While Israelis commemorated the second Holocaust of the 20th century this week, I was reading the records of the victims of the century's first Holocaust.
It was a strange sensation. The Armenians were not participating in Israel's official ceremonies to remember the six million Jewish dead, murdered by the Germans between 1939 and 1945, perhaps because Israel officially refuses to acknowledge that Armenia's million and a half dead of 1915-1923 were victims of a Turkish Holocaust.
Israeli-Turkish diplomatic and military relations are more important than genocide. Or were. George Hintlian, historian and prominent member of Jerusalem's 2,000-strong Armenian community in Jerusalem, pointed out the posters a few metres from the 1,500-year old Armenian monastery. They advertised Armenia's April 24 commemorations. All but one had been defaced, torn from the ancient walls or, in at least one case, spraypainted with graffiti in Hebrew.
“Maybe they don't like it that there was another genocide,” George told me. “These are things we can't explain.” More than 70 members of George's family were murdered in the butchery and death marches of 1915 — when German officers witnessed the system of executions, rail-car deportations to cholera camps and asphyxiation by smoke in caves — the world's first “gas” chambers.
One witness, the German vice-consul in Erzurum, Max von Scheubner-Richter, ended up as one of Hitler's closest friends and advisers. It's not as if there's no connection between the first and second Holocausts.
But the times, they are a-changing. For ever since Turkey began shouting about Israel's slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza a year ago, prominent Israeli figures have suddenly rediscovered the Armenian genocide. Who are the Turks to talk about mass murder?
For George and his compatriots — there are in all 10,000 Armenians in Israel and the occupied West Bank, 4,000 of them holding Israeli passports — they had indeed been forgotten until the Gaza war. “In 1982, the Armenians were left out of a Holocaust conference in Jerusalem,” he said. “For three decades, no documentary on the Armenian genocide could be shown on Israeli television because it would offend the Turks. Then suddenly last year, important Israelis demanded that a documentary be shown. We always had Yossi Sarid of Peace Now but now we've got right-wing Israelis.”
The Israeli press now calls the Armenian genocide a “Shoah” — the same word all Israelis use for the Jewish Holocaust. As George put it with withering accuracy: “We have been upgraded!!!”
Yet the most extraordinary irony of all occurred when the Armenian and Turkish governments last year agreed to reopen diplomatic relations and consign the Armenian Holocaust to a joint academic enquiry which would decide “if” there had been a genocide. As Israeli Professor Yair Oron of the Open University of Israel said: “I am afraid that countries will now hesitate to recognise the (Armenian) genocide. They will say: ‘Why should we grant recognition if the Armenians yielded?' Recognition of the Armenian genocide is a paramount moral and educational act. We in Israel are obliged to recognise it.” And American-Armenian UCLA Professor Richard Hovannisian asked: “Would the Jewish people be willing to forgo the memory of the Holocaust for the sake of good relations with Germany, if Germany were to make that demand?”
And glory be, if the tables haven't changed again! Turkey and Israel have made up and become good friends again. Yossi Sarid anticipated this. “Let us assume that Turkey will renew its ties with Israel. What then? Will we also renew our contribution to the denial of the Armenian Holocaust?”