Hopes Dashed as Obama Avoids Calling Mass Killings of Armenians ‘Genocide’

By Rebecca Spence

Published April 29, 2009, issue of May 08, 2009.
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This year, on Armenian Remembrance Day — when the mass killing of more than 1 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire is commemorated — Armenian-American activists had high hopes that a president who ran on a message of change would indeed change the pattern of previous administrations. That is, they hoped President Obama would use the term “genocide” to describe the human tragedy that occurred nearly a century ago.

But on April 24, their hopes were dashed. When Obama — who, during the campaign season and as a senator in the United States, pledged to describe the events of 1915 as a “genocide” — released his statement in acknowledgement of the tragedy, the term was nowhere to be found.

Equally ambivalent are many Jewish organizations. While some groups see this as a human rights issue related to the Holocaust, others have stayed silent or even actively opposed the “genocide” designation.

At issue is how to describe the killing of roughly 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during World War I. Turkey staunchly denies that the massacres and deportations that began in 1915 constitute a “genocide,” while Armenians have long lobbied to gain international recognition of the events as exactly that. The debate has presented a challenge for successive American governments, given Turkey’s position as a key ally to the United States in the Middle East, and past American presidents have been reluctant to anger the predominantly Muslim nation.

Southern California is home to some 500,000 ethnic Armenians and constitutes the largest Armenian population outside of Armenia. On April 24, about 10,000 Armenian-Americans protested outside the Turkish Consulate in Los Angeles, following an annual commemorative march through the “Little Armenia” section of Hollywood.

During the presidential campaign, Obama made it clear that he would take up the thorny issue. His Web site stated, “As a senator, I strongly support passage of the Armenian Genocide Resolution (H.Res.106 and S.Res.106), and as President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.”

But Obama’s April 24 statement instead used the Armenian term “Meds Yeghem,” which translates roughly to “the great calamity.” A spokesman for Obama did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Every year, in the U.S. Congress, a resolution to use the controversial term is introduced in the spring and then beaten back. A handful of powerful Jewish advocacy groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, has declined to support the resolutions in past years, and some Jewish groups have even worked against them.

Still, a host of other Jewish groups, including American Jewish World Service; the Progressive Jewish Alliance, a California-based activist group, and Jewish World Watch, which mobilizes synagogues around human rights issues, have supported efforts to recognize the mass killings of Armenians as a genocide.

While some in the Jewish community argue that the memory of the Holocaust compels Jews to recognize other genocides, others argue that maintaining the strategic alliance between Israel and Turkey, as well as the American-Turkish relationship, trumps other concerns.

Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel’s existence, and it has long been a key Muslim ally in an otherwise hostile region. But in the wake of Turkey’s criticism of Israel’s recent military operation in Gaza, relations between the two countries have soured. Nonetheless, some American Jewish groups that have not supported the genocide resolutions in the past are sticking to their positions. AJC spokesman Kenneth Bandler said that his group’s position has not changed. “Our position was, and remains, that the best way to address this issue is between Turkey and Armenia,” he said.

In 2007, the ADL became embroiled in a controversy that played out in the local Boston media after its New England regional director was fired for breaking ranks with the national office and saying that the ADL should recognize the events of 1915 as a genocide. The regional director, Andrew Tarsy, was ultimately rehired, and then he resigned of his own volition. That same year, the ADL released a statement clarifying its position and stating that it had, in fact, referred to the massacres of Armenians as genocide.

Still, the ADL does not support a congressional resolution to that effect. In an e-mail, an ADL spokesman wrote, “… our position is that a Congressional resolution on such matters is a counterproductive diversion and will not foster reconciliation between Turks and Armenians, who should work out the issue between themselves.”

At the same time that Israeli-Turkish relations have been strained, relations between Turkey and Armenia actually have seen improvement over the past year. The two countries have been negotiating to open the Turkish-Armenian border, and just days before the April 24 commemoration they announced a “road map” to restoring relations, which was negotiated with the help of U.S. officials.

Charles King, a professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University, said that Obama’s backtracking on the use of the term “genocide” could be seen as more of an adjustment to new political realities on the ground. As Turkey and Armenia make real strides toward normalizing relations, King said, Obama would be hard-pressed to isolate the Turks by using the controversial term at such a delicate moment.

“The Obama administration doesn’t want to push farther on this at this point, for fear of destroying the very important progress that’s been made on Armenian-Turkish relations,” King said. “Inevitably, once a politician gets into office, they realize that issues are far more complicated than they were on the campaign trail, but secondly, things really have changed.”

That’s no consolation for some Armenian-American activists. Allen Yekikan, a 24-year-old spokesman for the Armenian Youth Federation, said that he had campaigned for Obama, even canvassing for him in the Armenian-American community. “When he released his statement,” Yekikan said, “my heart broke.”

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