Israeli blight, Turkish delight

By Robert Sarner, Canadian Jewish News, June 5, 2003

JERUSALEM - Try as I may, some things just don't get easier with time. A few weeks ago, for the 13th time since immigrating to Israel in 1990, I again grappled with the abrupt switchover from the sadness and solemnity of Memorial Day to the unbridled festivities of Independence Day.

But this year, it was not just the emotional somersault that left me uneasy. As I watched on TV the official ceremony that kicked off Israel's 55th birthday, something else disturbed and disappointed me. Still does.

Call me naãve. Call me myopic. Call me a misguided party-pooper. Call me whatever you like but I expect better from my country.

Every year, shortly after Memorial Day ends at sunset, Israel begins its Independence Day celebrations with a moving open-air ceremony televised live from Jerusalem's Mount Herzl. It includes the traditional lighting of 12 torches, representing the 12 tribes of the biblical Israelites. A ministerial committee selects the torchbearers in recognition of their contributions to society and collectively to represent different segments of the population.

This year, Naomi Nalbandian was one of the 12 honorees. An Israeli of Armenian origin, she was selected in appreciation of her work with terror victims at Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital where she is a senior nurse.

Torchbearers prepare a few sentences to introduce themselves at the ceremony and in the program distributed at the event. Initially, Nalbandian wrote that her grandparents fled Armenia and settled near Haifa in 1920 after passing through Lebanon and Syria and described herself as "a third generation survivor of the Armenian genocide which took place in 1915."

Two days before Independence Day, the Turkish Embassy in Tel Aviv got into the act. It had learned than an Israeli Armenian was chosen for the ceremony and, horror of horrors, that she intended to refer to the genocide of the Armenians. In its customary fashion, Turkey threw a temper tantrum and kicked up a fuss.

Turkey is especially sensitive about the Armenians, having long denied its role in their mass murder. Armenians charge that between 1915 and 1923 the Turks killed some 1.5 million Armenians through executions, starvation and forced marches. Most historians - including scores of Jewish Holocaust experts - agree and recognize this as genocide. For its part, Turkey maintains that while some 600,000 Armenians may have died, it was an unfortunate result of war for which it was not responsible.

The Turkish ambassador in Israel was furious over the decision to have an Armenian light a torch even though she didn't plan to cite Turkey by name in her genocide reference. Ankara demanded a clarification from Jerusalem on whether allowing Nalbandian's text represented a change in Israeli policy, which has always avoided blaming Turkey for the atrocities, or even fully acknowledging them.

The Prime Minister's Office, the Foreign Ministry and the Knesset all tried to placate Turkey. Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and other officials entered the fray, persuading Nalbandian to delete the word "genocide" and instead refer only to "the suffering of the Armenian people." Nalbandian said she was disappointed but that she did not want to create problems for Israel.

On government orders, organizers scrapped the 4,000 programs prepared for the event due to the brief reference to the Armenian genocide. New ones were quickly printed at the last minute. The offensive words were also hastily erased from a plaque created for the ceremony. In the end, Turkey could rest easy as Nalbandian lit the torch and kept to the sanitized script. I cringed.

Admittedly, Turkey is a key regional ally of Israel. It's the only Moslem country with which Jerusalem enjoys warm relations. It provides strategic military cooperation and may one day even supply some of our fresh water. All highly important stuff not to be discounted.

Still, it's no reason for Israel to deny another people's tragedy just to placate Turkey. Surely, if there is one country and one people that should be sensitive to this, it's Israel and the Jews who are justly outraged by the obscenity of Holocaust deniers.

Lamentably, Israel's caving in to Turkey's intimidation on the eve of Independence Day is only the latest episode in Jerusalem's consistently spineless, evasive policy on this issue over the years. Such a suppression of truth and history is a blight on Israel's name. By our indifference and failure to recognize this genocide, we are helping victimize the Armenians again. We should know better.

At age 55, Israel is old enough to stand firm on its values. That's what I call real independence. That's worth celebrating. A state of values, not a state of denial. To suppress the truth, to be an accomplice to this whitewashing of history, to give into expediency, will only come back to haunt us.

< Back