a substantial Armenian constituency. He has tried multiple times to pass such a resolution and this time has garnered nearly 200 co-sponsors for his non-binding resolution (HR106), and believes he has the backing of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), speaker of the House of Representatives. Pelosi has met with U.S. Armenian leaders.

"The fevered intensity of the lobbying shows they realize it has the strongest support in recent years," Schiff said.

Los Angeles-based Jewish World Watch (JWW) this year has also become involved in the issue; on Friday, April 27, the Jewish and Armenian communities will observe the 92nd anniversary of the Armenian genocide in a Shabbat dinner at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, with His Eminence Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, Primate, Western Diocese, American Church of North America as the guest of honor. JWW is also actively urging Congress to support HR 106.

The Turkish lobbying has had some effect. B'nai B'rith International, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) are set to convey a letter from Turkish Jews who oppose the resolution to U.S. congressional leaders.

The ADL and JINSA have added their own statements opposing the bill.

"I don't think congressional action will help reconcile the issue," said ADL National Director Abraham Foxman. "The resolution takes a position; it comes to a judgment.
"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."

Schiff says the resolution reflects the historical reality. He notes that Raphael Lemkin, a Jew who coined the term "genocide" in 1943 to describe Nazi actions against Jews, cited the Armenian massacres as a precedent.

The historical parallels between the two events help explain the Jewish community's reluctance to back the Turkish effort to stop Schiff's resolution.

Off the record, Jewish officials say a community struggling to stem the tide of Holocaust revisionism is hardly in a position to endorse efforts to deny what Lemkin and other Holocaust chroniclers have described as the Holocaust's antecedent.

Estimates of the number of Armenians killed in the massacres vary from 300,000 -- the official Turkish number -- to more than 1 million.

Additionally, Jewish and Armenian community leaders have a history of friendly relations. Armenians, who are Christians, have in the past let Israeli leaders know that if the Old City of Jerusalem is partitioned in a peace agreement with the Palestinians, they would prefer that the Armenian Quarter remain under Israeli control.

"I'm pleased Jewish organizations have resisted efforts by Turkey," Schiff said. "I would encourage them to go beyond resisting pressure to affirmative support to recognize this genocide."

That's not likely. Turkey is the closest Muslim ally to the United States and Israel, and participates in joint military exercises with both nations. Jews also appreciate the relatively safe existence Turkey's Jewish community has enjoyed for centuries.

Significantly, a Jewish community delegation, led by community president Silvyo Ovadya, was one of three delegations Turkey sent to Washington in recent months. The other two were Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul's entourage in February, and a multiparty delegation of six senior lawmakers that arrived this week. All three met with U.S. Jewish leaders, as well as administration and congressional officials.

The Jewish delegation, whose visit coincided with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy forum in March, warned U.S. Jewish leaders that passage of the resolution would harm Turkey's Western tilt and could make things uncomfortable for the country's Jews.

The parliamentary delegation predicted no such backlash against the Jews, appreciating the Jewish decision to hold back and Israel's own reluctance to characterize the 1915 massacres as genocide.

"Turkey and Israel have a vested interest in each other's welfare and safety," said Sukru Mustafa Elekdag of the opposition Republican People's Party.

Instead, they warned of broader consequences for the U.S.-Turkish alliance.

"It will hurt the feelings of Turks," said Yasar Yakis, a founding member of the ruling Justice and Development Party and the delegation's leader. The delegates cited the experience of France, where the National Assembly last year recognized the massacres as genocide. Turkey has since rolled back some commercial ties with France.

"If it passes, I cannot exclude very important negative consequences on all aspects of relations, including defense relations," Yakis said.

If so, it would typify Turkey's behavior toward Israel. Turkey frequently issues harsh denunciations of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, yet bristles and threatens consequences over the merest hint of Israeli criticism of Turkey.

Elekdag said the genocide resolution could become an issue in elections later this year.
"Our public is extremely sensitive on these matters. Unwanted events could happen," he said.

Turks perceive the push as a show of Armenia's muscle, the lawmakers said. They believe the Armenian government wants to distract international attention from its treatment of its native Azerbaijanis. Turks feel close to Azerbaijanis, Muslims who speak a Turkic language.

The parliamentarians wondered why U.S. Jews were holding back from fully opposing the resolution, and speculated that it might have to do with the Turkish government's decision last year to meet with leaders of Hamas, the ruling party in the Palestinian Authority that rejects Israel's existence and embraces terrorism. Onur Oymen, vice president of the opposition Republican People's Party, said Israel had moved on from the Hamas controversy, and so should U.S. Jews.

"The Jewish community should not change its position because of one moment," he said, noting that his party had vehemently opposed the meeting.

The Turkish Embassy in Washington ran a full-page ad in Monday's New York Times calling for a commission of historians from Armenia, Turkey and other nations to investigate the World War I-era events.

"Support efforts to examine history, not legislate it," the ad said.

Turkey would abide by whatever the commission concludes, the visiting delegations have said.
Schiff ridiculed the idea. He likened it to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent conference to provide an "objective" opinion on the Holocaust, essentially an exercise in Holocaust denial.

"It's somewhat akin to Ahmadinejad hosting a conference on the Holocaust to invite people to deny it," he said. "The idea of a conference I find an offensive stratagem."


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