JERUSALEM – Every April, Armenian Christians around the world remember the lives of the more than 1 million Armenians who were annihilated by the Ottoman government during World War I. In Israel, however, the annual commemoration is tinged with extra sadness because of the reluctance of the Israeli government to publicly admit that the genocide ever happened.
“We are hurt that the Israeli government doesn’t recognize it officially yet, even though it was used as a pretext for their own people,” said Archbishop Aris Shirvanian of the National Armenian Church in Jerusalem.
“We all know that this injustice was perpetrated against our ancestors and 1.5 million Armenians perished in that genocide,” said Shirvanian. During and after the First World War, the Ottoman government exterminated Armenians and other Christian groups in an effort to establish an Islamic nation. It began on April 24, 1915 with the arrest of several hundred Armenians. During that time, Palestine was a part of the Ottoman Empire, so Armenians were driven to Syria to the desert of Deir ez-Zor. Hundreds of thousands were massacred or buried alive in the desert. Out of those who made it out alive, some moved to Lebanon and others settled in Jerusalem. That was the last wave of Armenians that got established in Jerusalem, and their descendants live there today. It is calculated that about 25,000 Armenians fled to Jerusalem after the genocide.
“They came to Jerusalem and were offered shelter within the walls of the monastery,” said Victor Azarya, a retired professor from Hebrew University and author of “The Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem.” The monks inside those monasteries took it upon themselves to nourish the survivors of the genocide. “They started to develop a community around the monastery,” said Azarya, “for many of them it was a temporary measure, for some of them the temporary asylum became permanent, therefore we find a sizeable Armenian community who lives in Jerusalem.”
The presence of Armenian Christians in the Holy Land is not only a result of people fleeing Turkey during the genocide; in fact, “Armenians were one of the first groups who accepted Christianity,” they “consider themselves the oldest community in Jerusalem,” said Azarya. Armenians accepted Christianity in 301 after Tiridates III proclaimed it as the State religion. Armenia would then become the first State to adopt this religion officially and they began taking interest in holy places. Armenian Christians “established themselves in holy places of Christianity over the 4th century,” including the much-coveted Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where some believe Jesus was crucified and later buried. After that, Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, commissioned the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where Jesus is believed to have been born, and Armenian clergy started settling in Jerusalem. They expanded their presence with over 50 monasteries and convents throughout the Holy Land, the main one being the Monastery of St. James in Jerusalem. “This shows that Armenians were deeply invested in the Holy Land,” said Shirvanian. Azarya says Armenians’ presence in the Holy Land can be traced continuously since the fifth or sixth centuries.
Centuries later, during the Crusades, which were a series of military campaigns sanctioned by the Latin Roman Catholic Church aimed at regaining control of holy sites in the Holy Land from Muslim control, Armenians were a key ally; they “were one of the few Christian communities to cooperate with crusaders,” and “as a result of their cooperation with crusaders, they occupied what is now known as the Armenian Quarter.” Shirvanian explained that the Crusades strengthened Armenian presence in the area. With time, Armenians came to Jerusalem as pilgrims, “their beliefs anchored them here,” said Azarya. But for most of this time, it was only a religious presence: priests and monks keeping custody of holy spaces, not civilian presence. That is, until the genocide of 1915.
But even though the terrors of the genocide were behind them, the memories still haunted survivors. “Over the years, those immediate survivors couldn’t forget what happened, they kept telling their stories, and it was transmitted from generation to generation,” said Shirvanian, whose grandparents on both sides went through the genocide. His paternal grandfather was conscripted to the Turkish army “and never came back,” he said, “he was taken to a valley and along with other Armenians, he was executed.” Men were killed and subjected to forced labor, and “women and girls were raped, slaughtered,” said Shirvanian.
Memories of The Great Crime are fresh in the Armenian collective memory, and it is a strong source of identity and shared history. “We always remember it. Not just on April 24,” said George Odabashian, a convenience store clerk who lives within the walls of the St. James Monastery with his wife and two children. “Daily, we talk about the genocide and what happened… we never forget it, we can’t,” he said.
There are obvious parallels between the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust. In planning the extinction of European Jews, Hitler was said to have remarked: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Nonetheless, the Israeli government has yet to publicly acknowledge the genocide. Many speculate that Israel does not want to alienate its economic and political ally Turkey, a nation that also does not recognize the Armenian genocide. Others suggest that Israel likes to claim the mantle of suffering for itself.
Azarya believes that the Holocaust was “a terrible thing, but it’s not unique.” It was a “very traumatic, cruel event, but it was not unique,” he added, “there are other places and other communities that were ethnically destroyed.”
Armenians feel betrayed by this lack of recognition. “Why don’t you let us call our calamity a holocaust?” said Azarya.
Shirvanian believes that the Israeli government cares more about economic and political ties with Turkey than the truth.
Azarya noted that relations between Turkey and Israel have deteriorated in recent years. “We may have reached that point,” he said, where the Israeli government is willing to break with Turkey on this issue.
Even without formal recognition of the genocide by Israel, many Armenians feel like the Jewish people empathize with their suffering. “They keep telling us we’re just like the Jews, we suffered a lot,” said Odabashian as he bagged groceries for a customer. Shirvanian hopes that the Jewish people’s awareness of the genocide may push the conversation forward. Some 21 nations have recognized the Armenian Genocide.
Shirvanian thinks this issue should be brought up at the United Nations General Assembly to “force Turkey to accept its guilt and to make reparations to the Armenian people.” He says that although Israel is small, it is a very powerful country; he is convinced that that is the reason why the United States hasn’t recognized it either. “It’s about time that we not protect the Turkish when it comes to genocide,” said Azarya.
During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama vowed to recognize the Armenian Genocide. “America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian Genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides. I intend to be that president,” he said in 2008. But six years later, this promise is still unkept. During this year’s commemorative speech, President Obama said “I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view has not changed;” he talked about the horrors endured by the Armenian community, and he described the Great Crime as a massacre. Yet no mention of the word genocide.
Today, some 1,500 Armenians live in Jerusalem and there are about 15,000 in all of Israel. In Jerusalem, the Armenian Christian community is comprised of three main groups: the members of the monastic order of St. James, a small minority of locals who arrived before World War I, and, the largest segment, descendants of refugees of the genocide. But the community has been shrinking since 1948, and some fear that it may become extinct. Since Israel was established as a Jewish state, immigration of Christians is possible but rare. “Yet the community is surviving,” said Shirvanian.
But will all the Armenians in the Holy Land eventually die out? “It will take time,” said Shirvanian, “when the community is small and shrinking, there will be less births and less marriages and the community may die out. Unless laws change in the country and Armenians are allowed to come here and strengthen the community.”
Azarya doesn’t think that Armenians in Jerusalem will cease to exist, “they will not disappear definitely as long as the religious nucleus is there,” he said, “but it may revert to what it was before the genocide, before the refugees got here.” Azarya says Armenian clergy will always have presence in Jerusalem, “because they serve the needs of the religious community.”
Every April 24, Armenians around the world gather at their local churches to commemorate the genocide. At the St. Vartan Cathedral in New York City located at 630 2nd Ave., dozens of parishioners attended a morning service in Armenian which was followed by a candlelight ceremony. At the back of the church, an all-women chorus adorned the service. Seven women dressed in long gowns and wearing handkerchiefs on their heads sang praise songs in Armenian that can only be described as angelical. The all-male cohort officiating at the front of the church engaged in beautiful exchanges with the female ensemble. The depth of the bishops’ voices elegantly contrasted the high-pitched notes produced by the chorus. Although the experience was elevating, its somberness could not be ignored.
After the service, a striking Armenian woman in a headscarf and floral black and white dress past around long, white candles. The attendants assist her in giving out the candles, and the lighting quickly spreads. Parishioners then followed the bishop to a foyer by the entrance of the church, and a group of about four men recited prayers in Armenian. Everybody gathered in the tight space where bowed heads and bright flames were a reminder of those who perished in their own homeland.
David Meliah, 48, says he comes every year to the commemorative service, “it’s part of our history, we all have ancestors that were killed in the genocide,” he said. “It was a sad, tragic event that keeps us together,” he added. His grandparents arrived in the United States in the early 1920s by way of Syria. Meliah is not particularly bothered by Israel’s reluctance to recognize the genocide, he feels a stronger connection to Armenia, “that is our Holy Land,” he said. In Jerusalem, there is a Genocide Commemorations Committee, which will be in charge of putting together a special program for next year’s observation of the 100th anniversary. They normally have a requiem service at St. James and the whole community is mobilized, then they form a procession led by the patriarch and they walk across the street to the genocide memorial which consists of seven cross stones, each one representing an Armenian province wiped during the genocide.
With Turkish and Israeli relations deteriorating, and the 100th anniversary of The Great Crime approaching, this may be the momentum that was needed for Israel to publicly acknowledge the atrocities perpetrated by the Ottoman government against Armenians. “We never give up the hope that the Israeli government will one day recognize the genocide,” said Shirvanian, “politics change day by day, yesterday’s friends may become enemies today.” He said that a public admission would make the Armenian community feel more at home in Israel, “we are citizens of this country – there are Armenians with Israeli citizenship,” he said, “some are stateless, but after all, they are citizens of this Holy Land.”