In the National Interest

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By the World Forgot: Realpolitik and the Armenian Genocide

Nir Eisikovits

Between 1915 and 1916, through a campaign of slaughter and deportation, the nationalist ‘Young Turk’ government of the Ottoman Empire killed over 1 Million Armenians. To this day, Turkey refuses to accept responsibility for this genocide, claiming that the number of casualties was far smaller and that most had been killed in fighting between the parties rather than in one-sided massacres.  It seems that Turkish genocide-deniers are now receiving assistance from an unexpected source. In a recent article, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that several Jewish groups in Washington have been involved in blocking attempts to procure Congressional recognition of the atrocities. 

This involvement was much more proactive last year than it is now, but, to quote the article, “a central activist in a Jewish organization involved in this matter clarified that if necessary, he would not hesitate to again exert pressure to ensure the resolution is not passed and the Turks remain satisfied.”  Surprising? Not really. Israel has systematically refrained from recognizing the extermination of Armenians. Senior officials, including former foreign minister Shimon Peres, have spoken of a “tragedy,” which “cannot be compared to genocide.”  The position taken by Israel and some Jewish organizations is animated by two considerations. One has to do with the uniqueness of the Holocaust. The other is pure realpolitik. Let us examine these in turn.  

Recognizing the Armenian genocide, so the first argument goes, could eclipse the singular magnitude of the crimes perpetrated against the Jews during World War II.[1] This claim is both morally warped and empirically unfounded. It is morally warped, because we Jews do not have a monopoly on pain. Our catastrophes are not in a separate category; we do not feel any more agony for the obliteration of our families than others do. When Amernians are pricked, they bleed; when they are poisoned they die.[2] If human suffering is essentially democratic, Jews cannot, simultaneously, attack those who deny the Holocaust and assist others who deny the Armenian genocide.  The concern for the legacy of the Holocaust is empirically unfounded, because other cases of genocide have been recognized without the Holocaust being forgotten or sidelined. The massacres by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Tutsi by the Hutu in Rwanda are now universally acknowledged. Such recognition has not eclipsed the discussion of Nazi atrocities. It has, rather, served as a reminder that human cruelty is as much a reality now as it was in 1915 and 1939. 

As for realpolitik, Israel sees Turkey as an all-important strategic ally in the Middle East – a moderate democratic Muslim state in a region where both moderation and democracy are in short supply. Thus, keeping the Turks happy is taken to be an essential Israeli interest. Two observations are in order. First, the appeasement of Turkey does not seem to be working. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently accused Israel of “state terrorism” and compared its policies towards Palestinians to the actions of the Spanish Inquisition against Jews. Turkey is said to have rolled back planned contracts to purchase military equipment from Israel and is now reconsidering a planned deal to transport 15 Million cubes of water annually to the water-poor Jewish State. Apparently we have sold our moral integrity in vain. Second, realism in international affairs, with all its merits, must be subordinate to a nation’s most basic principles rather than dictate them. In the case of Israel, the most deep-seated of those principles is that the state was founded as a barrier against genocide, as a safe-haven for Jews the world over to protect them from future persecution. The refusal to recognize other cases of genocide undermines this fundamental tenet. It provides invaluable ammunition to those who claim that history is written by the victors. If that position takes hold, no group, including the Jews, would ever be safe from hounding, and Israel would have undermined the main reason for its own existence.

On August 22, 1939, days before the Nazis invaded Poland, Hitler addressed his military chiefs in Obersalzburg. “The aim of war is not to reach definite lines,” he told them “but to annihilate the enemy physically. It is by this means that we shall obtain the vital living space that we need.” He then went on to ask them a rhetorical question: “Who today still speaks of the massacre of the Armenians?”  The Israeli government, for one, does not.  History, it would seem, has a cruel sense of humor. 


Nir Eisikovits, an Israeli attorney, is completing his Ph.D. in legal and political philosophy at Boston University.

[1] In early 2002, after Israeli ambassador to Georgia and Armenia Rivka Cohen rejected any comparison between the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide, Israel’s foreign ministry released a statement including the following text: " …Israel asserted that the Holocaust was a singular event in human history and was a premeditated crime against the Jewish people. Israel recognizes the tragedy of the Armenians and the plight of the Armenian people. However, the events cannot be compared to genocide. This does not in any way diminish the magnitude of the tragedy."

[2] W. Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1.


In the National Interest is published jointly by The National Interest and The Nixon Center.