Friday, August 24, 2007

Joining hands with the Armenians

Monday August 27 2007
The Jewish Advocate

James R. Russell - A Harvard professor reflects on his work in the Armenian community

Many readers of this paper will share my early memory of being told to eat up because of the “starving Armenians.”

Even in first grade, at the Walden School on 88th & Central Park West (it’s no longer there) I learnt from my friend Maro Avakian, whose Mom was a violinist and whose Dad was a record exec (they lived next door), that something terrible had happened to her grandparents. Armenians didn’t speak about the Genocide in public much then. (Raphael Lemkin, the Jewish lawyer from Poland who coined the term, said he invented it partly to flesh out a legal nomenclature for the horrible, unprecedented phenomenon of the premeditated murder by a modern state – Ottoman Turkey – of an entire people in its midst – Armenians). Jews said little, until after the Eichmann trial, about the Holocaust: We were immigrants making it in an America where we were barely welcome and it was uncool to be a victim.

I learnt Armenian and, as I did ethnography and became a scholar, I interviewed countless hospitable old ladies (Turkish coffee, homemade dolma). The narrative always ended with the death march, the lost relatives, the terminal point in the giant nullity of the Syrian desert with a whole ancient, civilized nation dying. Later, I went to eastern Anatolia, where Turks and Kurds, untutored in denial, said:
See that house? That was where such-and-such an Armenian family lived.

We leave it empty here in Efkere (near Kayseri), because Islam condemns taking the property of a murdered man. In Havav, near Kharpert, a Kurdish teenager takes me behind a barn, away from the security men: Do you know the real name of this country? It’s Armenia. They killed them all!

Were all these hardworking greenhorns, Kurdish and Turkish farmers, secretly meeting to concoct an alibi? Writing fiction? Engaging in a conspiracy? The Austrian Jew Franz Werfel, who wrote “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” about the Armenian genocide, didn’t think so, and neither did Adolf Hitler when he banned the book, or MGM, when they tried to make a movie of it in 1935 and the U.S. State Department, under Turkish pressure, leaned on them to stop filming. But when Hitler’s forces were advancing through north Africa, our Hagana in the land of Israel (we weren’t a state yet) made plans, on the model of Musa Dagh (it means Mount Moses) to make a last stand on Mount Carmel if the Germans came.

There are some Armenians who are not our friends: A fascist organization called the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (“Dashnak” in Armenian) ran a “Racial Worship” youth group in Boston in the 1930s, raised a unit for Hitler’s Wehrmacht that fought in the North Caucasus in World War II, and supports Arab terrorism against Israel today. They run a traveling circus called “Armenians and the Left”(though they were Red baiters in the 1950s) that features Fisk and Chomsky, and promotes an anti-Israel agenda. They have no problem with Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial.

Armenia has strong ties to Iran and Syria; Israel has a strategic alliance with Turkey. We Jews need not apologize to anybody: Our country is in a dangerous neighborhood. I’m glad the Anti-Defamation League recognizes the Armenian genocide now. But I feel uneasy when the spotlight of denial is focused on us, especially by the Dashnaks and their ilk. It’s more appropriate to insist that the next president of the U.S. – the leader of NATO, of which Turkey is a member – recognize the Armenian genocide. Only then can Israel perhaps follow. And let’s be sensible in choosing which people to talk to in the Armenia ncommunity: not the not-so-crypto-Nazi Dashnaks who side with Hamas, but with folks like Maro Avakian. There are a lot of great people out there in the Armenian community with whom we’re natural allies. Let’s extend both of our hands to them.

Before James R. Russell was the Mashtots professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University, he taught at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. The picture shows him eating a pirozhok (a sort of small meatpie) at the Zimnyaya Kanavka in St. Petersburg, where he regularly lectures in Russian on Armenian themes.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.



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