The Jews who propped up Turkey’s genocide denial

Prominent Jewish figures - including some Turkish chief rabbis and Israeli leaders - have long propped up Turkey’s denial of the Armenian genocide, said an analyst writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

The mass killings of Armenians committed by the Ottoman government in 1915 are recognised as a genocide by many states and commemorated on April 24 each year across the world. But the Turkish state has always officially denied that the intentional mass murder of the Armenians happened. 

The state of Israel does not officially commemorate the Armenian genocide, despite its founding in 1948 being accelerated by the Holocaust. 

“The Jewish state should be the first to recognise genocide wherever it occurs. But it prefers official silence to antagonising its military and economic ally, no matter the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric of Turkey’s current leader,” Marc David Baer, professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said.

Baer said some leaders of the Turkish Jewish community - such as chief rabbis David Asseo and Ishak Haleva, the editors in chief of the Jewish weekly Salom, the industrialist Jak Kamhi, and former Jewish community president Bensiyon Pinto - have opposed recognition of the Armenian genocide.

That could be down to the discrimination and violence sometimes experienced by Jewish people in Turkey over the decades, he said.

“The leaders of Turkish Jewry determined that the best way to guarantee the continued existence of the dwindling, insecure community is to demonstrate their unswerving loyalty to the state,” Baer said. “The acid test for proving themselves useful allies is to agitate against genocide recognition in Israel, Europe, and the United States.”

Baer said that Israeli presidents Shimon Peres and Moshe Katzav, as well as the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and the Union of Turkish Immigrants in Israel have opposed recognition of the Armenian genocide, as have many major American Jewish organisations and many influential Jewish historians of the Ottoman Empire, such as Bernard Lewis and Stanford Shaw.

But Baer said that Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, his crackdowns on dissent, and anti-Israel rhetoric over recent years may have started to change attitudes – at least in the United States.

On October 29, 2019, the House of Representatives passed a resolution sponsored by Jewish-American Congressman Adam Schiff recognising the Armenian genocide. On December 12, the United States Senate unanimously adopted a similar resolution. Several major Jewish-American organisations have also recently recognised the genocide.  

“One thing is certain: Armenians and Jews, two groups whose similar history makes them natural allies, will improve their relationship which was harmed by decades of denial done in part by some of the latter’s co-religionists,” Baer said.