Saturday, June 17, 2006

The First International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide in 1982 – From the Family "Archive"

The two Clippings from Ha'aretz, June 25.1982

Twenty-four years ago, my mother somehow found the time to clip and annotate the article and letter to the editor above from the June 25, 1982 edition of Ha’aretz, in between taking care of three very young and unruly children – my twin-brother and I had just turned two, my sister was only four months old. My parents and I discovered the clippings by chance today while looking through an old book in the house.

(For those who are interested in details – the book was Haim Rabin’s עיקרי תולדות הלשון העברית, The Fundamentals of the History of the Hebrew Language).

I’ve decided to translate the letters here, because they concern a historical event of great relevance to this blog. That event, the First International Conference on the Shoah and Genocide was supposed to have taken place at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Yitzhak Arad, then director of Yad Vashem, Gideon Hausner, the attorney general of Israel who prosecuted Eichmann, and Elie Wiesel, were all set to speak. Overall, 150 lectures were to be held, six of them on the Armenian Genocide. But after Turkish pressure on Israel, and, as a result, heavy pressure exerted by the Israeli Foreign Ministry on conference organizers and participants, the conference was held in Tel Aviv with only 300 out of the original 600 researchers participating. Important institutions and individuals withdrew their backing of the event, including Yad Vashem (Yair Auron, The Banality of Denial, 217-219). Paradoxically enough, however, the controversy surrounding the conference actually drew attention to the recognition cause, especially since the lectures on the Armenian Genocide were in fact delivered (Auron, Banality of Indifference, 354).

TOP DOCUMENT: “Limited Participation at the International Conference on the Shoah and Genocide” (JUNE 25, 1982)

"Following the complaint by Turkey, there are fears that Jews [in Turkey] would be harmed if the subject of the Armenian Shoah is discussed"
By Yehudit Winkler, Ha’aretz Writer

The International Conference on the Shoah and Genocide opened on Monday at the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv without Elie Wiesel and on a smaller scale than anticipated by its organizers after the Foreign Ministry exerted heavy pressure to cancel the conference.

The opposition by the Foreign Ministry escalated due to fears that essential national interests and perhaps also Jewish communities abroad would be harmed because one of the subjects of discussion at the conference is the Armenian shoah [sic] of 1915. The government of Turkey protested about this to the Foreign Ministry and raised the concern that Jewish communities might be hurt.

The writer Elie Wiesel, who was supposed to have been the keynote speaker at the conference, announced his resignation, at the same time as he emphasized his identification with the goals of the conference which he helped plan. He said that he could not go against any request from the state of Israel if behind it stood the possibility of any danger whatsoever to the lives of Jews. Mr. Wiesel requested that the conference be held abroad.

Conference organizers estimated that only 500 people (half of the expected number)would take part. The organizers reported that cancellations by participants were substantial among Israeli scholars as well as researchers from abroad, and that the pressure from the Israeli Foreign Ministry was leaving its mark on the scale of the conference, although the program content had not changed.

Over the four days of the conference, lectures and seminar discussions will take place on different aspects of genocide.

BOTTOM DOCUMENT: Letter to the Editor, “Conspiracy of Silence”

The Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel proclaims that the government guarantees “freedom of religion, conscience, education, and culture.” The international conference taking place now (in the Tel Aviv Hilton) on the Shoah and genocide with the aim of understanding of, intervention in, and prevention of genocide, was planned by a group of devoted people and fits the spirit of that declaration cited above perfectly.

During the planning process which began three years ago, it came to the Turkish government’s attention that the Armenian genocide would also be discussed at the conference. We are overcome with feelings of horror and incredulity that the government of Israel bowed to the

Turkish pressure not to support and not to formally recognize this conference. In addition to this, the Israeli government influenced many prominent personalities known the world over, who are connected to research on the Shoah, to prevent their participation in and support of the conference.

The undersigned express their outrage and anguish, and are very concerned by this development, which reminds us of the conspiracy of silence that begot the Shoah. This development fundamentally contradicts the essential principles on which this country was founded.

Leni Fortes and 26 signatories
Kfar Saba

Note on the Translation of Some Key Terms

The Hebrew word שואה (shoah) literally means “disaster” or “holocaust.” Like the latter English word, it has come to refer to the destruction of European Jewry by the Nazis and their allies during WWII. The English word is usually capitalized to make that meaning clear. However, the Hebrew word Shoah has also entered the English language. The reasons for this are complicated and merit a separate post.

What struck me in the 1982 article was how the writer employed the Hebrew word shoah. In English, Shoah (capitalized) usually refers exclusively to the genocide of the Jews. It has thus been criticized by a number of scholars for its exclusivity, as well as on other grounds. Interestingly enough, however, as the top article shows, Hebrew-speakers use the word to denote other genocides as well. Thus, the first article matter-of-factly refers to the “Armenian shoah,” despite the fact that a Hebrew word for genocide exists. That word, רצח עם, literally means “murder of a people” (i.e., genocide – a word which combines a Greek and a Latin derivative). Perhaps the closest parallel is the German “Völkermord.” The title of the conference in Hebrew uses both the word shoah as well as the word for genocide. In English, it has often been translated as the conference on “the Holocaust and genocide.” But the writer above interpreted the two words as synonyms. The writer of the letter uses a different Hebrew term, השמד עם, which literally translated means “extermination of a people.”


The government of Turkey as well as representatives of Turkish Jewry denied that there had been any threats against the country’s Jewish community. But Auron cites Monroe H. Freedman, a counselor for the US Holocaust Memorial Council, who told the NYT that a Turkish diplomat had threatened the safety of Jews in Turkey as well as the country’s withdrawal from NATO if the fate of Armenians was included in the proposed Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC (The Banality of Denial, 221).

Friday, June 16, 2006

Iranian President Ahmadinejad Continues Denial of Holocaust

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in China (Reuters)

After a meeting with the president of China, Ahmadinejad called for an "impartial" investigation of the Holocaust, AP reports. His rationale:

An event that has influenced so many diplomatic and political equations of the world needs to be investigated and researched by impartial and independent groups.

Many in the West will dismiss this as yet another manifestation of the Iranian president's lunacy. But there are plenty of people across the globe who are only too willing to believe the implict claims that 1) the Holocaust has been concocted by Jewish or pro-Jewish groups, and that 2) that "the Jews" have used this "myth" to advance certain political claims.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Recent Books on Responses to the Armenian Genocide

Robert Melson has a review essay in the last issue of Holocaust and Genocide Studies (2006: 20 (1), pp. 103-111) on four books published in the last few years that deal with international responses to the Armenian genocide. The works reviewed are:

  • Yair Auron, The Banality of Denial: Israel and the Armenian Genocide (New Brunswick, NJ, 2005)

  • Peter Balakian, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response (New York, 2003)

  • Arman J. Kirakossian, ed., The Armenian Massacres, 1894–1896: U.S. Media Testimony (Detroit, 2004)

  • Gordon and Diana Severance, Against the Gates of Hell: The Life & Times of Henry Perry, a Christian Missionary in a Moslem World (Lanham, MD, 2003)

  • Jay Winter, ed., America and the Armenian Genocide of 1915 (Cambridge, 2004)

  • Noting that "the literature on the Armenian Genocide is quite extensive and growing" with works having been published on the 1894-1896 massacres, origins of the 1915–1923 genocide, the role of the great powers, memories of the survivors, the post-WWI Armenian Republic, the parallels to the Shoah, and the denial by the Turkish government and its advocates, Melson remarks that these four books shift the focus to "the role of the bystander," in particular the US, but also the yishuv and the state of Israel.

    In fact, Yair Auron's latest book, unlike his earlier work, is not about the yishuv's reactions to the genocide but about the role of the memory of the genocide in Israeli society and state policy. Thus, it seems to me the odd man out in this review, as it is the one book that does not deal at all with the response of contemporaries to the actual events of the genocide but only with issues of memory and recognition in the post-1948 history of the country. A significant part of Balakian's book, too, however is devoted to the post-war aftermath of the Armenian genocide in American politics.

    The category of the "bystander" has long been recognized in the historiography on the Shoah. As Saul Friedlander has observed, since its beginnings, the field has been dominated by a basic division into histories of perpetrators, bystanders, and victims (see Friedlander, "The Holocaust," Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies, p 412). In recent years, the categories of perpetrator and bystander have increasingly coalesced - perhaps Jan Gross's Neighbors, on the massacre of the Jews of Jedwabne by Poles from the town, is a good example of that.

    A fair amount of debate has also taken place on a very different kind of bystander than the one to which Melson and the authors above refer. Scholars have examined Allied, and, particularly American, inaction in the face of reports from Europe. (It is interesting to note in this context that the two figures most persistent in urging the US to stop both genocides were Henry Morgenthau, Sr., the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during WWI, and his son, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Secretary of the Treasury during WWII). In fact, the debate on America's "failure to bomb Auschwitz" is still not over - a number of prominent Holocaust and military historians have sought to contextualize and explain the US's reluctance to bomb the trains and camps (see Edward T. Linenthal's discussion of the debate in Preserving Memory, pp.220-223).

    Auron's and Balkian's works are the most critical of their subjects. Their works have a moral, prophetic function in the present - alerting us to our responsibilities to shake off indifference about the fates of others. However, we ought to be wary of those who would seek to take the argument even further by coalescing the categories of perpetrator and bystander too much. It is important to criticize America and Israel (as well as many other states) for failing to recognize the Armenian genocide; it is, however, dishonest to make them as complicit in it as the actual perpetrators. America, and certainly not the tiny yishuv in Palestine, cannot even be compared to the "bystanders" who assisted the Nazis in deporting European Jewish communities or those who beat, raped, killed, and expropriated deported Armenians.

    The most important question raised by these works is not one of moral complicity but of moral endurance. As Melson asks in his conclusion,
    How can the United States, Israel, and the rest of the world community ever hope to prevent genocidal mass-murder in the future and to bring perpetrators to justice, when they do not even have the moral fiber to affirm the facts of the Armenian Genocide, a crime under international law, that occurred over ninety years ago?

    Saturday, June 10, 2006

    The Suffering of Others

    Profs. Israel Charny (left) and Yair Auron (right)

    Last Monday (June 5, 2006), the Open University in Israel sponsored a one-day seminar titled קורבנות אחרים [Other Victims] that included addresses by Professors Israel Charny (ישראל טשרני) and Yair Auron (יאיר אורון). As the title of the colloquium suggests, the seminar was meant to correct a lacuna in Israeli education and research. Neither the universities nor the schools are teaching Israelis enough about acts of genocide other than the Shoah (Ha'aretz Hebrew; Ha'aretz English).

    Even with respect to the Holocaust, a study conducted by researchers Eyal Naveh and Esther Yogev in 1996, with a sample of 800 Israeli students, revealed that some 85% had minimal knowledge of the Nazis' murder of the Roma ("gypsies") during World War Two. Furthermore, surveys conducted from 1996-2004 among participants in an elective course on genocide showed that 85-90% of the students admitted knowing "very little" about both the murder of the Roma by the Nazis during the Second World War, and the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Ottoman Turkey beginning in 1915.

    For many Jews in Israel and the diaspora, comparisons of other genocides with the Shoah remain a source of discomfort, in part because such comparisons have sometimes been carried out in an attempt to relativize the destruction of European Jewry during WWII, as during the Historikerstreit ("historians' controversy") in Germany during the 1980s. But at times the effect of insisting on the "uniqueness" of the Shoah has blinded us to the suffering of others. It must be especially painful to Armenians to see so little awareness among Jews about the Armenian genocide. Worse, due to the same geopolitical considerations (Turkey) driving American policy, the State of Israel does not officially recognize the Armenian genocide. Charny and Auron have been at the forefront of raising awareness of the Armenian genocide in Israel - as well as about genocide more generally.

    As the title of Auron's book suggests, genocide is defined not only by the "banality of evil" (Hannah Arendt) but also by the "banality of indifference." Preventing genocide thus requires being open to the pain of others and opening the memory of "our" tragedies to "their" suffering.

    Both Israel Charny and Yair Auron are pioneers in the study of genocide in Israel. Charny is the director of Israel's Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide, the editor of the excellent two-volume Encyclopedia of Genocide (1999), and the author of many other works. Auron, a lecturer at the Open University, where he teaches courses on genocide, is best-known for two important books dealing with the Armenian genocide, both of which have been translated into English. The Banality of Indifference: Zionism and the Armenian Genocide (2001) examines the reactions of the yishuv, the pre-1948 (i.e., pre-state) Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael (Palestine), to the Armenian genocide - reactions that ranged from callous indifference to attempts to actively aid the victims. His more recent book, The Banality of Denial: Israel and the Armenian Genocide (2002), deals with the role of the Armenian genocide in Israeli society and politics from the creation of the state until the present - reviews to follow. In an interview with Shahar Ilan of Ha'aretz, Auron, quoting genocide researchers, called denial "the final stage of genocide."

    The colloquium also marked the publication of two new books, in Hebrew, as part of the university's Genocide series. I have not been able to confirm the full titles of both books, but one, edited by Auron, is called "מחשבות על הבלתי נתפס" (Thoughts about the Inconceivable), and the other is edited by Gilad Margalit of Haifa University.

    Wednesday, June 07, 2006

    Welcome - Բարի Եկաք - Bienvenue - ברוכים הבאים

    The symbolic birthday of this blog is April 24, 2006. Since 1965, people around the world commemorate the Armenian Genocide on that day. In 2006, Yom ha-Shoah, the remembrance day for the Holocaust, which is observed on the Hebrew calendar date of Nisan 27, fell on April 25. It seemed like a perfect opportunity for Armenians and Jews in the diaspora to cooperate in ceremonies to mourn the victims of the past and to stand united against genocide today. Not much of the sort occurred; rather, we were struck by the lack of mutual acknowledgement.

    There is another front on which one would expect Armenians and Jews to be natural allies: the struggle against the ongoing denial of genocide. Unfortunately, here, too, we have let ourselves become divided. This forum is an effort to rectify the present set of circumstances by bringing together news and analysis, individuals and organizations from the diasporas, Armenia, and Israel to work on our common concerns.

    The name of this blog is a composite of the Armenian word genats (Կենաց) and the Hebrew expression le-hayim (לחיים). Both words are used to preface toasts, and both literally mean “to life.”

    Amos and Taline