This month is the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.
That’s right: genocide. That’s exactly what Pope Francis said recently — much to the chagrin of the Turkish government, which recalled its ambassador to the Vatican.
Worse: Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said 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.
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, Turks 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 as a model — not only the act of genocide, but also the passive amnesia.
“Who talks about the Armenians anymore?” Hitler quipped.
In 1915, in the small town of Kourd Belen, the Turks ordered 800 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.”
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 50 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.”
Is it chutzpah to speak of this, as Jews mark Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the camps?
Some Jews have wanted to hoard the concept of genocide: “What happened to the Turks wasn’t as bad as the Holocaust!’” True, but that’s an extremely high and ghastly bar to set. No genocide has approached the scale of the Shoah. And not all genocides are 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.
(Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am of Bayonne, N.J., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.)