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Jews must stand up for the rights of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh

A proud people, many the descendants of genocide survivors, occupy a small patch of territory in an unfriendly region. They’re attacked by their neighbors, longtime antagonists, who fire long-range artillery and armed drones. Global powers call for a ceasefire, but otherwise do not intervene. The attacks continue.

No, this is not Israel; it is Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-populated region within the country of Azerbaijan. Karabakh has operated independently within Azerbaijan — with Armenia’s support — since a 1994 ceasefire ended a war between the parties after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

That inchoate peace broke down at the end of September. The Armenians say Azerbaijan prepared an onslaught with help from Turkey’s authoritarian government and Syrian mercenaries. The Azerbaijanis say the Armenians fired first. What distinguishes this from past conflicts is that Turkey, which has long supported Azerbaijan politically, is now backing them militarily.

Turkish President Erdogan has rejected calls for peace. It should be noted that Israel, a global leader in military technology, has sold arms to the Azerbaijanis, though there is no evidence that Israel has any direct involvement in the current conflict.

Much of the world is choosing to see this as an isolated regional conflict. The United States hasn’t tried to broker peace in the region since the early 1990s. Although the renewed hostilities have the potential to draw in Russia and Iran, Karabakh seems far away, isolated, and strategically unimportant for larger geopolitical interests. The world doesn’t especially seem to care.

But Jews have a reason to care.

The history of the Armenian people should be instantly recognizable to us: Theirs is an ancient civilization with a centuries-old claim to a homeland in the Caucasus mountains — including Mount Ararat, where Noah is said to have landed in the Ark as the floods subsided.

Armenians saw their country overrun by a series of imperial invaders: the Ottomans, the Persians, the Russians. Under the Ottoman Empire, during and after World War I, the Armenians were victims of what scholars like myself consider one of the first modern genocides.

Between 1915 and 1923, 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were systematically murdered by the Ottoman government, which modern-day Turkey denies to this day. USC Shoah Foundation, which I lead, has an extensive collection of more than 1,400 testimonies of Armenian genocide survivors that are archived alongside those of Holocaust survivors.

A different people, a different generation. But the scourge of ethnic violence and death is all too familiar.

With a decimated community and no homeland, the Armenians, like the Jews, became a diasporic people. Then, in the wake of the Soviet collapse, the Armenian Republic was founded. There are estimated to be about 10 million Armenians in the world; 3 million of them now live in Armenia. Around 150,000 live in Karabakh and have resisted living under Azerbaijani Muslim rule. Their de facto autonomy has largely been accepted — until now.

The recent attacks on Armenians have reverberated across the Armenian diaspora. Like the Jews, Armenians have only had a state to call their own for several decades. But even with a state, the wounds of genocide remain painful and historical animosities run deep. An attack on one feels like an attack on all.

Jews know more than any other group how intractable territorial conflicts can be, a complex mess of ideology, religion, resources, and identity. How do you balance competing claims to the boundaries of a homeland within the community, let alone outside? How should memory, identity, and history affect geopolitical realities?

Jews also know that there are — and must be — options other than violence. There is diplomacy. There is negotiation. There are ways to address disputes without killing, without risking new ethnic cleansing or genocide.

The risk that descendants of genocide will experience it all over again is precisely why Jews need to stand up for the rights of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Security and self-determination is essential for those whose forebears had those rights removed.

When Jews are attacked we rightly expect the world to be outraged. We must be outraged now.

Stephen D. Smith Ph.D. is the Finci-Viterbi Executive Director Chair of the USC Shoah Foundation and UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education.


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