Acknowledging the Armenian Genocide

by James J. Zogby Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of the Arab American Institute 14.04.2015

In less than two weeks we will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Armenian Remembrance Day, April 24th, recalls the horrifying events that resulted in the deaths of more than one million Armenians and the forced expulsion and ethnic cleansing of many more from their ancestral homeland at the hands of Turkish nationalists. It is an event that has defined Armenian history. And it has left an open wound that must be acknowledged and addressed for there to be closure for both peoples.

For Armenians, the beginning of the healing process requires that the events of 100 years ago be called, what they were, a genocide.  

Six years ago, Armenian Americans were deeply disappointed by the Remembrance Day statement issued by the White House because the President did not term the horrors of 1915 as a genocide. They had great hopes that President Obama would do so since, during the 2008 Presidential campaign, he had been forceful not only in declaring that the events of 1915 were, in fact, genocide, but in criticizing those who would not use that word. In a statement issued on January 19, 2008, Obama said.

"As a U.S. Senator, I have stood with the Armenian American community in calling for Turkey's acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide...the Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact...An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical facts is an untenable policy...as President I will recognize Armenian Genocide."

Armenians were further encouraged in early April of 2009, when the President urged the Turks to deal with this blot on their history in his address to the Turkish Parliament. By beginning with a lesson learned from US history, he sought to prod his hosts into dealing with their past by saying:

"The Untied States is still working through some of our own darker periods in our own history...our country still struggles with the legacies of slavery and segregation, the past treatment of Native Americans...History is often tragic, but unresolved, it can be a heavy weight. Each country must work through its past. And reckoning with the past can help us seize a better future. I know there's strong views in this chamber about the terrible events of 1915. And while there's been a good deal of commentary about my views, it's really about how the Turkish and Armenian people deal with the past. And the best way forward for the Turkish and Armenian people is a process that works through the past in a way that is honest, open and constructive."

To be fair, the President's statement on Remembrance Day 2009 was more forceful than those that had been made by his predecessors and his hesitation to use the term "genocide" was most likely prompted by the fact that just two days before the 24th, the Turkish and Armenian governments had agreed to a "road map" for normalizing relations and he was concerned that he not disrupt this process by provoking a hostile Turkish response.

Thus, the statement the White House issued on April 24, 2009 read, in part:

"Ninety four years ago, one of the great atrocities of the 20th century began. Each year, we pause to remember the 1.5 million Armenians who were subsequently massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire. The Meds Yeghern must live on in our memories, just as it lives on in the hearts of the Armenian people...I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view of that history has not changed. My interest remains the achievement of a full, frank and just acknowledgment of the facts...The best way to advance that goal right now is for the Armenian and Turkish people to address the facts of the past as a part of their efforts to move forward... To that end, there has been courageous and important dialogue among Armenians and Turks, and within Turkey itself. I also strongly support the efforts by Turkey and Armenia to normalize their bilateral relations... the two governments have agreed on a framework and road map for normalization. I commend this progress, and urge them to fulfill its promise."

In the end, both Turks and Armenians were left angry. The Turks because of the strong language the President did use, and the Armenians because he had failed to deliver on his promise to call the horrors of 1915 a "genocide".

Six years later, Armenians are still waiting for recognition of their national tragedy so that their healing process can begin. And the Turkish government has remained intransigent, still not coming to grips with their past. The White House is not in an enviable possession. They are engaged in a battle against ISIL and have been pushing the Turks to "step up their game" as part of the international coalition fighting this evil movement. I must admit that although I understand the demands of politics and diplomacy, I am also acutely aware of the demands of history that still cry out for recognition.

On a personal note, I was struck how this past week, Deir Yassin Day passed unnoticed. That day, April 9th, marks the 1948 massacre of over 200 Palestinian civilians in the small village of Deir Yassin—they were slaughtered, with many of the dead stuffed into a well and left to rot. It was one of the many horrors that accompanied the Nakba—the name given to the program of ethnic cleansing that left thousands of Palestinians dead, and forced hundreds of thousands more into exile.  

It is wrong to say to just "get over it" to victim nations. For there to be reconciliation, there must be acknowledgment and justice. Just as we demand that Israel acknowledge and make recompense for its "original sin", we can want no less for the Armenian people.

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