It’s been 70 years since the end of the Holocaust, and last week marked the centennial of the beginning of the Armenian genocide.
But our own president refuses to call it that.
I cannot begin to imagine the pain of the Armenian community – even now, on the centenary of the Armenian genocide – in having to suffer the final indignity: After the murder of 1.5 million innocent victims, the world barely acknowledges their deaths. That after being robbed of their lives, the victims are now robbed of the chance to be remembered.
When we dishonor the lives of the Armenians killed, we embolden those who would commit unspeakable evil, much in the way Hitler was emboldened by the world’s indifference to this dress rehearsal for the Holocaust. President Obama could have used the upcoming 100th anniversary of the genocide this week as an opportunity finally to place the United States on the right side of history and morality, and to make clear to Turkey that its choices have consequences. Sadly, he chose to do precisely the opposite.
President Obama’s failure to call out Turkey for its role in the Armenian genocide, or to even label it a genocide, stains the soul of America.
The same is true of the American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power.
As a member of a people who recently experienced genocide, I was moved deeply by Samantha Power’s 2002 book, “A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide.” She wrote with – and fostered in her readers – a powerful outrage toward those (especially in government) who turn a blind eye to the slaughter of innocents. So in 2011, when critics charged her with an anti-Israel bias that might have hampered her eventual nomination to become America’s ambassador to the United Nations, I stood up for her. We needed more government officials who would campaign against institutional indifference. I even brought her to meet with many of America’s Jewish leaders at the office of Birthright Israel co-founder Michael Steinhardt, after which we chatted with Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel.
During her confirmation in 2013, when she asked me for public support, I did not hesitate; I chided her Jewish critics for not supporting one of the world’s foremost voices against genocide. Foreign Policy wrote that I made her “kosher” for American Jews.
So it is mystifying and more than a little disheartening that Power has remained silent about genocides happening today. It started when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, murdering hundreds of Arab children. President Obama previously had pledged to enforce red lines against Assad if he gassed his people, but after the news broke, he did little. Poison gas has a terrible poignancy for Jews, so it was shocking that Power held her tongue about Obama’s inaction.
Over the past decade the United States often has held Turkey up as the model of a moderate, democratic ally in the Muslim world, serving as a bridge between America and illiberal autocracies in the Middle East. President Obama has publicly showcased a warm working relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even as Erdogan has heartily dismantled Turkish democracy and media freedoms.
Today, the idealism many once felt about Turkey’s president has been washed away by his increasingly authoritarian rule, persecution of his political opponents, support of terrorism, and anti-Semitism.
Of course, it’s not uncommon for our nation to hold its nose when dealing with thuggish autocrats in the face of pressing global crises. But the time has come to ask ourselves whether America is selling its moral soul to hold on to an “ally” that contravenes all decency by steadfastly denying the historical fact of the Armenian genocide.
In recent history, Turkey has pulled every lever of influence at its disposal to prevent formal acknowledgement by the United States that Ottoman Turkey slaughtered 1.5 million Christian-minority Armenians under the cover of a world war and its aftermath. America’s concession to this morally bankrupt stipulation for good relations not only sets a gut-wrenching precedent but ignores the lessons history has taught us about turning a blind eye to genocide.
Consider the words of Adolf Hitler to Nazi officers in August 1939, a week before the invasion of Poland: “Go, kill without mercy â€¦ who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Evil doesn’t happen in a vacuum but rather incubates amid the silence of bystanders. As Edmund Burke famously said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
The Armenian Genocide was Hitler’s proof-of-concept for his belief that the world has a short memory and would be largely indifferent to unspeakable horrors.
Once they are examined thoroughly, the connections between the Nazis and the Young Turks are troubling. Hitler’s confidants learned from Turkey’s genocidal playbook. As Hitler strategized his rise to power in the early 1920s, his lead political advisor was Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter, who had been a young German consular office in Erzurum during WWI. That region of Ottoman Turkey had been densely populated with Armenians.
Scheubner-Richter saw the galvanizing, nationalistic effect of blaming a well-educated, affluent religious minority for a nation’s woes. He witnessed the strategy of rounding up dissident intellectuals and political leaders first and the use of starvation as a means for mass slaughter.
Although Scheubner-Richter died literally marching arm-in-arm with Hitler in the Beer Hall Putsch of November 1923, he was so influential to Hitler’s thinking that Hitler dedicated the first part of Mein Kampf to Scheubner-Richter, and later singled him out as the only “irreplaceable loss” resulting from the putsch.
Turkey’s approach to its own genocide has been the precise opposite of Germany’s efforts at atonement and reconciliation. In recent years, Turkey charged scholars and journalists with crimes for “insulting Turkishness” by advocating acknowledging genocide. In a chilling and terrifying example of blaming the victim, high school textbooks in Turkey today refer to the “Armenian matter” (the word genocide is never used) and describe it as being the result of Armenian provocation. Insinuations of genocide are said to be a lie used in an attempt to harm and break up Turkey.
The “Armenian matter” isn’t the only area where Erdogan has displayed detachment from reality. He aggressively contests that atrocities in Darfur were genocide, yet libeled Israel as being guilty of an attempted “genocide” during its air campaign against Hamas in 2014. In 2013, he called Zionism a “crime against humanity.” Last July, he disgraced himself further, with the stomach-turning charge that Israel’s “barbarism has surpassed even Hitler’s.”
This wretched anti-Semitic fervor has continued apace with Turkey most recently welcoming the relocation of Hamas’s so-called West Bank and Jerusalem headquarters to Istanbul, even as the genocidal Hamas charter calls for the murder of Jews wherever they may be found. And rather than demonstrating even a hint of sympathy after the bloody Paris terror attacks took the lives of four Jews guilty only of buying bread for the Sabbath, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu equated Benjamin Netanyahu to the terrorists who carried out the attacks.
The White House has demonstrated its own faulty moral compass by both ignoring the intensifying anti-Semitism of our NATO “ally” and by refusing to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. While President Obama supported formal recognition of the Armenian genocide as a senator and made promises to Armenian-Americans to recognize the genocide while seeking their votes in 2008, he has failed to live up to this promise over the last six years.
After intense lobbying by the Armenian-American community, to whom he made a campaign promise in 2008 that “As president I will recognize the Armenian genocide,” the White House announced three days before the centenary that the President would break his promise for the sixth year running.
Beyond the shame of repudiating his own promises, Obama’s deference to an ally at the expense of citing the genocide is a complete betrayal of Samantha Power, whose legacy is built on taking the American government to task for its 100-year spinelessness in the face of genocide. In a famous passage in her book Samantha writes that
“â€¦ [it] is daunting to acknowledge, but this country’s consistent policy of nonintervention in the face of genocide offers sad testimony not to a broken political system but to one that is ruthlessly effective. The system, as it stands now, is working. No U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on.
Mr. President, the world is watching. History is taking notice. The souls of 1.5 million Armenians cry out from the grave. Are you listening?