Genocide: Holocaust that Israel would rather ignore

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The Independent Online
The Israelis are preparing to withdraw the name of their next proposed ambassador to Turkey. His fault is that he believes in the genocide of the Armenians. Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem asks if Israel is ignoring obvious parallels between the Holocaust and the slaughter of the Armenians in the First World War to further its foreign policy goals.

In the next few weeks, Israel is expected to withdraw the name of Professor Ehud Toledano as its nominee to be Israel's next ambassador to Turkey. The Turkish government will not accept him because 15 years ago he appeared on an Israeli army radio programme about the Armenian genocide of 1915.

The Turkish government's position is that, contrary to the evidence of survivors, diplomats and missionaries present at the time, there was no genocide. It categorically denies one million Armenians died in massacres or on forced marches organised by the Turkish authorities of the day. The very fact that Professor Toledano, a specialist in Turkish studies, appeared on a programme entitled The Armenian Genocide is enough to disbar him from representing Israel in Ankara.

If Turks deny the genocide ever happened, for Armenians it is at the centre of their historic memory, the great slaughter in which one-third of all Armenians in the world were wiped out. Israel has a more ambivalent position. Israel has a political and military alliance with Turkey which the government does not want to endanger by drawing parallels between the Jewish Holocaust and the genocide of the Armenians.

For Dr Yair Auron, a specialist in the Armenian genocide, this is unacceptable. He says that by meekly looking for another nominee to replace Professor Toledano, Israel is transforming the genocide "into an open issue subject to negotiation". He compares, hypothetically, what has happened over the Toledano appointment to a European state which had appointed an ambassador to Germany and the Germans rejected it "claiming that 30 years ago he mentioned on the radio that Nazi Germany carried out a holocaust of the Jews".

Israel does have a lot at stake. In recent years, its alliance with Turkey, which has a common border with Iran, Iraq and Syria, all Israel's enemies, has become very close. This week General Amon Lipkin-Shahak, the Israeli chief of staff, paid an official visit to Turkey to persuade the army to buy Israeli Merkava 111 tanks. It also wants Turkey to adopt the Galil as its main assault rifle. Joint Israel-Turkey-US naval manoeuvres are scheduled for January. Ankara is now the third most important capital for Israel's diplomacy, coming only after Washington and Moscow. But, according to the Jerusalem weekly Kolha'ir, which carried out an investigation into the affair, there was no objection in the Israeli cabinet on 8 June when David Levy, the Foreign Minister, first put forward the name of Ehud Toledano, a professor of Ottoman history at Tel Aviv University, to be Israel's next ambassador to Turkey.

Turkish consent to the new appointment should have been automatic. But in August it became clear that there was a problem. There was no official announcement, but at the end of the month the state-owned Turkish news agency, citing sources in the Turkish Foreign ministry, said difficulties had arisen. It said "in 1981 Toledano accused Turkey of carrying out massacres during the First World War". An Israeli Foreign Ministry official, who went to Ankara to find out what was happening over the appointment, reported back that "Turkish opposition is adamant".

Bizarrely, Professor Toledano had appeared on an Israeli army radio programme on the Armenian genocide in 1981, but to defend the Turkish position. He was called in at the last minute because the Turkish embassy in Tel Aviv refused to send a representative. He says he gave the Turkish version of what happened in 1915 without offering his own opinion.

Professor Toledano has given a series of interviews to the Turkish press, seeking to persuade them of his pro-Turkish views. He says he "never expressed a pro-Armenian position in international conferences", adding that he is primarily an expert on the Ottoman empire from 16th to the 19th centuries. "I never researched or investigated the period of the First World War," he said. "I never questioned the Turkish version of events."

Professor Toledano is reported to believe that his academic colleagues at Tel Aviv university helped to sabotage his candidacy by suggesting to the Turks that he holds pro-Armenian views.

The Foreign Ministry may also be able to see a silver lining in the affair, in that the new Israeli ambassador is now likely to be a professional diplomat and not an academic friendly with David Levy.

But the overall issue is more important than diplomatic or academic intrigue. Yair Auron, a professor at the Kibbutzim college in Tel Aviv, says that a survey he conducted of 800 students at eight Israeli universities and colleges showed that "most of them said they knew nothing about the genocide of the Armenians or gypsies". Israel's Education Ministry is resisting pressure to treat the genocide more fully in the schools' curriculum.

Dr Auron says: "I accept the uniqueness of the Holocaust, but what happened to the Armenians was not a tragedy or a massacre but genocide. The Turkish government does not accept this. Not to admit there was a genocide is parallel to not admitting there was a Holocaust. Morally they are the same."