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ISRAEL: Discussing Armenian genocide

April 15, 2008 | 11:42 am


A week before Israelis and Jews will mark Holocaust Remembrance Day early May, Armenians throughout the world will be commemorating their own tragedy.

Armenians say 1.5 million people, one third of the ethnic nation, were massacred by the Turks in 1915-1916. Turkey maintains that between 250,000 and 500,000 Armenians were killed during the minority's struggle for independence, and a similar number of Turks. The Armenians are relentless in their push for recognition of the killings as genocide, while an uncomfortable Turkey counters these efforts with international pressure.

In this bitter dispute, Israel finds itself in both a moral and diplomatic hard spot.

For the first time, the Israeli parliament is going to discuss the matter. Knesset member Haim Oron raised the issue, reminding that in recent years the U.S. Congress and French parliament have passed laws recognizing the Armenian genocide. "It is impossible that the Jewish nation will not speak up," he said.

Turkey and Israel are more than geographically close. The two countries share various strategic interests and the thought of a public discussion of the sensitive issue makes both sides nervous.

One possibility is that the issue be discussed in the Knesset's foreign affairs and defense committee, whose sessions are closed to the press.

"The Armenian issue is very sensitive for Turkey," Hasan Murat Mercan, chairman of the Turkish Foreign Affairs and Defense committee, told Jerusalem officials during a visit last week. "We would prefer if this discussion didn't take place at this time ... because it may harm relations between the two countries." A senior aide to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert replied that Israel believes the issue needs to be settled between the two sides with the involvement of historians, and has no interest in undermining its important strategic relations with Turkey.

Aside from "not denying the occurrence of the terrible events" and expressing understanding of the deep sensitivity, Israel has long avoided a clear public position. Attempts to include the topic in the school syllabus nearly a decade ago failed, authorities being reluctant to anger Turkey and concerned it would detract from the importance of the Holocaust.

In 2003, an Israeli nurse of Armenian descent was chosen as one of the traditional 12 torch-lighters in the yearly memorial ceremony preceding Independence Day. The text she wrote for the government brochure had described her as a "third generation to survivors of the Armenian holocaust in 1915." But protest from the Turkish embassy led the reprinting of 2000 new brochures, stating instead that she was the daughter of the long-suffering Armenian people and that her grandparents were "survivors of historic Armenia."

Reuven Rivlin, a veteran legislator who was Knesset speaker at that time, wrote last week that Israel is obliged to recognize the Armenian genocide: "We cannot, in the name of political or diplomatic wisdom, suppress such fundamental human values, which touch on the roots of our tragic existence."

—Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Photo: Armenian clergymen commemorate the massacre of some 1.5 million Armenians by the Turks in World War I in the Armenian Church in the Old City of Jerusalem. Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP