by Rabbi Albert Gabbai

Jewish Exponent
May 12 2011

What would you say if the world denied that the Holocaust ever
happened? Or that something like it may have occurred, but on a very
small scale, and as an understandable byproduct of a war that was
raging simultaneously? Or that it's being exaggerated and exploited
today to create an undeserved sense of sympathy?

That is what people of Armenian descent feel in regard to their
genocide, what they call the tseghasbanootyoun. The term is used to
describe the events of 1915, when, during World War I, members of
the Turkish majority, abetted by minority Kurds, murdered up to 1.5
million Armenian Christians, all fellow citizens of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey has not only refused to admit that the Armenian genocide
even occurred, but it has pressured other countries, educational
institutions, movie studios -- even Jewish organizations -- not to
broach the subject.

Many people, Jews included, are ignorant about this topic, one of
which Armenian Americans are all too starkly aware, often because
their ancestors were killed or were survivors. The Armenian genocide
is generally not taught in schools and rarely touched upon by major
media sources.

Until recently, I had never raised the subject of the Armenian genocide
during Shabbat remarks at Congregation Mikveh Israel, despite the
fact that, having grown up in Cairo, I had numerous Armenian friends
in the high school I attended.

We Jews are very sensitive about the use of the term "Holocaust," and
have reason to deplore its trivialization. Still, Armenian Americans
are justified when they compare their genocide to our Shoah.

By the end of 1915, Armenians had been ethnically cleansed from the
western half, the ancestral heart, of their homeland of several
thousand years. Long loyal citizens of the Ottoman Empire, they
were caught by surprise, when 250 of the most prominent Armenian
male citizens were arrested and massacred in Constantinople on April
24, 1915.

Unlike German officials, who have admitted and apologized for their
country's actions against the Jews, representatives of the Turkish
government claim that there was no will by the Ottoman government to
exterminate the Armenian population, and that the 1915 massacres were
simply the consequences of war.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu condemned President Barack
Obama's recent statement marking the 96th anniversary of the April
24 massacre (a statement that stopped short of calling it genocide).

Davutoglu said he wished that the president could share the Turks'
pain from the World War I era, adding that a "one-sided statement is
not sufficient" considering the historical events.

Unfortunately, the State of Israel, as well as some major Jewish
organizations, have a regrettable record on officially recognizing
the Armenian genocide. In contrast to 22 nations (and 43 individual
states, including Pennsylvania), Israel and the United States have
to date not recognized the events of 1915 as a genocide.

Israel's position on this issue has been complicated by the fact that
Turkey was, in 1949, the first Muslim state to recognize Israel.

Israel has had a much more cooperative relationship with Turkey than
with other Muslim countries, although this relationship has lately

This deterioration became obvious in late May 2010, when Israeli forces
raided a Turkish aid flotilla aiming to violate Israel's blockade of
the Gaza Strip, claiming nine lives. Turkish officials described the
event as an act of "state terror" on Israel's part.

Prior to that, some Jewish and pro-Israel organizations had failed
to recognize the 1915 massacres as genocide, due to concern for
Israel-Turkey relations and the Jews still in Turkey.

But it is important for people to become more informed about the
Armenian genocide. We Jews know what persecution and living in a
Diaspora mean. We aim to be a "light to the nations." Therefore, we
have a duty to reach out to Armenian Americans and offer our solidarity
in their struggle to receive the kind of recognition for their genocide
that we receive (and have every right to expect) for our own Holocaust.

Rabbi Albert Gabbai leads Congregation Mikveh Israel in Center City.