World: Israelis torn over Armenian 'holocaust'

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The Independent Online
Can the killing of one million Armenians by the Turks in 1915 be compared with the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis? It is a question which divides Israelis and is preventing one of the most distinguished historians of the Middle East from becoming an honorary citizen of Tel Aviv.

At the centre of the dispute is Bernard Lewis, 81, professor emeritus of Near East studies at Princeton University, who denies that what happened to the Armenians amounted to genocide. He admits that a million people may have died in "the deportation and relocation of the Armenian population", but blames poor organisation in war-time conditions and claims the Turkish government tried to curb excesses.

Armenians and many Israeli Jews are revolted by the denial that there was an Armenian genocide, or claims of extenuating circumstances for such massacres as occurred. Mordechai Virshubski, the Tel Aviv councillor who led the fight against Professor Lewis becoming an honorary citizen of the city, says: "This is the type of argument used by Germans to excuse what they did to Jews during the war."

It looks unlikely that Professor Lewis will join Albert Einstein on the list of people honoured by Tel Aviv, but his probable rejection has reignited the controversy which has swirled around the Jewish-American authority on Islam and the Middle East.

In 1985 the professor signed a petition to the US Congress protesting against a plan to make 24 April, the day on which the Armenians commemorate the victims of the genocide, a national holiday. In 1995 he was ordered by a French court to pay a symbolic franc in damages after he refused, in an interview with Le Monde, to accept that there was an Armenian genocide. He said there were extenuating circumstances for Turkish actions, such as the sympathy of the Armenians for the Russians and their desire for self-determination.

It is a dispute which touches the deepest feelings of Armenians and Jews. Ever since it erupted in August, Israeli academics have been choosing sides and exchanging broadsides in the press. Some of Professor Lewis's partisans come close not merely to denying the genocide, but to justifying it. Professor Yehoshua Porath at Hebrew University says that only 500,000 Armenians were killed and "the Turks did not try to exterminate the Armenian race". Dr Yair Auron, who has written a book on the Armenian genocide, says the Turks "didn't want to kill every single Armenian, but they did want to annihilate the Armenian nation".

Defenders of Professor Lewis say that he is merely a historian responding to fresh evidence from Turkish archives. His opponents say that these archives were purged by the government of incriminating evidence. They cite cable traffic in 1915 from the German embassy in Istanbul to Berlin, at a time when Germany was allied to Turkey, confirming that the government's intention was genocide.

At issue also is the degree to which the lack of international reaction to the Armenians' fate in 1915 contributed to European Jewry's Holocaust 25 years later. Hanging over the debate is Hitler's famous instruction to SS leaders just before the invasion of Poland: "Be merciless in exterminating Polish men, women and children. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"