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Coming to terms with the Armenian genocide

Following in the path of 31 other countries including Germany, France, Italy, Canada, Russia, and Brazil, the United States has at last ‘recognized’ the Armenian genocide. Not that the United States ever denied it, but it officially avoided the word ‘genocide’ for 106 years for fear of angering the Turks.

But there are hidden depths here, because Israel still refuses to accept the word ‘genocide’ about the Armenian massacres. Every year since the 1980s a resolution is introduced in Israel’s parliament demanding that Israel also call it a genocide, and every year it is rejected. Why?

In the past it was largely to avoid infuriating the Turkish government, which was once Israel’s only friend and near-ally among Muslim-majority countries, but that’s no longer true. Under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s thuggish rule, Turkey is no longer Israel’s friend, and Jerusalem now has lots of friends and near-allies among the Arab dictatorships. So why does Israel still hold out?

Because the Holocaust of the European Jews committed by the Nazis was the event that gave the word ‘genocide’ global currency, and many Israelis feel that putting the Armenian massacres of 1915 into the same category devalues the currency.

The problem is that the meaning of the word ‘genocide’ has now expanded to include many other evil deeds done to large groups of people sharing a common ethnicity or religion. For example, it is now used to describe China’s treatment of the Uyhgur people of Xinjiang, but not many Jews would be comfortable ranking that with the Holocaust.

Whereas most Armenians really want the catastrophe that befell their ancestors to have the same status as the Jewish holocaust: an unprovoked, premeditated, systematic attempt to exterminate an entire people. But that’s not actually what happened to the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire, although what happened was bad enough.

A group of junior officers called the Young Turks seized control of the Ottoman empire in 1908, and their leader, Enver Pasha, foolishly took the empire into the First World War at Germany’s side in November 1914. He then led a Turkish army east to attack Russia, which was allied to Britain and France.

That army was destroyed in the deep snow around Kars – only one-tenth of it got back to base – and the Turks panicked. They scrambled to put some kind of defensive front together, but behind them in eastern Anatolia were Christian Armenians who had been agitating for independence from the empire for decades.

Various revolutionary Armenian groups, Dashnaks and Hunchaks, had been in touch with Moscow, offering to stage uprisings behind the Turkish army when Russian troops arrived in Anatolia. Some of them now assumed the Russians were on their way and jumped the gun.

Other Armenian revolutionary groups, near the Mediterranean coast, were in contact with the British command in Egypt, and had promised an uprising to coincide with planned British landings on Turkey’s south coast. Later Winston Churchill switched the landings much further west to Gallipoli, but again the Armenian revolutionaries didn’t get the message in time and rebelled anyway.

The Young Turks panicked: if the Russians broke through in eastern Anatolia, all the Arab parts of the empire would be cut off. So they ordered the deportation of all the Armenians in the east to Syria – over the mountains, in winter, on foot. And since there were no regular troops to spare, it was mostly Kurdish irregulars who guarded the Armenians on the way south.

The Kurds shared eastern Anatolia with the Armenians, but the neighbours had never been friendly. So many of the Kurdish escorts assumed they had free license to rape, steal and kill, and between that, the lack of food, and the weather, up to half the deportees died. To the extent that the Turkish government knew about it, it did nothing to stop it.

More Armenians died in the sweltering, disease-ridden camps they were held in once they arrived in Syria. It was mass murder through panic, incompetence and deliberate neglect, but it was mostly over by 1916, and most Armenians in other parts of the empire survived the war. Indeed, they are the ancestors of the Armenian diaspora today.

The best estimate is that 800,000 Armenians were killed during the mass deportations from eastern Anatolia to Syria in 1915, at least a third of the Ottoman Empire’s entire Armenian population at the time. But in its lack of planning, its chaotic execution, and its limitations in time and space it was very different from what happened to Europe’s Jews in 1941-45.

Nevertheless, it fits today’s expanded definition of the word ‘genocide,’ and using that word will give comfort to a lot of people who have never had a proper apology from the Turks. The current generation of Israelis are grown-up enough to live with that outcome, and it’s about time the Turks grew up too.

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