‘Why Are We Here?’

ANCA-WR Co-chair Nora Hovsepian addresses the crowd at the Genocide commemoration event

EDITOR’S NOTE: On Tuesday, April 23, the Montebello Armenian community gathered at the Martyrs Monument for the traditional candlelight vigil and commemoration. Armenian National Committee of America-Western Region Co-chairwoman Nora Hovsepian delivered remarks, which we are reprinting below.

Why are we here tonight? Why are we Armenians gathered here in this thriving American city half a world away and nearly a century after our grandparents and great-grandparents were tortured, beaten, raped, and marched into the desert after witnessing the destruction of their churches and homes and the merciless slaughter of their families? Why can’t we simply let these old wounds finally heal and move on, as some would urge us to do?

We are here because we each comprise a part of the whole, and so long as we each use the simple phrase, “I am Armenian,” we acknowledge not only our national pride, but also our national duty, aptly categorized by Catholicos Aram I of the Great House of Cilicia, into three parts: the duty to remember, the duty to remind, and the duty to reclaim.

And of course we do remember. We mourn the fact that our survivors were just small fragments of entire families which were wiped out in unspeakably murderous ways.  We remember our rich history and how our nation-state would have flourished and thrived if not for the Genocide.

But beyond remembrance, we must recognize where we are now as a Nation because of the Genocide. I am not here to give you a history lesson or to reiterate the details of our past. You all know the story of the Genocide and its aftermath. We all recognize the fact that there have been four generations of survivors since 1915 and that those of us now living are the torchbearers of a 2500-year-old legacy which our parents and grandparents sacrificed so much to maintain after the Genocide.

How ironic and frustrating it must be for Turkey to realize that in its quest to destroy the Armenian Nation, it inadvertently created a worldwide dispersion of Genocide survivors who, as if through some divine intervention, actually created and unleashed an army of successive generations of Diaspora Armenians who made it their mission to seek justice, proving that Turkey’s plan of annihilation failed.

Alas, the current fourth generation and those still to come will never hear the first-hand accounts of Genocide survivors that we did. Yet, our youth remains vigilant. They carry both the pride and the burden of saying, “I am Armenian,” and they know what that means. And they have new tools at their disposal which they can use to triumph over newly revitalized campaigns by Turkey and now Azerbaijan to threaten and destroy our nation.

This is how we have evolved from despair to defiance, from grief to outrage, and from mere survival to organized activism. Some may say our struggle should end here, because we now have an independent Armenia. But in reality, it is precisely an independent Armenia which in partnership with an organized Diaspora, has the ability and credibility to collectively represent the interests of our nation and to remind the world not only that the issue of the Genocide remains unresolved, but that it continues even now as the Armenian homeland is illegally blockaded, our sacred landmarks are desecrated, and our brethren in Artsakh are under constant fear of attack and destruction.

And why have Turkey and now Azerbaijan been allowed to act with such impunity? While each year, we hear slogans of “Never Again” and admonitions that “We must remember history so that it will not repeat itself,” history has in fact repeated itself simply because there has been no consequence imposed upon the perpetrators. Adding further insult to injury, an unrepentant Turkey continues to be rewarded by the world not only for its unpunished crime of Genocide nearly a century ago, but even for its continued crimes today against the Armenian Nation.

Know this well: the truth of the Genocide is not in dispute, and neither should its punishment be.

Ironically, in all our meetings between the Armenian National Committee of America and elected officials, and in all public pronouncements from the floors of the U.S. Congress and State legislatures, I have not witnessed anyone in recent years call into question whether or not the Genocide occurred. Most American politicians openly acknowledge it, especially since U.S. government and media archives are replete with irrefutable documentation and official pronouncements both by Presidents and by Congress which unequivocally acknowledge the truth of the Genocide.

Regrettably, their main concern is not whether the Genocide should be officially recognized, but rather what the consequences of recognition will be for Turkey if it is. It is solely for this reason that while our efforts to pass a Genocide resolution in Congress have consistently failed in recent years, we were able to successfully pass a Congressional resolution calling on Turkey to return our ancient Armenian churches to their rightful owners. I’m sure the irony of this is not lost on anyone.

Still, in one recent meeting with an elected official, we were told point blank that even though he unequivocally supports our annual resolutions to formally recognize the Genocide in order to set the historical record straight, he believes that should be enough because to him, our territorial demands from Turkey are unrealistic. Little did he realize that despite the perceived improbability of our goals, we are incrementally moving forward, successfully liberating part of the Armenian homeland first from the Soviet Union and then from the oppressive government of Azerbaijan. So there is no reason for anyone to think that we will not also liberate the rest of the Armenian homeland from genocidal Turkey.

Unfortunately, the level of political hypocrisy on this issue is baffling. While trying to avoid offending its perceived ally, the U.S. Government, our Government, chooses instead to deeply offend its loyal citizens of Armenian descent. Just last week, in an inexplicably incoherent move, the State Department had the audacity to encourage Turkey’s active role in resolving the current Armenian-Azeri conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, as if Turkey has the ability or desire to act as a neutral player in peace negotiations between its sworn enemy on the one hand and its surrogate on the other – a proverbial scenario of the fox guarding the hen house. It is truly incomprehensible that U.S. Government officials allow our foreign policy to be packaged in Ankara.  Shame on them! Don’t they know, as renowned human rights activist Ginetta Sagan once said, that “Silence in the face of injustice is complicity with the oppressor”?

As United States citizens, it is our right and our duty to demand that our government adhere to principles of law and justice and avoid complicity with the oppressor. We can and should use our influence to put an end to Turkey’s gag rule over U.S. foreign policy. It is our duty to put an end to the politics of denial and historical revisionism perpetuated and condoned by the U.S. and other nations either out of false political calculations, or out of an unsubstantiated fear of reprisal from Turkey.

And yet, the tide is turning even in unexpected places. Despite the politics of fear being utilized by Turkey toward other governments, and despite statutory criminalization in Turkey of any mention of the Armenian Genocide, there is a new wave of truth washing over Turkish intelligentsia who urge acknowledgement of history, who openly apologize to the Armenian People, and who seek to rectify the wrong. As one notable Turkish businessman, Itzak Alaton of the Alarco Corporation, publicly stated, “I am tired of the fear to face our past. It is time to open our skeleton-filled closets,” a sentiment echoed by numerous Turkish scholars, journalists, academicians, and human rights activists who have in recent years exhibited unprecedented levels of courage in standing up to their government’s denialist policies.

They know well that the orchestrated campaign of denial has never been about truth vs. falsity. Denial is about diversion, about buying time until either the Armenian quest for justice dies down in a sea of assimilation or indifference, or until the world is deceived into believing that modern-day Turkey is completely detached from its Ottoman past.  As renowned Genocide scholar Israel Charny has said, “Denial is the final stage of genocide, as it seeks to demonize the victims and rehabilitate the perpetrators.” Turkey is a textbook example of this.

Denial for modern-day Turkey is about going on the offensive, spewing ludicrous and wholly false claims that it was in fact the Armenians who massacred the Turks, that the strength of the new Turkish economy was not built upon the tremendous Armenian wealth and property confiscated during the Genocide, that there is some other unknown explanation for the fact that nearly 3000 Armenian villages and towns which existed for centuries up until World War I became completely devoid of their indigenous population because the Armenians simply relocated and abandoned their ancestral lands for no reason at all.

And Turkey’s denialist campaign is further buttressed by Azerbaijan’s well-funded campaign of misinformation, all of which has resulted in a coordinated effort to continue the Turkic, not only Turkish, but Turkic, stranglehold over Armenians.

While Turkey unapologetically blockades Armenia’s western border, Azerbaijan does the same on its eastern border in an attempt to cut off both Armenia and Artsakh from the world, both with impunity and both enjoying the continued inexplicable support of our United States government and our tax dollars.

While Turkey proclaims itself as a modern democracy protective of all religious and ethnic minorities, it allows elderly Armenian women to be attacked and beaten in Turkish cities, left battered and bleeding from the signs of crosses carved into their chests, all once again, with impunity.

While Turkey deceives the West into believing that its society enjoys freedom of speech and freedom of the press, it passes laws criminalizing anything deemed to be anti-Turkish, jailing journalists who fail to toe the official line, and remaining unrepentant for the murder of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink.

While Turkey falsely portrays itself as a regional peace-maker, its surrogate Azerbaijan declares through presidential proclamation that “All Armenians of the world are [its] enemies,” brazenly using fighting words eerily reminiscent of words used by Adolf Hitler before the Jewish Holocaust, and encouraging Azeris and Turks to attack Armenians wherever they may be.

This is all happening today, not 100 years ago, but today. We are under siege again today, and yet the world still fails to act.

While Turkey falsely portrays itself as a Western-leaning democracy, it, along with the rest of the world, remains silent as Azerbaijan glorifies army officer Ramil Safarov, a confessed axe murderer who is now a national Azeri hero because he deliberately killed an Armenian soldier in his sleep in an ethnically driven heinous crime ironically committed during a NATO Partnership for Peace program in which both were participating. It remains silent as the Azeri government pushes the envelope even further by threatening to shoot down civilian aircraft flying into or out of the new Stepanakert airport in Artsakh. It truly shocks the conscience of all civilized societies, yet once again, all of this is done with impunity as Azerbaijan continues to enjoy unfettered U.S. military aid and support.

While Turkey deceives the West into believing that the Genocide is an issue of historical debate mired in the past, Azerbaijan continues the same pan-Turkic genocidal policy by perpetrating recent massacres and pogroms against Armenians in Sumgait, Baku and Kirovabad, all, once again, with complete impunity.

And in the face of all of this, we now reach the final step in our national duty to remember, to remind, and to reclaim, because so long as we have Sumgait and Safarov in the modern era, so long as the Genocide remains unpunished, the lessons of history have not been learned, and our battle must continue.

So what exactly can we do from a practical standpoint to reclaim our rights and achieve justice?

First, the best way to effectuate change within these apathetic or misguided government policies is from within. For the past several decades, as we have integrated more and more into Diasporan societies while still maintaining our national identity, we have successfully elected a handful of public officials at various levels of government, but they are not enough. In the entire 535 members of the U.S. Congress, we have only two who are of Armenian descent. In order to effectively fight the false propaganda campaigns being waged against us by Turkey and Azerbaijan, we must elect our own qualified candidates to office, starting from Neighborhood Councils, to City and County Government, to State Legislatures, to Congress and beyond, and not just in areas of large Armenian populations, but everywhere we can.

Second, in order to elect our candidates, we must become fully engaged in the political process. All Armenian immigrants who are eligible for U.S. citizenship must become naturalized. All Armenian-American adult citizens must register to vote and then must actually vote for those who support our Cause and against those who work against us. Over the course of the last year, the ANCA has initiated Hye Votes, a massive voter registration and Get Out the Vote campaign, and has successfully registered thousands of new voters for precisely this purpose. We have over one million Armenians living in the United States, and we must mobilize our electoral power to ensure that our collective voice is heard.

Third, our youth must be encouraged to seek higher education and employment in fields that influence public discourse, such as communications, journalism, film and the arts, education, law, and politics. Upon obtaining higher education, they should feel the magnetic pull of advocating for the Armenian Cause with their newly-developed expertise and skill.

Fourth, we must fight to preserve our national identity, culture and heritage. Of course, while some assimilation is conducive to our ability to integrate and advance from within, we must always cultivate our own heritage. We must teach our children the benefits of maintaining their native language and history while empowering them with the language and history of the countries in which they live in the Diaspora.

Fifth, we must strengthen democracy in Armenia. One recent statistical study revealed that if the same rate of emigration from Armenia, coupled with the same birth rate in Armenia, continues as it has for the last 20 years, then there will be one Armenian left in the homeland by the year 2048! This should serve as a wake-up call for all of us to realize that our Nation needs each and every one of us no matter where we live, and that we cannot afford to let the legacy of our Genocide survivors die.

Finally, we must counteract the vast anti-Armenian and pro-Turkish/pro-Azeri propaganda and misinformation campaign currently invading public opinion, the media, and the halls of government.

In order to succeed, we must first establish unequivocal recognition of the Genocide to give ourselves standing to pursue justice.

We must secure compensation and reparations for our Nation through new legal avenues utilizing the power of the law and the gavel of the courts, forcing Turkey to use its considerable national wealth and economic strength to make financial restitution by providing assistance and support to Armenia and Artsakh and compensating descendants of Genocide survivors in the Diaspora for property stolen from them.

We must sway political powers to respect and allow self-determination for the people of Artsakh and Javakhk.

We will stop at nothing less. We will bear the weight of our martyrs’ legacy on our shoulders until justice is achieved, and we have a free, independent, democratic, and above all, fully united Armenian homeland. We know the pride and the burden of saying “I am Armenian,” and we each have our work to do. So let’s get on with it!

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