Monday, October 29, 2007

Genocide, Morality and American Jews, Gidon D. Remba (Jerusalem Post Op-Ed)

Genocide, Morality and American Jews
Published as Don’t Alienate Ankara


Gidon D. Remba

October 29, 2007
The Jerusalem Post
(Unedited version)

Under pressure from the Bush Administration and Turkey, a key US NATO ally, Congressional leadership recently performed an about-face on a resolution condemning as genocide the mass slaughter and wholesale deportation of Armenian men, women and children nearly a century ago by Ottoman Turkey. The Jewish community has been deeply divided over the moral quandaries raised by this resolution. It has brought into play Turkey’s role in supporting U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel’s military alliance with the Turks, the relationship between Israel and American Jews, the Jewish memory of the Shoah—and our anguished moral consciences.

The moral question seems to have a clear-cut answer, one embraced by many thoughtful Jews. Jewish tradition reflects a potent strain of ethical idealism, an absolute commitment to principle, even to the point that it seems to suggest: Do the right thing—and damn the consequences! The preeminent rabbinic sage Maimonides exemplified this when he ruled that “if pagans should tell [the Jews], ‘Give us one of yours and we shall kill him, otherwise we shall kill all of you,’ they should all be killed and not a single Jewish soul should be delivered.”

But there is another major stream in Jewish tradition which emphasizes that the Torah was given so that we may live by it. It implores us to choose life, raising the demand to save lives above all the other commandments (the principle called pikuach nefesh). The Jewish commitment to the absolute inviolability of the individual and to human rights can be summed up by an ancient, non-Jewish aphorism: do justice, urged the Romans, even though the heavens may fall. But we live in a time in which the falling of the heavens is far from a remote possibility. If we gaze at the history of the last century, up to the present moment, we bear witness to a dark panorama of butchery, war, terrorism and genocide. The heavens have fallen time and time again. And justice has, all too often, not been done.

We Jews have been among the greatest victims of such barbarity. But we are hardly its only victims. Before the destruction of six million European Jews in the Holocaust—and six million non-Jews—there was another genocide, of over 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915-17. The Allied governments, Britain, France and Russia, condemned the Turkish government for committing “crimes against humanity and civilization,” the first time such language had ever been invoked (the term genocide had not yet been coined). The U.S., seeking to avoid involvement, refused to join the Allied declaration. Despite our wish to be celebrated as a global beacon of human rights and liberal democracy, the United States has often failed to speak out against genocide, or even to take modest risks to stop it in concert with our allies. Nor have the Europeans done much better, for all their commitment to peace, international law and human rights.

From Turkey’s destruction of the Armenians, the Nazi Holocaust, and Pol Pot’s Cambodian reign of terror; to Saddam’s gassing and execution of the Kurds, the Bosnian Serb mass murder of Muslims, and the Hutu evisceration of the Tutsi, the United States, and often its allies, not only failed to invest real capital into stopping genocide. It sometimes even directly or indirectly aided those committing it. Samantha Power documents this sordid tale in her pathbreaking book, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.

More recently, the U.S. has failed to lead the UN Security Council—or given the U.N.’s impotence in the face of Chinese oil investments in Sudan—NATO, the G-8 and the African Union, to take stronger action to halt the continuing atrocities in Darfur. Such steps include targeted sanctions against Sudan for obstructing the deployment of the multinational force, provision of NATO logistical support, equipment and additional funding necessary to provide the force with the capacity to defend itself against attacks by armed groups and to protect civilians. We stopped the horrors in Serbia and Bosnia; we can stop them in Darfur.

Against the backdrop of this sorry chronicle of moral bankruptcy, it behooves the United States to at long last formally recognize the Turkish genocide of the Armenians. We bear a heavy moral obligation to do so. That, it seems clear, is the right thing to do.

And yet—must we do justice now even if the heavens will fall? The Armenian genocide is not unfolding today; it is nearly a century old. Were it happening today, there would be no harm to American interests which could justify our failure to lead or participate in effective international intervention—from potent economic sanctions and the promise of war crimes tribunals and a willingness to arrest and try the perpetrators, to the deployment of a NATO-led or other multinational armed force.

Several hundred thousand American troops are now ensconced deep in Iraq and Afghanistan, heavily dependent on our NATO ally Turkey to permit the transfer of new armored vehicles necessary to prevent even greater loss of life. A loss of Turkish cooperation, a realistic prospect, could also prolong the presence of large numbers of US troops in Iraq. Whatever we believe about the justice of these wars—the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan is surely a just war, even if the Iraq war is not—if we hold dear the value of human life, we cannot remain indifferent to the jeopardy into which an untimely public recognition of the Armenian genocide would place American forces, along with Iraqi and Afghani civilians.

But it gets worse. Kurdish separatist guerrillas are attacking Turkish forces in Turkey, which is threatening to invade Iraq, a step which could draw Iran into the breach and further destabilize the Iraqi government. The guerrilla attacks, coupled with Turkish estrangement from the U.S., could strike the match that sets alight a great tinderbox, sparking a regional firestorm into which U.S. forces could be drawn. You thought the Iraq war was already going badly?

It gets worse still. Turkey is Israel’s closest military ally in the Muslim world. Turkish military cooperation, and airspace, is vital to Israel’s self-defense against Iran and Syria. A serious degradation in relations between Turkey and the U.S or Israel would represent a blow to Israeli deterrence, exposing Israel to greater security threats from Iran and Syria, increasing the risk of war with Israel.

We Jews bear a profound moral duty to recognize the genocide of the Armenians. The United States too must right its own historic wrong. But not when there is grave danger that the heavens may fall. The right thing, all things considered, is to act wisely, reducing Israel’s security threat from Syria by negotiating a peace treaty, as Israel’s intelligence services now uniformly recommend, and pursuing a swift and orderly U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. We must minimize harm to human lives here and now, and urge our leaders to take a courageous moral stand on historical truth when the cost to innocent lives, and world peace, is more bearable. This, I believe, the victims of genocide would themselves demand.

Gidon D. Remba is National Executive Director of Ameinu: Liberal Values, Progressive Israel. His commentary is available at

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