Beliefs Culture Ethics Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Let us compare genocides

Armenian orphans being forced from a village, 1915.
Armenian orphans being forced from a village, 1915.

Armenian orphans being forced from a village, 1915.

This month is the one hundredth anniversary of the Armenian genocide.

That’s right — it’s a genocide. That’s exactly what Pope Francis said recently — much to the chagrin of the Turkish regime, which recalled its ambassador to the Vatican. Worse: Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that calling the wholesale slaughter of Armenians “genocide” is tantamount to “Islamophobia” — which wins this week’s prize for “The Most Irresponsible Playing Of The Islamophobia Charge.”

Why should Jews be talking about this? Because when we look at the Armenians, it is as if we are looking in the mirror.

The poet Joel Rosenberg writes:

I cite our landless outposts of diaspora… 

I cite our neighboring quarters in the walled Jerusalem, 

our holy men in black,

our past in Scripture, 

and our overlapping sacred sites.

I cite our reverence for family ties,

our Middle Eastern food, our enterprise,

our immigration histories, our ironic manner, our eccentric uncles.

Our clustering in cities, our cherishing of books, our vexed and aching homelands.”

Here’s how it happened. In the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, the Armenians were seen as a foreign element in Turkish society – and, in this sense, they occupied the same place as the Jews of the Ottoman Empire. Like the Jews, the Armenian Christians challenged the traditional hierarchy of Ottoman society. Like the Jews, they became better educated, wealthier, and more urban. Like “the Jewish problem” that would be frequently discussed in Germany, in Turkey they talked about “the Armenian question.”

The Turkish army killed a million and a half Armenians. Sometimes, Turkish soldiers would forcibly convert Armenian children and young women to Islam. The Turks delved into the records of the Spanish Inquisition and revived its torture methods. So many Armenian bodies were dumped into the Euphrates that the mighty river changed its course for a hundred yards.

in America, the newspaper headlines screamed of systematic race extermination. Parents cajoled their children to be frugal with their food, “for there are starving children in Armenia.” In 1915 alone, the New York Times published 145 articles about the Armenian genocide. Americans raised $100 million in aid for the Armenians. Activists, politicians, religious leaders, diplomats, intellectuals and ordinary citizens called for intervention, but nothing happened.

The Armenians call their genocide Meds Yeghern (“the Great Catastrophe”). It was to become the model of all genocides and ethnic cleansing. It served the Nazis well as a model. Not only the act of genocide itself — but also, the passive amnesia about that genocide. “Who talks about the Armenians anymore?” laughed Hitler.

One day in 1915, in the small town of Kourd Belen, the Turks ordered eight hundred Armenian families to abandon their homes. The priest was Khoren Hampartsoomian, age 85. As he led his people from the village, neighboring Turks taunted the priest: “Good luck, old man. Whom are you going to bury today?”

The old priest replied: “God. God is dead and we are rushing to his funeral.”

Just as Elie Wiesel, writing in Night, recalled a child hanging from a gallows in a concentration camp, his small body too light to die immediately. “Where is God?” cries a prisoner. “Hanging on the gallows.”

After the Shoah,  Jews cried aloud to God:  “O God, how could You do this to us, the children of Your covenant?” After the genocide, Armenian theologians cried:  “O God, how could this have happened to us – for we were the first people to adopt Christianity as a state religion?” Some Armenian Christians referred to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and asked: “Were there not even fifty Armenians who could have been saved?”

After the Shoah, Jews cried: “We must have sinned. God has used the Nazis as a club against us.” Armenians cried: “God used the Turks as a club against us. We were a Christian nation, but we lived as atheists.” Some Armenian Christians said: “If this is what God can do to us, then God and Jesus Christ — you go your way, and I will go mine. Don’t bother me anymore.”

Is it chutzpah to raise this, as Jews mark Yom Ha Shoah, and the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the camps? Some Jews have wanted to hoard the concept of genocide — “What happened to the Armenians wasn’t as bad as the Holocaust!'” True, but that’s an extremely high and ghastly bar to set. True — no genocide has approached the scale of the Shoah. True — not every genocide is created equal.

Moreover, the very nature of the Armenian catastrophe was different. Jews were killed wherever they lived in Europe; by contrast, Armenians outside of Armenia were relatively safe. Anti-semitism is a deep, pervasive moral illness;  by contrast, there is no such thing as “anti-Armenianism” in the collective psyche of the world.

But, If Jews do not allow the world to compare the Holocaust to other genocides, then its relevance to the world will wither.

And when that happens, Jews would be inflicted by moral laryngitis, losing their ability to speak truth to the world.



About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.


Click here to post a comment

  • “But, If Jews do not allow the world to compare the Holocaust to other genocides, then its relevance to the world will wither.

    And when that happens, Jews would be inflicted by moral laryngitis, losing their ability to speak truth to the world.”

    *And there is the ‘katastrofi’ on the island of Chios in 1822.

  • Approximately three-quarters of the population of 120,000 were killed, enslaved or died of disease.[7][8] It is estimated that 2,000 people remained on the island after 21,000 managed to flee, 52,000 were enslaved and 52,000 massacred.[9] Tens of thousands of survivors dispersed throughout Europe and became part of the Chian Diaspora. Another source says that approximately 20,000[10][11][12] Chians were killed or starved to death.

    *statistics vary, but my research yrs ago shows this to be fair; IOW, you get a sense of the devastation for the Chians.

  • There is nothing sillier than, “the Jews are keeping us from talking about genocides besides the Holocaust”. The reason we talk about the Holocaust today is because its survivors, victims, witnesses (and in many cases perpetrators and prosecutors) tell their story for the world to hear.

    The only thing which stops people from telling the stories of genocides of their own people is their own reticence. If you are annoyed that your people’s story has not been told, then its about time to tell it.

    All these stories need to be told. Who better to do it than those relating to its victims. We need more oral histories of prior and subsequent genocides. The more the world hears of this stuff, the less acceptable it becomes to the public. The Holocaust was in many ways unique, but in many more, similar to others. The more parallels we see, the more we condemn such actions in the future.

    “Never Again” should never refer to just one incident of genocide, but to all.

  • We were a Christian nation, but we lived as atheists

    Muslims invaded a Christian nation and now deny killing Armenians, that is very surprising, indeed!

  • The author, Rabbi Salkin, was (I think) offering a self-assessment, a commentary (like a sermon) to his people…that setting too high a standard of what qualifies as a genocide (i.e. only extermination on the order of the Holocaust) is destructive, overlooking the complex horrors of genocides. It’s one attitude (of many) that can be observed within the Jewish community and as a leader he is speaking openly and directly about it.

    He is expanding the natural response of “it happened to us” to ‘it’s happened (& happening) to others and humanity must address it’. He highlights the brotherhood of man by comparing two groups (which have been perceived to be opposed (Jews and Christians) ) recalling their similar sentiments when reflecting their separate tragedies.

    If we respond negatively to the Turkish reluctance to address their genocide, let’s recall the US reluctance to avoid discussion of the Native American genocide. And let us remember the Belgian Congo.

  • To be honest I was not accusing Rabbi Salkin of anything from my 1st paragraph. But it is a common argument bandied about by others. I understand what he was trying to say.

    “If we respond negatively to the Turkish reluctance to address their genocide, let’s recall the US reluctance to avoid discussion of the Native American genocide. And let us remember the Belgian Congo”

    Why of course. I wouldn’t want it any other way. Ghosts of the past need to be addressed if we are ever to exorcise them.

  • Actually Francis did not call the Armenian atrocity a “genocide.”

    His statement was- very typically of him- carefully crafted to appear to say something without actually saying it.

    Instead of calling the massacre a genocide he quoted a former pope John Paul II who was himself only citing what is “generally referred to” as a genocide.

    Francis retaining plausible deniability as always. Sadly few dissect his statements sufficiently enough to see through his obfuscations

  • Many, many thanks to the rabbi and to you for publishing this. If there are two people who understand each others pain it’s the Armenians and the Jews. Two people with similar histories, similar virtues and persecuted for the same reasons. I wish the Israeli government would put aside politics and recognize the genocide of Armenians. Armenia, of course, recognizes the Shoah and has a monument for its commemoration. Turkey and Azerbaijan are fair-weather friends of Israel. Their culture, religion is essentially anti-Jewish.

2019 NewsMatch Campaign: This Story Can't Wait! Donate.