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American Jewish Groups’ Role in Downplaying Turkey’s Mass Murder of Armenians Is Highlighted

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
May - June 2005

On April 24, Armenians worldwide commemorated 90 years since the beginning of what many have called a genocidal attack by the Ottoman Empire. Armenians claim that the Ottoman Turks killed as many as 1.5 million of their people during the years 1915-1923 through deportations and mass killings in what is now eastern Turkey. This is viewed as an ethnic cleansing campaign, meant to drive the non-Muslims out of Turkey’s Anatolian heartland.  

Since the l960s, Armenians have been waging an international campaign to have it recognized as genocide, a step that has been taken as a symbolic gesture by legislatures in more than a dozen countries, including France. In response, Turkey has waged its own political fight to keep the word “genocide” from being attached to what happened.  

In the U.S., Turkey has enlisted the aid of Jewish groups to prevent Congress from adopting the term “genocide” regarding the slaughter of Armenians. The Jerusalem Report (May 2, 2005) describes this effort: “In the 1970s and 80s, as Armenian lobbying efforts in the U.S. started to raise the pressure on Turkey, Ankara began to understand that the well-organized American Jewish lobby could act as a counterweight to the Armenians. The Jewish organizations played along, because the strategic value of the budding Israeli-Turkish alliance carried more weight than the historical claims of the Armenians. ‘The Jewish lobby helped us enormously,’ says parliament member Sukru Elekdag, who was the Turkish ambassador to Washington from 1979 to 1989. In realpolitik terms, the arrangement has worked for all involved. Turkey gets a powerful ally in Washington. The American Jewish community then has a useful lever to push Turkey closer to Israel (which has also refrained from recognizing the Armenians’ claims). Meanwhile, the implicit support of U.S. Jewish organizations and the tacit support of Israel give moral cover to any American administration that stops legislation recognizing the Armenian genocide.”  

Yair Auron, a professor at Israel’s Open University and author of The Banality Of Denial: Israel and the Armenian Genocide, states: “To my sorrow, Israel has become Turkey’s principal partner in helping it deny the Armenian claims.”  

While countries that have not recognized the genocide still sent officials to commemoration events or issued statements that use nuanced language to remember what happened without calling it genocide, Auron points out that Israel refrained from doing either.  

The Report declares that, “The policy is not without its critics. Jewish lobbyists in Washington admit that supporting Turkey in the genocide debate is an unpopular position among many of their organizations’ members. ‘We get a lot of criticism from our own members on this,’ says one Jewish official, who asked not to be named. The issue is compounded by the fact that large Jewish and Armenian communities live side-by-side in places like New York, Boston and Los Angeles.”  

“Israel committed an original sin by not explaining to Turkey from the start that the Armenian genocide could not be negotiated as part of their relations,” says Professor Auron. “I really think if we had told them from the outset that this subject is not part of the discussion regarding our relationship, the Turks would have accepted it.”  

As custodian of the memory and lessons of the Holocaust, Israel is obliged to change course on the issue, Auron says. “You have to take a position; And the historic moral position is one that accepts the genocide.”  

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