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Turkey: Term 'Armenian Genocide' Is Political Issue

  • Jolyon Naegele

Armenians around the world this week commemorated the 85th anniversary of the start of eight years of mass killings by Turkish forces of a large portion of the ethnic Armenian population of Asia Minor. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports that what Armenians say was the first example of genocide in the 20th century remains a touchy issue not only for Turkey, but for two of its closest allies -- the United States and Israel.

Prague, 28 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton marked the anniversary of the start of mass murders of Ottoman Turkey's Armenians in 1915 in an annual White House message this week. But as has been true throughout his presidency, Clinton's message refrained from using the word "genocide." It referred only to what was described as "a great tragedy of the 20th century -- the deportations and massacres of roughly one-and-a-half million Armenians in the final years of the Ottoman Empire."

In fact, the last U.S. president to refer publicly to the 1915 to 1923 massacres of Armenians as genocide was Ronald Reagan. That occurred in 1981.

The reason for the reticence is clearly an unwillingness to create problems with Turkey, a NATO ally and a regional power subject to political instability. The Turkish Republic, founded in 1923, has never denied that large numbers of Armenians perished, but has consistently sought to diminish the massacre's extent and importance.

Nearly two years ago, a resolution referring explicitly to the "Armenian genocide" was passed in France's National Assembly, the French parliament's lower house. The event triggered Turkish threats of banning France from competing for arms sales if the resolution became law. Under pressure from the government, the French Senate has deferred a vote on the resolution ever since.

A bill now before the U.S. Congress would require the president in his annual Armenian Memorial Day message to describe the massacres as genocide. A co-sponsor of the bill, Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone of New Jersey, told the House of Representatives earlier this month: "Bowing to strong pressure from Turkey, the U.S. State Department and American presidents of both parties have for more than 15 years shied away from referring to the tragic events [with] the word 'genocide,' thus minimizing and not accurately conveying what really happened beginning 85 years ago."

Armenian historians say a forced march into the Syrian desert in 1915 and 1916 of most of Turkey's Armenian population of between 1.5 million and 2 million people -- accompanied by many atrocities -- qualifies the killings as genocide. Article Two of the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention defines the term as "any [act] with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group."

Yet Turkey remains adamant in rejecting the term genocide. A pamphlet published by the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute in 1982 -- and still distributed by the Turkish Foreign Ministry -- denies Armenians were massacred on April 24, 1915, "or any other time during the war." But the pamphlet does concede, in its words, that "some lives were certainly lost as the result of large-scale military and bandit activities [when Ottoman Turkey] transported some 700,000 Armenians" to Syria.

Turkish historians have offered a variety of estimates of the number of deaths of Armenians during the deportations -- generally, in the range of 200,000 to 300,000. Armenian historians say the true figure is at least five times 300,000. An independent historian, Erik Zuercher, says that -- taking into account last-minute emigration -- he estimates the number of dead at probably between 600,000 and 800,000.

Turkey's two closest military allies are the U.S. and Israel. Until this week, Israeli authorities have avoided using the word genocide, so as not to antagonize Ankara. But on Monday (April 24), the country's controversial education minister, Yossi Sarid, announced that the Armenian genocide would now be included in the country's school curriculum and that he would do everything possible to make sure Israeli children learned the subject thoroughly.

At an Armenian memorial ceremony in Jerusalem, Arid said:

"I join you, members of the Armenian community, on your Memorial Day, as you mark the 85th anniversary of your genocide. I am here, with you, as a human being, as a Jew, as an Israeli, and as education minister of the State of Israel."

Sarid said that April 24 should also be a day of reflection and soul-searching for Jews, as victims of the Nazi Holocaust, who -- as he put it -- "should examine [their] relationship to the pain of others." He said that Jews, "as principle victims of murderous hatred are doubly obligated to be sensitive, to identify with other victims."

Sarid also said the mass killings of Jews, Arabs, Albanians, Armenians, Bosnians, Roma (Gypsies), and Rwandans will be a part of a new Israeli history curriculum dealing with genocide.

The next day, the Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned the Israeli charge d'affaires in Ankara to complain about Sarid's remarks.

But in an editorial published today, the Israeli daily "Ha'aretz" -- generally considered the country's most influential newspaper -- praised Sarid's comments for displaying what it called "wisdom and sensitivity." But the paper scoffed at the rest of the Israeli government, saying: "The problem is not the pressure exerted by Turkey, but rather that Israel submits to it." According to "Ha'aretz," Israel's previously fuzzy and obscure statements expressing regret about the deaths of many Armenians, in the paper's words, "erode its moral right to demand that the world make sure that the Jewish Holocaust is never forgotten."

In his speech on Monday, Education Minister Sarid also said he will put the classic 1933 novel about the Armenian genocide, "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh," by Prague-born Jewish writer Franz Werfel, on reading lists for Israeli schoolchildren.

Werfel's novel about the genocide is largely unknown to young Israelis today, in part because some critics have accused Werfel of focusing on Armenians rather than on his Jewish brethren. But six decades ago, Werfel's novel was among the most widely read works among Jews in Palestine and in Europe -- perhaps because it recounts a story of involving a choice to fight rather than to be marched to almost certain death in a concentration camp.

Israeli historian Yair Auron has written that "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh" inspired Palestinian Jewish insurgents in 1942 who feared German forces led by General Erwin Rommel might succeed in blasting their way across Egypt and into Palestine. Aron said that the Jews planned a last stand on the slopes of Mount Carmel.

Similarly, Werfel's book was widely read in the Nazi-administered Jewish ghettos in Poland and among Jewish partisan leaders. One of the commanders of the 1943 Jewish Warsaw Ghetto uprising, known as "Antek" (real name: Yitzhak Zuckerman), was later quoted as saying the uprising could only be understood by reading Werfel's "Forty Days of Musa Dagh."