Gaspar Aghajanian: Armenian judge in Palestine

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The Independent Online

Gaspar Aghajanian, lawyer: born Jerusalem, Palestine 16 April 1911; married 1942 Astrid Topalian (two daughters); died Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex 31 August 2007.

In 1947 in Tiberias, Palestine, a case was brought before the district court concerning a dispute between two rabbis, both elderly men who had been quarrelling for years. Their case was to be heard by a judge recently appointed to the court. He looked through their file and, seeing the petty nature of their dispute, bluntly told them they should have known better: "Here you are accusing each other of having committed acts which to me appear to be unimportant, and doing it before me, a young gentile. You should be able to settle your dispute yourselves peacefully. I want you now to shake hands and make peace. Then I want to dismiss this case." The two rabbis got up, shook hands and kissed each other, at which point a man from the public benches approached the judge, kissed his hand and said, "Just like the days of the Torah."

That same year the judge was paid a visit by Saad ad-Din al-Alami, the Qadi of the Muslim Religious Court, and later the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. He had come to tell the judge that the Arabs of the Tiberias sub-district were very pleased with his work and they now felt they had an Arab judge who was safeguarding their rights and interests. The judge expressed surprise; he was not an Arab, unlike his predecessor who had been both an Arab and a Muslim. "Ah", said al-Alami, "we were not getting justice from him!"

That Gaspar Aghajanian, the only Armenian judge in Palestine under the British Mandate, could have commanded such respect from both Arabs and Jews at a time when relations between the two were crumbling beyond repair, is testament to an integrity that remained unshaken.

Aghajanian was born in 1911 into one of the oldest Armenian families of the Old City of Jerusalem. His father had a barber's shop and was prone to violent outbursts towards his family. His mother found employment at the home of Norman Bentwich, the Attorney General of Palestine, and it was here that Gaspar and his two elder sisters were given refuge from their father. Aghajanian's education began within the Armenian monastery of St James and continued at Italian and English schools in the city, where his passion for languages was nurtured.

Aghajanian began his working life as a junior clerk in the Jerusalem law courts, while he pursued his education in legal studies at evening classes. His sister Sirvart had married an Armenian-Arab who was in the employ of the King of Transjordan and it was he who introduced Aghajanian to members of the Transjordanian royal family. Aghajanian was sometimes called upon to entertain various members of the family when they visited Jerusalem.

In 1938 Aghajanian was appointed Notary Public of Haifa and a year later became Execution Officer. This was a time when tensions were growing due to the sale of areas of land by Arab absentee landlords to the Jewish National Fund. Travelling became dangerous and Aghajanian's ability to speak both Arabic and Hebrew got him out of many a sticky situation.

In 1940 Aghajanian decided to volunteer for the British armed forces, but was dissuaded by his superiors on the grounds that he was already doing important work for the country. He did however join the Palestinian Volunteer Force, becoming a gunner, and was awarded the Defence Medal.

Aghajanian married, in 1942, Astrid Topalian, a survivor of the 1915 Armenian genocide. By 1946 they were living in Tiberias where Aghajanian, now a magistrate, was in charge of the Courts of Tiberias and Safad. Unlike magistrates in England, holders of the position in Palestine had to be legally qualified and had jurisdiction in both civil and criminal cases.

For a time it seemed that the Aghajanians would be happy in Tiberias but in 1948, as fighting erupted between Arabs and Jews, they found themselves literally in the crossfire and had to abandon their home. Aghajanian's wife and their daughters went to Amman while he moved into the police building, determined to continue his work. Eventually however, he, too, was forced to flee to Transjordan. In Amman, Aghajanian applied for British citizenship and in the meantime found work as legal advisor to the British Council representative in the city.

In 1949 the family (now British citizens) left for Cyprus where Aghajanian became Arab monitor with the US Foreign Broadcast Information Service at its monitoring station at Karavas near Kyrenia. He was eventually promoted to the post of Chief Monitor for quality control, a position he occupied until his retirement in 1971. By now the Aghajanians were living in a house which they had had built to their own specifications, fully expecting to spend the rest of their lives there.

The Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus in 1974 changed all that. The couple were forced to leave their home in the fighting and were taken to England as refugees by the RAF. They had lost everything. At the age of 63, Aghajanian had to begin rebuilding his life. With the help of friends he managed to find work at the Ministry of Defence and settled in West Sussex. He retired, for the second time, in 1983.

The British High Commissioner of Cyprus had asked the Aghajanians to submit a claim for compensation for the loss of their house and possessions, but it was refused by the Turkish authorities on the grounds that the couple were of "Armenian origin".

Despite all the difficulties that life threw at him, Aghajanian remained an unassuming man committed to leading an upright life. As a just man in an unjust world, he was respected by all who knew him.

Justine Rapaccioli