Mark Arax: Suddenly, the Israel Lobby Discovers a Genocide

Roundup: Media's Take

[Mark Arax is the author of several books, including the most recent, “West of the West.”]

Some of the most powerful leaders in the American Jewish community have stepped forward in recent days to acknowledge the 1915 Armenian Genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turkey.

On the surface, this would seem unremarkable. As victims of the Holocaust, Jews might be expected to stand beside the Armenians and their tragedy. After all, the massacres and death marches across Anatolia during the fog of World War I became a model for Hitler himself.

But this sudden embrace of the Armenian Genocide actually marks a shameless turnaround for the major American Jewish organizations. For decades, they have helped Turkey cover up its murderous past. Each year, the Israel lobby in the U.S. has played a quiet but pivotal role in pressuring Congress, the State Department and successive presidents to defeat simple congressional resolutions commemorating the 1.5 million Armenian victims.

Genocide denial is not a pretty thing, they now concede, but they did it for Israel. They did it out of gratitude for Turkey being Israel’s one and only Muslim ally....

If I sound cynical about all this, maybe I am.

In the spring of 2007, I wrote a story that revealed how genocide denial had become a dirty little pact between Turkey and Israel and its lobby in the U.S.

The story, as it turned out, was my last story at the Los Angeles Times, the only story in my 20-year career that was killed on the eve of publication.

Three years later, I can still hear myself framing its contours to one of our editors in the Washington bureau:

A rift over genocide denial has begun to crack open inside the Jewish community. If you listen closely, you can hear the stirrings of a debate....

I knew that experts in the field of Holocaust studies recognized the Armenian Genocide as an antecedent with chilling echoes. And Jewish scholars were openly condemning Turkey’s long campaign of denial, seeing it as the psychological continuation of genocidal trauma.

But these same scholars were mostly silent when it came to the behind-the-scenes role that Israel and its lobby in the U.S -- the Anti-Defamation League, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, neoconservative think tanks and Bush administration hawks -- were playing in this denial.

This was the story I wanted to tell as the ceremonial bill went to committee that April -- the month that Armenians remember their martyrs....

...I found my way to the equivocators and deniers who sat at the helms of the major American Jewish organizations. None was more blunt than Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League in New York. The Armenian Genocide had become his own convenient cudgel to keep Turkey in line.

Foxman had just returned from a meeting with Turkish military and government leaders to discuss pressuring Congress, the State Department and President Bush to turn back the genocide resolution once again.

"Our focus is Israel," he explained. "If helping Turkey helps Israel, then that’s what we’re in the business of doing."

But such a bottom line would seem an uncomfortable place for a Jewish leader to be when the question was genocide.

"Was it genocide?" he said. "It was wartime. Things get messy."...

I pointed out that the genocide had already been documented as a fact by many prominent historians. And Congress recognizes all sorts of people's history. Resolutions commemorating the victims of the Holocaust, for instance.

"You’re not suggesting that an Armenian Genocide is the same as the Holocaust, are you?"...

The official explanation was a beauty. The managing editor said I was not an objective reporter because I had once signed a petition stating that the Armenian Genocide was a historical fact.

I had never signed such a petition. But if I had, how did this prove bias? Our own style book at the Times recognized the genocide as a historical fact.

"Would you tell a Jewish reporter that he couldn’t write about Holocaust denial because he believed the Holocaust was a fact?” I asked.

His answer was to reassign my story to a colleague in Washington who covered Congress. That this reporter was Jewish -- and the story dealt with Jewish denial of the genocide -- didn’t seem to faze the managing editor. The colleague, who may not have had a choice in the matter, proceeded to gut my story. By the time he was done, there was not a single mention of Jewish denial....

Last week, four Jewish professors from Georgetown and Bar Ilan universities urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide. Take that, Turkey!...

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