Washington - Despite fears of upsetting a top Israeli and American ally in the Muslim world, Jewish organizations are reluctant to respond to Turkish calls to fight a congressional resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide.
In the past, Jewish groups have aided Turkey’s efforts to prevent the United Stated from applying the term “genocide” to the killing of 1.5 million Armenians by the Turks during World War I. But this time around, the Forward has learned, Jewish organizations are declining to commit to the issue, fearing an uphill battle with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has vowed to push the resolution through.
In a meeting two weeks ago in Washington, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul raised the issue with representatives of several leading Jewish organizations. In the meeting, attended by representatives of eight major groups, Gul stressed the importance that Turkey sees in preventing the passage of the resolution. He asked the Jewish groups to use their lobbying operations on Capitol Hill to aid Ankara’s cause.
According to several Jewish representatives who were in the meeting, Turkish officials warned that the passage of a genocide resolution could threaten Ankara’s strategic ties with the United States and, perhaps, with Israel. In the past, Jewish groups have been inclined to side with Turkey, which they see as Israel’s only Muslim ally in the region and a power that can check Islamist radicalism and block Iranian influence. The Israeli air force holds exercises with Turkey, and Israeli defense industries see the country as a major export market.
In sharp contrast, several Jewish lawmakers have sided with Armenian American activists in pressing for a resolution, saying that the moral imperative is to fight genocide denial.
“There is no debate in the [Jewish] community about the facts regarding what happened; the only question is, are we willing to recognize it while taking the risk of alienating our relationship with Turkey?” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who introduced the genocide resolution January 30. “When you think of Elie Wiesel’s words, that Holocaust denial is a second trauma for the victims, it’s easy to understand the potency of the Armenian claim.”
Schiff was optimistic about the fate of his resolution.
“Chances of getting the resolution passed this time are good,” Schiff said. “Turkey has some of the best lobbyists in town, but we definitely have the votes.” The key question is if and when a vote will take place.
Rep. Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign
Affairs Committee and the only Holocaust survivor in Congress, has yet to schedule a debate or vote on the measure. The California Democrat is “focusing on the Iraq debate and has not yet made a decision regarding this resolution,” according to his spokeswoman, Lynne Weil.
Congressional sources predicted that if Lantos tried to block the genocide resolution in committee, Pelosi would ask him to move it to the House floor for a vote and he would end up agreeing.
The issue of the resolution came up last week, during Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s visit to Ankara.
Israel’s relationship with the current Turkish government, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has experienced ups and downs. Erdogan was among the first to invite Hamas leaders for a formal visit after their victory in the Palestinian elections; he declared Israel’s war in Lebanon this past summer to have been illegitimate, and he recently called for halting the construction project on the Temple Mount. In their meeting last week, Olmert and Erdogan agreed to send Turkish inspectors to monitor the construction in Jerusalem.
When asked at a press conference if Israel would convince Jewish organizations in the United States to take action against the resolution, Olmert said it was a matter for members of Congress to decide. But he added, “It will be better if independent experts come together and look into this matter.”
Olmert’s statement echoed Turkey’s assertion that what happened to Armenians at the time of the Ottoman Empire is a matter for historians, not politicians.
During the Turkish foreign minister’s recent meeting with Jewish organizations, sources said, it was Ankara’s ambassador to Washington, Nabi Sensoy, who directly addressed the possible consequences of a resolution. The ambassador listed several points of cooperation that could be jeopardized if Congress moves forward, most of them relating to the American military effort in Iraq. The possibility was raised of Turkey closing Incirlik air force base, through which American forces in Iraq receive more than half their fuel supply; for example, Turkish officials suggested, the Incirlik area could be declared a national bird refuge in which flights and traffic are limited. The discussion also touched on the effect that the congressional resolution could have on Turkey’s strategic ties with Israel.
Neither side raised the issue of Turkey’s Jewish community in the context of the Armenian genocide resolution. But in interviews after the meeting, representatives of Jewish organizations said that they were concerned over the well-being of the Turkish Jewish community if the government in Ankara decides to express its dismay with America.
Representatives of Jewish organizations who attended the meeting were reluctant to offer their help to Gul, sources told the Forward. They told the Turkish foreign minister that the chances of blocking the House leadership on this issue were slim, and that — as one participant later said — “no one wants to take on a losing battle.”
The meeting included representatives of the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, the Orthodox Union, Chabad and United Jewish Communities, the national arm of the North American network of Jewish charitable federations.
William Daroff, UJC’s Washington director and a participant in the meeting, said that “there was no commitment on behalf of Jewish communal leaders on this issue.” Another participant, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that members of the Jewish groups “were sympathetic but would not commit.” A third participant claimed that the Jewish community is paying lip service to Turkey on this issue, since all the organizations agree that little that can be done to block the resolution.
According to several participants, one of the reasons that the Jewish community took a cautious approach in response to the request of the Turkish foreign minister was the concern of “over-promising” and of being seen by the Turks as responsible for failure if Congress approves the resolution.
“There’s no doubt that all the wonderful gestures of friendship from Turkey are much respected,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Washington representative of Chabad. “But anyone active on congressional matters would be reluctant to foretell the outcome of a legislative process, specifically in this case.”
Several officials at Jewish organizations have expressed frustration over recent Turkish actions regarding Israel as well as regulations restricting Jewish education in Turkey. “Groups are tired of having [the Turkish representatives] come to us when they need us, but when we need their cooperation, it isn’t always satisfying,” said a senior official from one of the major organizations.
Both the Turkish American and Armenian American communities in the United States are weighing in on the House debate.
Groups representing the Armenian Diaspora have made recognizing genocide a major lobbying issue on their agenda. The smaller Turkish American population is active on blocking the recognition, arguing that the use of the genocide label would be historically inaccurate. “We see the Holocaust as an act of genocide. If lawmakers will decide that the Armenians had suffered genocide, as well, that would make us confused,” said Gunay Evinch, president-elect of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations. He added that if the resolution were approved by Congress, it would “alienate Turkish Americans from the American society.”
In the Senate, several Jewish lawmakers have assumed a vocal role in fighting America’s refusal to classify the killing of Armenians as genocide. Currently at issue is President Bush’s decision last month to reintroduce the nomination of career diplomat Richard Hoagland as ambassador to Armenia. Democrats and at least one Republican, Norm Coleman of Minnesota — one of two Jewish Republican senators — opposed Hoagland’s nomination last year over his refusal to use the term “genocide” when talking about the killing of the Armenians in World War I. His predecessor, ambassador John Evans, was recalled last year after using the term “genocide” publicly.
Senate Democrats are now calling on Bush to withdraw Hoagland’s nomination and find a candidate who is more forthcoming on the genocide issue. Another Jewish lawmaker, New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer, wrote a letter to Bush last month arguing that “Hoagland’s reluctance to classify the Armenian Genocide as the 20th century’s first genocide is a travesty, which leaves us to believe that he will march lock and step with the administration’s politically motivated stance of denial.”
Armenian groups in the United States are divided on the issue of nominating Hoagland. While the Armenian Assembly of America has called for approving Hoagland in order to avoid a situation in which the United States has no ambassador in Yerevan for two years, the Armenian National Committee of America is calling on the Senate to continue blocking the nomination.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman