US Jews May Be Ready to Step Into Armenian Genocide Debate

Despite a serious strain in relations with Turkey as a result of harsh Turkish criticism of Operation Cast Lead, Israel has not changed its policy on the question of whether the killing in the early 20th century of some 1.5 million Armenia’s should be characterized as genocide.

This issue is once again on the agenda as US lawmakers introduced last week, as they do every spring, a resolution that would call the killings a "genocide."

"Our position on this has not changed," one senior Israeli diplomatic official told The Jerusalem Post.

Israel’s position on this matter was last formally articulated in March 2007, when the Knesset shelved a proposal for a parliamentary discussion on the issue.

Health Minister Ya’acov Ben-Yizri, speaking on behalf of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, said at the time: "As Jews and Israelis, we have special sympathy and a moral obligation to commemorate the massacres that were perpetrated against the Armenia’s in the last years of Ottoman rule. The state of Israel never denied these terrible acts. On the contrary, we understand fully the intense emotional feelings aroused by this, taking into consideration the number of victims, and the suffering of the Armenian people."

At the same time, Ben-Yizri also said that Israel understood that this was a "loaded" issue between the Armenia’s and Turks, and that Israel hoped "both sides will reach an open dialogue that will enable them to heal the wounds that have been left open."

The diplomatic official said that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s vicious criticism of the IDF’s actions in Gaza had not altered Israel’s position on the Armenian genocide issue.

Israel’s position on this is important, because it impacts the position of major American Jewish organizations which in the past have helped Turkey lobby against the legislation in Congress to declare the event a genocide.

American Jewish leaders insist that "the relationships between Turkey, Israel and the United States remain very important," said Conference of Presidents executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein.

"Our position hasn’t changed," added Jess Hordes, head of the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington office. The position currently states that that a congressional resolution on the issue would be "counterproductive."

While the ADL has labeled what happened to the Armenia’s a genocide, Hordes noted, "this issue is best handled by the parties themselves" rather than by Congress. He also noted that since the Gaza operation, the ADL had seen Turkey take steps to deal with anti-Semitism domestically.

"Hopefully the differences that emerged in this operation will be behind us. Both countries recognize they have strategic relations that are important to maintain."

But for all the assurances, some Jewish groups say they are beginning to see support for Turkey’s positions decrease among American Jews.

In February, shortly after the worst of the Israel-Turkey row over Gaza, a senior official in a major American Jewish organization admitted that "no Jew or Israeli in his right mind will insult Turkey, but next time they might not come to Turkey’s aid or equivocate quite so much on the issue."

Another senior official, speaking to the Post on Tuesday, suggested the shift may be more dramatic.

"The grassroots membership of the major organizations has never been happy about looking the other way about the massacre of Armenia’s, even if it happened so long ago. After all, ‘so long ago’ was just 25 years before the Holocaust," the official said. "But [supporting Turkey] was seen as a matter of life or death for Israelis."

This has changed palpably, the official said. "Erdogan’s behavior in Davos was disgraceful. He called Israelis ‘baby-killers.’ He told Turkey’s parliament that the Jews control the media. He said things that, if he were a political leader in America, we’d be demonstrating outside his house. People are now asking themselves, ‘Who are we going to bat for?’ There’s not a lot of support in the grassroots for bending over backwards to meet the needs of Turkey right now."

Even before Erdogan’s outburst, the issue was a point of contention among some American Jewish advocacy groups. In 2007, ADL National Director Abe Foxman triggered a storm when he reversed the traditional American Jewish organizational position on the issue and, while in a dispute in the Boston area over the matter, released a statement saying that had the word "genocide" existed in the early 20th century, it would have been used to describe events of 1915 perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenia’s.

The Turks were infuriated at the time, warning that Turkish-Israeli ties could be harmed if the American Jewish organizations did not work – as they had done in the past – to ensure that the US Congress did not pass a resolution characterizing the massacre a genocide.

The legislation was eventually removed from the table after then-US president George W. Bush and numerous former secretaries of state and defense wrote letters saying that passing the legislation would harm American interests.

The Los Angeles Times reported last week that US President Barack Obama was hesitating on a campaign pledge to designate the killings as genocide. Obama is scheduled to visit Turkey on April 5, and is looking to improve ties with Ankara and enlist its help in dealing with Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, something that would be complicated by calling the events genocide.

The paper reported that improved relations between Turkey and Armenia were among the reasons the Obama administration was using to explain postponing a presidential statement on the matter.

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