Tuesday, October 17, 2006

New York Times in Denial

Anti-French protesters in Istanbul

I could not disagree more with Tuesday's New York Times editorial, "France in Denial." The editorial attempts to strike some sort of "balance," on the one hand condemning Turkey for not dealing with its past and prosecuting writers who mention the Armenian Genocide, while on the other hand calling the recent French National Assembly vote "absurd," "cynical," and "outrageous." But the argument the Times offers against the resolution appears utterly incoherent. Indeed, calling it an argument does not do justice to the term. Instead of making its case for why such a law should not exist, given that a similar law against Holocaust denial is on the books in France, the Times offers the following reasons for its opposition to the resolution:
  1. French politicians are exploiting anti-Turkish feelings
  2. French legislators are pandering to the large Armenian community in their country
  3. The resolution could increase anti-Muslim feelings in France
  4. The law would deal a blow to freedom of expression
To me, these appear more like excuses than reasons. Even if 1, 2, and 3 were true, are they really grounds for not having a law like this on the books? As for the third reason specifically, Armenian Genocide denial is now in its 91st year. Does action against it really have to take a backseat to the possibility of increasing anti-Muslim feeling? I also fail to see how this law would do something like that; it seems rather illogical. Finally, I wonder whether similar "arguments " might not be constructed for a law banning Holocaust denial today (in #1, substitute "Muslim" or "Arab" for "Turkish," and in #2, "Jewish" for "Armenian").

The last reason, which to me seems contradictory to the first three, might represent a more solid argument, except that the law forbidding denial of the Shoah (Loi Gayssot) overrides guarantees of freedom of expression in France. So how does the Times deal with this problem?

The editorial admits that the Loi Gayssot too violates freedom of expression. However, in the case of this law, the Times argues, the "laws at least are based on the threat posed by die-hard anti-Semites who still subscribe to Hitler's racist theories." On the other hand, the "Armenian question poses no dangers in France. Playing politics with it trivializes not only the Holocaust, but also the Armenian genocide."

I'm not familiar enough with the Loi Gayssot in France to evaluate whether it is true that this law is actually based on the threat of fanatical antisemites. Certainly, denial of the Shoah can be seen as a form of hate speech. But the same could be said for denial of the Armenian Genocide. Let's not forget that memorials to the Genocide have been defaced in France and elsewhere. And let's not forget that anti-Armenian stereotypes and hatred are alive and well among many people, whether in Turkey, Russia, Azerbaijan, or even the West. And yes, these stereotypes sometimes have profound consequences for Armenians. Denial of the Genocide is frequently combined with accusations of "Armenian treachery" and conspiracy theories about Armenians controlling the media, government, or academy. As for the last sentence - I simply do not understand what it is supposed to mean. How could a law forbidding denial trivialize either the Holocaust or the Armenian Genocide?

If the Times had wanted to make an argument against this law, it should have stuck to the question of freedom of expression. But in that case, the argument would also have to be aimed contra the laws against Holocaust denial.

See also the coverage of the bill's passage on Kishkushim, which includes a link to the resolution's pre-history.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

A Medieval Jewish Cemetery in Armenia

Two tombstones from the cemetery. The top one is from the grave of "Zvi the righteous, upright and lovely boy." On the bottom is the tombstone from the grave of Esther the daughter of Michael. Part of a verse from Proverbs (31:30) is visible in the photograph, "Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain."

has a long feature by archaeologist David Amit on the finds from the latest expedition to a medieval Jewish cemetery that was discovered in Armenia nearly a decade ago. Unfortunately, the article, entitled "Hebrew Gravestones in the Land of Ararat" is so far available only in Hebrew. The expedition was led by Professor Michael Stone, director of the Armenian Studies program at Hebrew University. The article itself details some of the findings from the various expeditions, and includes translations of a number of interesting tombstone inscriptions. The cemetery is located in Eghegis, in the Vayots Dzor Region, and it dates to the 13th century. The Jewish community that lived in the area appears to have come from Persia. For those who are interested, a full report by Stone and Amit appeared in the Journal of Jewish Studies, Vol. 57, Issue 1 (2006).

The cemetery first came to the attention of the scholars from Jerusalem when they were contacted by the local Armenian Bishop Abraham Makartchian in 1997. Bishop Makartchian runs a summer camp in Eghegis for orphans who lost their parents during the long war with Azerbaijan. The young and energetic "Bishop in jeans," as Amit calls him, also graciously hosted the archaeologists.