Analysis | Inconvenient victims: Tracing the roots of anti-Armenianism in Israel
Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, December 19, 2014 12:23 - 5 Comments
On the 29th of October, Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an opinion piece by Maxine Gauin and Alexander Murinson, entitled ‘Baku to the future: Azerbaijan, not Armenia, is Israel’s true ally’. A few days later, on the 2nd of November the same paper published another piece, by Reshad Karimov, with the title ‘Why Azerbaijan is good for Israel and the international community’.
The authors emphasise the Azeri government’s role as one of Israel’s important and trustworthy partners, while levelling criticism, accusations of historic anti-semitism, and crimes against humanity at Armenia. Despite their cynicism and dishonesty, the pieces provide an excellent opportunity to explore the relationship between Israel, Azerbaijan and Armenia. This essay attempts to uncover the link between Armenia’s history and the unkindness it has been subjected to in the Israeli press over the years.
When considering Israel’s attitude towards Armenia and Armenians, the idea of shared pain amongst oppressed peoples is central. Abdul Hamid II, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, was removed from power by the Young Turk revolution of 1908. The nationalist wing of the movement consolidated its power under the banner of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP). Under the cover of the First World War, the CUP planned and conducted what many believe to be the genocide of Armenians living in Ottoman Turkey. According to estimates, more than a million lives were extinguished.
As it happens, Israel has yet to recognise the Armenian Genocide. It might be that Israeli leaders fear recognising the genocide would jeopardise strategic relations with close allies Turkey and Azerbaijan. Successive Turkish governments, from Ataturk to Erdogan, have adhered to a fierce policy of genocide denial; the genocide never happened. Azeri governments follow suit. Put crudely, Israel denial of the Armenian genocide involves trading moral integrity for geopolitical calculations.
Another key dimension here is that such recognition would undermine the idea of the singularity of the Holocaust. In this regard, Amos Elon writes that ‘The Holocaust is the central trauma of Israeli society’ and those who ‘remind the world that they are forbidden to forget, have followed the Armenian affair as though it had taken place on another planet.’ And yet, the belief that recognising the Armenian Genocide would minimise the significance of the Holocaust negates the universal lessons of such atrocities; the value of human life is the same for all humans, we must fight against all manifestations of racism. More to the point, failure to learn from history creates the space for tragedies to be replicated. When addressing his generals before the invasion of Poland in 1939, Hitler asked rhetorically ‘who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’
Immediate parallels can be made between the suffering of the Armenians and that of Palestinians, two indigenous Asian peoples violently expelled from their historic homelands. The Turkish state refuses to accept the Aghet (disaster) took place, while Israel will not acknowledge the Nakba of 1948, and continues to commit heinous crimes in what we can fairly describe as an ongoing genocide.
Azeri-Armenian relations are particularly hostile and have been largely shaped by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Indeed, the two nations are theoretically at war. In 1921, the Soviet Union’s Caucasus Bureau decided that Azerbaijan would administer the Nagorno-Karabakh region, despite voting in favour of allocating it to Armenia. The Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) was created in 1923, with a population that was 94% Armenian, and the seeds of discontent were sown.
The Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh longed for unification with Armenia, and this desire became an official aim of the NKAO leadership in 1988. Armenians in Yerevan rallied and staged a workers’ strike in favour of unification with the enclave. Counter-protests took place in Baku, rejecting the idea that any Azeri territory would be relinquished. Ethnic cleansing and violence followed. In Askeran, NKAO, two Azeri youths were killed. In Sumgait, Azerbaijan, protests escalated into a pogrom against the Armenian population. Conservative estimates suggest 26 Armenians were murdered, while twenty Azeri residents of the Armenian village of Vartan were slaughtered. A forced population exchange was taking place, with the majority of Armenians living in Azerbaijan fleeing, and most of the Azeris in Armenia doing the same.
The Soviet Union disintegrated on the 31st of December 1991, removing any barriers to full-scale war. In January of 1992, Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence from Azerbaijan. The armed forces of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) numbered approximately 20,000 personnel, 8,000 of them being volunteers from Armenia itself. In comparison, the Azeri forces totalled around 64,000. They were supported by Afghan mujahideen, Chechen militants, Turkish officers and volunteers, as well as members of the fascist Grey Wolves.
On the 26th of February, NKR forces committed a hideous war crime, when capturing the town of Khojaly. The biography of Armenian revolutionary Monte Melkonian, written by his brother Markar, details the massacre of Azeri civilians. He writes of ‘a trail of bloody shawls strewn across the brown grass and snow … some 2,000 Armenian fighters had advanced … forcing the residents out … Mountainous Karabakh soldiers had chased them down.’ The death toll according to Azeri authorities is 613.
Gauin and Murinson reference the Khojaly massacre as an example of Armenian brutality. I feel that we Armenians must take ownership of this horrific act, and not seek to understate the suffering we inflicted. Karimov writes that the war crimes committed in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict were ‘similar to those perpetrated by the Nazis’ and that ‘Azerbaijanis, not Armenians, lived through the horrors of war.’ However, the assertion that Armenians did not experience the horrors of war is simply not true. The Azeri army captured the village of Maragha on the 10th of April 1992 and butchered the Armenian civilian population. Amnesty International reported that ‘Over 100 residents from the village were slain, while their bodies were profaned and disfigured.’ In total, Armenian civilian deaths number 1,264; while the Azeri civilian death toll was of 1,400 approximately. Needless to say, evoking the memory of crimes perpetrated by the Nazis in an Israeli newspaper is, at the very least, a deliberate attempt to demonise the Armenian side of the narrative.
Israel’s relatively youthful relationship with post-Soviet Azerbaijan is beneficial and lucrative. Forty percent of oil consumed in Israel is Azeri, while Azerbaijan invests heavily in Israeli ‘hi-tech’ industries. In February of 2012, Baku agreed to purchase $1.6 billion worth of arms from Israel Aerospace Industries, including drones and missile defence systems. On the 12th of September, 2011, NKR forces shot down an Azeri drone procured from Israel. Monte Melkonian’s biography asserts that Azerbaijan was receiving Israeli military provisions during the Nagorno-Karabakh war, describing ‘the blue and black Hebrew lettering across the plastic wrapping of abandoned enemy supplies.’
We know that successive Israeli governments have habitually developed important and lucrative partnerships with some of the world’s most brutal regimes, notably Pinochet’s fascist Chile and apartheid South Africa. In Sasha Poloakow-Suransky’s book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s secret relationship with apartheid South Africa, he writes that ‘Israel profited handsomely from arms exports and South Africa gained access to cutting-edge weaponry at a time when the rest of the world was turning against the apartheid state.’ Suransky goes on to note that the mutually beneficial relationship allowed the apartheid regime to develop nuclear missile technology, and provided Israel with raw materials and testing space to expand its own nuclear arsenal.
Human Rights Watch reports that in Azerbaijan imprisonment is used as a tool for political retribution, peaceful demonstrations are forcibly dispersed and arrests are made indiscriminately. There is continued restrictions on freedom of religion. The urban renewal campaign in Baku has triggered thousands of forcible evictions and the illegal demolition of homes. This in no way equates Aliyev’s administration with apartheid South Africa. However, it does highlight Israel’s morality-free approach when seeking geopolitical allies. Something one ought to keep in mind when beholding Israeli criticisms of partnerships between other states.
In this regard, Israeli-Azeri cooperation is usually juxtaposed with the relationship between Armenia and Iran. Contact between Armenia and Iran reaches back into antiquity. Iran’s own Armenian community emerged at the beginning of the seventeenth century in Isfahan province. In the 20th century the number of Armenians in Iran increased significantly, as a consequence of the genocide in Ottoman Turkey; some 50,000 sought refuge there. Many Armenians lost their lives fighting in the Iranian army during the war with Iraq. Today there are over half a million Armenians living in Iran, represented by two seats in the Iranian parliament. The Armenian government’s positive partnership with Iran is logical and rational when one considers some of these factors: the ancient history, the safe haven offered to Armenians post-genocide, the Armenian contribution to the war effort, and the number of Armenians living in Iran today.
Similarly logical and rational is the fact that during the 1970s and 1980s, members of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) did train at Palestinian bases in Lebanon. In Markar Melkonian’s biography of his brother, he describes a training camp in the Bekaa Valley. The trainees consisted of ‘Arabs and Armenians, mostly from Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. There were six Kurdish cadres, too, from Abdullah Ocalan’s PKK.’ Not only did ASALA members train with Palestinian and Kurdish revolutionaries, but they actively repelled Israeli invaders from Lebanon in July of 1981. What was the common denominator that bound these men together? They represented oppressed peoples, violently removed from their homelands, and they were prepared to die in the struggle to right the injustices visited upon them. This example of genuine solidarity reminds us that while the suffering of any group has its own unique characteristics, understanding the universality of such suffering creates space for collective action.
Armenia is described as ‘virtually a mono-ethnic country, thriving on a daily diet of virulent nationalism bordering on racism’ by Gauin and Murinson. This depiction reveals the deliberate absence of self-awareness prevalent in Israeli society, for what state exhibits more nationalistic fervour and racism than Israel? As finance minister in 2003, Benjamin Netanyahu described Israel’s Palestinian citizens as ‘a demographic problem’ and an existential threat to the Jewish state. As Ben White recently put it in The National, ‘Anti-Arab, or anti-Palestinian, racism and incitement is present at every level of Israeli society.’
This poisonous sentiment manifests itself in official government policy. The UN Human Rights Committee has recently published a report on Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens, citing eighteen ‘principal matters of concern and recommendations’ regarding systematic discrimination. In May of 2012, I wrote here about the anti-African pogroms carried out against migrant communities in Tel Aviv. The rhetoric of high-ranking parliamentarians fanned the flames of racial hatred and violence. Eli Yishai, then interior minister, warned that ‘the migrants are giving birth to hundreds of thousands, and the Zionist dream is dying,’ while Miri Regev described African migrants as ‘a cancer in our body’. We generally attribute such vitriolic language to authoritarian nationalism, not a self-professed beacon of democracy. In 1915, the CUP described Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as a threat to Turkish identity. Later, Nazi propagandists propounded the central notion that Germany needed to be Judenfrei (free of Jewish presence) in order to revitalise itself.
The experience of Israel’s Armenians is particularly telling in this regard. Armenian connections with Palestine date back to the 4th century, when a small community of church people was established in Jerusalem. Numbers increased during the First World War, as Armenians fled the genocide. At the time of the Nakba there were 25,000 Armenians living in Palestine. Today, there are less than 3,000 Armenians in Israel, largely because of political tensions and a lack of decent living opportunities. Archbishop Nayrhan Manougian, the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem, described the position of Armenians living in Israel in a Haaretz interview, thus ‘We don’t belong to the community − they don’t accept us as members. We are third-class citizens.’ Is it possible that by cultivating feelings of exclusion through denial of opportunities, Israel is not-so subtly perpetuating the flight of its Armenian population?
We can compare the treatment of Palestinians and African migrants in Israel to the experience of Armenia’s Yazidi minority. The Yazidi faith is influenced by Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Sufi Islam, and Iraq’s Yazidi minority recently entered global consciousness when they came under brutal, sustained attack from the Islamic State (IS) group. The Yazidi community had developed in Armenia in the 19th and early 20th century, fleeing oppression in the Ottoman Empire. Today, Yazidis in Armenia number 40,000. In a recent Al-Jazeera piece, Vazir Avdalyan, director of a village school, and an Armenian Yazidi, said ‘There hasn’t been any place in the world that Yazidis have lived as normally as they have in Armenia, it’s probably because of this that I haven’t left yet. We understand each other well.’ The only Yazidi religious site built outside their holy land of Lalish in Iraq, is in Armenia. Armenian-born Yazidis who die abroad are sent back to Armenia for burial. A possible explanation for this kinship is a history of solidarity; Yazidis were known to have protected Armenians during the genocide, and many were massacred as a consequence.
Finally, it is important to confront the Armenian fascist deviation that Gauin and Murinson allude to. Garegin Nzhdeh and Drastamat Kanayan are cited as two prominent Armenians who supported the Nazis. Both men did indeed instigate collaboration, arguably with narrow, nationalistic objectives in mind. Turkey remained neutral until the final stages of the second world war, and would probably have invaded Armenia had the latter sided with the Axis powers. Should Ankara have joined the Allies earlier, an attack on Turkey by the Axis powers would have been inevitable. Nzhdeh, a Berlin-based representative of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), made an agreement to support the Germans, with the expectation of combating Turkish forces. An Armenian legion of the Wehrmacht, the 812th Battalion, was thus formed, with Kanayan appointed ceremonial chief. The 812th Battalion was sent to the Crimean Peninsula, Nzhdeh requested its return, and severed his own links with the Nazis. In September of 1944 he wrote a letter to Stalin offering the ARF’s support, should the Red Army attack Turkey.
The 812th Battalion consisted of an obscure number of committed recruits, while the significant majority of Armenians were Red Army prisoners of war. Joris Versteeg, a Dutch journalist writing a book on the unit, states that ‘Armenian prisoners faced genocidal conditions in the P.O.W camps’. Versteeg goes on to write that there were numerous examples of Armenian defections and revolts, and documented cases of Jewish Red Army soldiers taken prisoner, who were saved by Armenians. The 812th Battalion numbered approximately 20,000 men. The Azerbaijani Legion of the Wehrmacht numbered 70,000 men, and again was made up mainly of Azeri prisoners of war.
In order to counter the allusion that Armenia sought an alliance with fascism, one need only consider the concrete sacrifices made in the fight against the Axis powers. It is estimated that between 300,000 and 500,000 Soviet Armenians served in the Red Army. Furthermore, 20,000 Armenians served in the United States Army. Armenians outside their homeland also funded and formed the Sasuntzi Davit, a Soviet tank corps named after David of Sasun, a medieval Armenian hero. The unit was commended for its service and awarded the Order of the Red Banner. Individual Armenians who served in the unit, such as Sarkis Nahapetyan and Mikhail Stepanyan, received the Order of the Red Star for their acts of bravery. While any fascist deviation must be noticed, it is clear that the Armenian nation openly and convincingly struggled to defeat Nazism.
As Israel’s ties with Azerbaijan deepen, the hostile treatment of Armenia in the Israeli press is set to continue. As long as such mischaracterisation continue, however, the need to revisit and learn from the lessons of history will remain as urgent and crucial as ever.
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