“We always declare everywhere that there has never been anti-Semitism in Armenia, that Armenia is a good place for Jews to live and, more importantly, that Armenia is quite a stable country in political and social respects,” Varzhapetian says.
That is why the secular leader of Armenia’s Jewish community has had trouble coming to terms with what she says is a recent rise in anti-Semitic propaganda.
It began in 2004, when ALM, a private pro-government television channel, began broadcasting a phone-in talk show hosted by the station's owner, Tigran Karapetian. For months, Karapetian used the platform to air views that portrayed Jews as an unsavory race bent on dominating Armenia and the wider world.
Varzhapetian says her office in Yerevan received threatening phone calls after the first series of ALM broadcasts.
Karapetian's rhetoric appeared to embolden Armen Avetisian, the openly anti-Semitic leader of the Armenian Aryan Union, a small ultranationalist party. Avetisian in a recent newspaper interview alleged that there are as many as 50,000 "disguised" Jews in Armenia, and promised he would work to have them expelled from the country. He was arrested on 24 January on charges of inciting ethnic hatred.
A Holocaust memorial in a public park in the center of Yerevan also came under attack in September, when vandals desecrated the memorial on the final day of Jewish New Year celebrations.
Yet what shocked the Jewish community most was an interview with Hranush Kharatian, a prominent ethnologist who heads the Armenian government’s department on religious and minority affairs. Speaking to the “Golos Armenii” (Voice of Armenia) Russian-language newspaper a month after the memorial's desecration, Kharatian accused Jewish leaders of preaching extreme intolerance toward all non-Jews.
In a recent interview with RFE/RL, Kharatian cited what she called the "aggressive ideology" contained in the Talmud, the book of Jewish religious laws. “I see in the Talmud numerous points which clearly state that non-Jews, or infidels that are not Jews, are not human beings and are animals,” she said.
Varzhapetian and other community leaders, including Chief Rabbi Gersh Meir Burshtein, met last month with Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian to ask for help in addressing the problem. A ministry spokesperson, however, said last week the issue is not sufficiently serious to warrant government attention.
Mikael Danielian heads the Armenian Helsinki Association, a human rights group that closely monitors anti-Semitic activity in the country. He criticized the government's failure to address the issue. “I am surprised at the serenity of our state officials," he told RFE/RL. "It could have very serious consequences for Armenia."
Armenia's Jewish community is estimated to number less than 1,000 people. It is largely formed of scientists and other professionals who moved to Armenia in the 1960s and '70s to escape persecution in Russia and Ukraine. Most integrated quickly into society, marrying ethnic Armenians and adopting Armenian surnames.
Until recently, anti-Semitic sentiment in Armenia was limited to occasional allegations by nationalist scholars that Jews had aided the 1915 genocide of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. The theory -- which is not supported by historical evidence -- was first aired during the presentation of an anti-Semitic book at a 2003 meeting of the Armenian Writers Union. No one in the audience condemned the text.
A global report on anti-Semitism issued this month by the U.S. State Department dedicates just three paragraphs to Armenia. But that was sufficient to unleash a fresh wave of anti-Jewish criticism. ALM's Karapetian, who was cited by name in the U.S. study, responded with a two-hour televised monologue lambasting the United States and the contents of the report.
Several days later, Karapetian received an unexpected phone call during an ALM broadcast. An Armenian woman living in Israel criticized his sweeping bias against Jews, but was quickly cut off by the broadcaster.
"If someone has offended you personally, or if you have problems with your business, it doesn't mean you should hold an entire nation responsible," the woman said in Russian. “Stop asking hysterical questions on air," Karpetian replied. "Shut up and listen to me. You say it’s inadmissible to say ‘Jewish tricks.' But is it permissible to spit at a priest?”
Karapetian was referring to two recent incidents in Jerusalem in which Jewish religious students spat at Armenian priests in a show of their contempt for their Christian faith. The Armenian Apostolic Church has had a presence in Jersualem's Old City for centuries.
The incidents have been cited repeatedly in Armenia as supporting claims of anti-Semitism. But Varzhapetian said Armenia's Jews are still hoping not only the government but also civil society will take steps to stem the rising hatred.
“We are still awaiting a statement [of protest] from prominent Armenians. Armenians themselves must express indignation. First of all, because there are very few of us [in Armenia]. Secondly, protecting ourselves is not quite appropriate,” Varzhapetian said.
Varzhapetian and other community leaders sent an open letter to President Robert Kocharian urging an end to the government's "conspicuous failure to see those inciting anti-Semitism." But the only response to date has been a statement by a cabinet minister saying ethnic and religious discrimination does not exist in Armenia.