'No Other Word For It'
New York Daily News
by Zev Chafets
Question: When is a genocide not a genocide?
Answer: When turkey says it isn't.
Between 1915 and 1923, the turkish government systematically slaughtered hundreds of thousands of its Armenian subjects. Some historians put the number at more than 1 million
Today, Armenian-Americans will gather in Times Square to commemorate Martyrs Day. Present will be the sons and daughters of the survivors. Absent will be any representative of the U.S. government. As far as official Washington is concerned, the massacre of the Armenian people was a shame, but none dare call it genocide.
"A tragedy and not genocide?" says Sam Azadian of Flatbush, Brooklyn, who's chairman of the Times Square memorial. "Then you tell me, what constitutes genocide if not two-thirds of a people being driven into the desert and murdered?"
Most experts agree that the events of 1915-23 constitute genocide. So do presidential candidates; after all, there are between 600,000 and 1 million well-organized Armenian-Americans, most of them in key electoral states like California, Michigan, New Jersey and New York. But when they reach the White House, Presidents start to stammer.
"Every year, [former President Bill] Clinton issued a proclamation on Martyrs Day," says Rouben Adalian, director of the Washington-based Armenian National Institute. "His description of what happened to us was a dictionary definition of genocide. But he refused to use the word."
President Bush has, too. During the campaign, he promised to "ensure that our nation properly recognizes the suffering of the Armenian people" - political code for using the G-word - but he has yet to follow through.
The U.S. is not the only country to cave in to pressure from Ankara. The turkish Daily News recently quoted Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres saying, "We reject the attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. It was a tragedy what the Armenians went though, but not a genocide."
After protests poured into Israeli embassies around the world and critics at home denounced him for "Holocaust denial," Peres claimed to have been partially misquoted. But in light of Israel's longtime refusal to acknowledge what happened to the Armenians as genocide, his clarification isn't very convincing.
The Armenian community is also mad at the leadership of American Jewry. "Their response matters to us very much because we have common histories, common experiences," says Adalian. "And I haven't seen any Jewish organization condemning what Peres said, going on the record."
That's because on the Armenian issue, most major Jewish organizations are pledged to a policy of double talk. "We have great sympathy for the Armenians, but we also have some sensitivity for the feeling of the government of turkey," says Barry Jacobs, director of strategic studies for the American Jewish Committee.
This sensitivity was once based on blackmail - in the 1980s, turkey threatened to cut off the escape route of Iranian Jews if Israel and American Jewish organizations recognized the Armenian genocide. Today, it's a matter of strategic and economic cooperation. "Last winter, Israel, turkey and the United States staged tripartite navel maneuvers," says Jacobs. "That sent a strong message in the region."
The refusal to call what the turks did by its right name sends a message, too: That for a price, a nation can purchase a revision of its history, even from governments and groups that ought to know better. It's an ugly bargain, but it won't hold for long. In the end, history gets written by its survivors - and despite turkish efforts, the Armenians are still here. Go over to Times Square today and see for yourself.
Original Publication Date: 4/22/01