If you had the choice between telling the truth about 20th-century genocide -
and thereby alienating a contemporary strategic ally of the United States and
Israel - or ignoring or downplaying the genocide and keeping the ally happy,
which would you do?
Is this just an interesting hypothetical for grad students in ethics or
philosophy to chew on?
No. It is a real-life question that must be answered not only by American
lawmakers, but by Jewish organizations that are simultaneously pledged to promote
both the strategic interests of both the the U.S.-Israel alliance, as well as
speak out on issues of human rights.
A FAITHFUL ALLY
The dilemma concerns the history of Turkey, a nation that has in recent
decades assumed tremendous importance in the Middle East. Turkey is a NATO ally
that faithfully stood by the United States during the Cold War, even sending
troops to fight alongside ours in Korea. It was also the first Islamic country in
the region to recognize the State of Israel.
More than that, its defense establishment has ties with the Israel Defense
Force, and the two nations form an informal, loose-alliance of non-Arab states
with a mutual interest in resisting the rise not only of Islamist terror, but
the malevolent influence of rogue states like Syria and Iran.
That's due primarily to the influence of Kemal Attaturk, who led the Turkish
state that emerged from the ruin of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.
Attaturk created a modern Turkish nationalism based on strict secularism.
Relations between Israel and Turkey have cooled a bit in recent years due to
the election triumphs of Turkish Islamists who sought to distance Ankara from
Jerusalem. And in the aftermath of the country's refusal to participate in the
2003 invasion of Iraq and their embrace last year of a Palestinian Authority
run by Hamas terrorists, they can no longer be termed reliable.
But even pessimists about the future of Turkey understand its crucial role as
a firewall against jihadists. Turkey's military - the most powerful force in
its society - is still an effective check on the Islamists, and has
participated in joint military exercises with the Israelis.
But it does have one sensitive point that poses a problem. It refuses to own
up to the crimes committed by Ottoman forces against ethnic Armenians during
World War I.
Though the Turks like to act as if this episode is a great historical mystery
that defies explanation, the truth is relatively simple. During the First
World War, the Ottoman Turks fought not only Britain (whose forces ultimately
wrested Palestine, Syria and Iraq from them) but also the Russians.
Caught in the middle were Christian Armenians, who were despised as dhimmi
sympathizers with the foreign enemy.
After a series of military reverses, the so-called "Young Turk" government
in Istanbul ordered mass deportations of Armenians from parts of Anatolia. From
1915-17, as many as 1 million Armenians died as result of the attending
hardships, as well as atrocities on the part of Turkish troops.
It was the first modern genocide, and the fact that the perpetrators were
never held accountable is often cited as a reason why the Nazis thought they
could get away with trying to exterminate the Jews.
But since their modern state came into being fighting for the hegemony of
Turkish ethnicity over the large non-Turkish enclaves inside their country, the
notion of owning up to the truth about that era has always been anathema to the
Turks. To this day, their government denies that the deaths of Armenians were
the result of a concerted plan, and claim that it should only be understood
in the context of a war in which casualties were experienced by both sides.
The Turks would do better to acknowledge what happened and move on. But
living as they do with ongoing conflicts over land and identity with Cypriot
Greeks and Kurds, they cling to their policy of stonewalling the Armenians and
demand that their allies back them up.
For almost a century, Armenians have sought to keep the memory of their
suffering alive. That's the point of a congressional resolution on the question set
to be passed by the House of Representatives that will recognize the
atrocities against the Armenians as "genocide."
You would think that a Jewish community that has expended so much effort not
only to enshrine the memory of the Holocaust but to ensure that it serve as an
example to warn against crimes against others would be aligned with the
Armenians, but that's not entirely correct.
TRUTH OR SURVIVAL?
Though many Jews support the genocide resolution, some of the biggest Jewish
communal players, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Institute
of National Security Affairs (which has worked for years to build support for
the Israel-Turkey alliance), are not. ADL head Abe Foxman told the Jewish
Telegraphic Agency that "the Jewish community shouldn't be the arbiter of that
history, nor should the U.S. Congress."
How do we balance the need to support historical truth against the strategic
imperative of the present?
The answer is that we can't.
No one should expect Jews, of all people, to lie about mass murder. The
Turkish policy of official historical revisionism is as absurd as it is
counterproductive. The Turks' stand on the Armenians only harms their international
standing and efforts to integrate with the West. But their realpolitik apologists
have one point worth considering.
Given the current state of the Middle East and the West's ongoing battle
against the jihadists, is this really the best moment for us to be pressing the
Turks about their past?
In theory, a victory for historic truth ought to serve as insurance for Jews
and any other people who have faced annihilation and may yet again. Moralists
may be right to pose this question as one of absolutes, but in wartime, you
can't always pick and choose your allies. Would it be worth it to damage an
alliance with Turkey just to make a point about the truth of Armenian suffering?
That might makes us feel righteous, but if it leads to more deaths in the
future, would it be right?
Will an Armenian genocide resolution help us defend Israel against the threat
of, say, an Iranian attempt at nuclear genocide better than a friendly
Turkey? Some might believe that to be true. But can anyone who cares about the
possibility of another mass murder of a non-Muslim population in the Middle East be
indifferent to the possibility that it won't?