Deteriorating relations between Turkey and Israel led Jewish groups to step back from active lobbying this year against a congressional resolution declaring the 1915 Turkish slaughter of Armenians a case of genocide.
For decades, Armenian-American groups have pushed the resolution, which on March 4 narrowly passed the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, sparking a harsh backlash by Turkey. Some Jewish members of Congress have been among its prominent supporters. But Jewish organizations have marshaled their political clout and moral capital on the issue of genocide to lobby Capitol Hill against the resolution in years past, moved in large part by Turkish warnings that its passage could harm Turkish-Israeli ties.
That warning appears destined to remain academic. In response to strong pressure from the Obama administration, congressional leaders have reportedly agreed to refrain from scheduling the measure for a full congressional vote. But the shift in stance by Jewish groups was notable for its reflection of shifts in the Middle East and of the balance between moral considerations and realpolitik.
This year, no major Jewish groups lobbied for or against the resolution. As Jess Hordes, Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League, put it, “Inevitably, for some people the enthusiasm isn’t as great as it was in the past, because of concerns about Turkey’s policy on Israel.”
Hordes explained that although his organization believes the murder of Armenians amounts to genocide, the ADL opposes attempts to settle the issue through Congress. Like other organizations, the ADL launched no lobbying effort.
Most mainstream scholars recognize the mass killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during and just after World War I as a case of genocide — the deliberately planned or sanctioned liquidation of a population on the basis of its ethnic or religious identity. But Turkey, the successor government to the Ottoman Empire, insists that the killings took place with no central plan, amid fighting on both sides in the chaos of war. Local Armenians, Turkey says, were seen as an active fifth column.
Many scholars view the Armenian slaughter — estimates vary widely, but most agree on at least 500,000 killed — as the first genocide of the modern era, and draw a line to the Holocaust from that event. But in Washington, political and geopolitical considerations have frequently outweighed the moral issue.
Relations between Turkey and Israel in the past two years have been rocky.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has shifted away from its strategic partnership with Israel. Its criticism of Israel’s Gaza operation was among the harshest heard, and a series of measures, which included withdrawing from a joint military exercise with Israel and moving closer to Iran, has led Jerusalem to fear that Israel’s strongest Muslim ally is drifting away.
The American Jewish community has also felt the chill. In the past, no visit to Washington by a Turkish leader was complete without a roundtable meeting with Jewish leaders. But Erdogan chose not to have such an event during his last visit, in December.
This year, as the April commemoration day for the Armenian slaughter drew near, California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff sponsored the House genocide resolution. Schiff, who is Jewish, represents a district that has a large Armenian population.
The measure passed the Foreign Affairs Committee by a razor-thin margin of 23-to-22. All seven Jews on the committee voted for it, and Howard Berman, the California Democrat who chairs the committee, went so far as to co-sponsor it.
Turkish Ambassador Namik Tan was called back to Ankara following the vote, but he is expected to return soon.
The measure made it out of committee at least once previously, in 2007. That time, Jewish groups lobbied actively against it. But seven out of the eight Jewish members then on the committee backed the resolution. California Democrat Tom Lantos, the House’s only Holocaust survivor, who then chaired the committee, agonized openly about his vote and its possible impact on Turkish-Jewish relations. But he was among the resolution’s ultimate backers.
This time, too, representatives of Jewish organizations in Washington were asked to use their clout to help block the resolution. In a meeting in late February, Tan, who previously served as Ankara’s envoy to Israel, asked Jewish communal leaders to help out Turkey.
“He made clear that they have very strong feelings on this,” one Jewish participant said. Another added that most representatives attending the meeting agreed that congressional action on recognizing Armenian genocide was the wrong course. He said that while relations between Turkey and Israel might have gone sour, it is still “extremely critical” to maintain the good ties.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity, because of the off-the-record nature of the meeting. But representatives of all Jewish groups contacted by the Forward said they did not actively lobby against the resolution and that, at most, they provided their perspective when asked.
Still, for some in the Jewish community, even silent support for the Turkish side is morally wrong.
“It is an absolute shande,” Rabbi Howard Jaffe said, using the Yiddish word for “shame.” Jaffe was one of the organizers of a Jewish-Armenian online petition calling for passage of the genocide resolution. It reached more than 5,000 signatures by the time Congress voted. Jaffe, of Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Mass., said that the choice between Israel’s best interest and recognition of the Armenian genocide was a false one. Israel, he argued, does not face real danger even if the resolution passes. “We can’t be held hostage to Turkey’s immoral behavior,” Jaffe said.
In the wake of the committee vote, there are signs that Turkey’s leaders are reassessing the strategy of distancing themselves from American Jews against the backdrop of chilling ties with Israel. Erdogan has now included a meeting with Jewish leaders as part of his scheduled April visit to Washington.
Would siding with Turkey on this issue help shift Turkey back to a more positive approach toward Israel?
“The Armenian resolution will stay less than peripheral and won’t do much in shaping the present and future of Turkish-Israeli relations,” said Ufuk Ulutas, a scholar with the SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org
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 Haaretz 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.