In a step that will further inflame already fraught relations between Israel and Turkey, parliamentarians in Jerusalem have publicly debated for the first time whether to recognise Turkish responsibility for the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915.
The Knesset session yesterday followed a French vote last week outlawing denial of the massacres, a step that angered the Turkish government.
"Denying a holocaust is something that history cannot agree with," Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said during a discussion in the Knesset's Education, Culture and Sports Committee, breaking a decades-long taboo on public debate by the Knesset on the issue – and a longtime avoidance of the use of the word "holocaust", which most Israelis prefer to apply only to the Nazi massacre of six million Jews. "We believe that as humans, as Jews and as citizens of the State of Israel – along with members of Knesset that are not Jewish – we must put the subject on the national agenda," Mr Rivlin said.
In the past, successive Israeli governments had suppressed discussion of the issue for fear of offending Turkey, a rare Muslim ally of the Jewish state. Academic symposiums have been held at Israeli universities and the former Education Minister Yossi Sarid attended two Armenian government conferences marking the 85th and 90th anniversaries of the massacre.
Following the breakdown of relations over the killing of nine passengers aboard a Turkish ship trying to enter Gaza in 2010, pressure grew for Israel's parliament to acknowledge the historical suffering of Armenians.
"Acknowledging the horrors that took place in the past should not affect future relations with Turkey," Zahava Gal-On, leader of the left-wing Meretz party, said during the debate. "The moral duty to recognise the Armenian genocide is not a partisan issue.
"As a daughter to the Jewish people, who underwent a holocaust that has no precedent in human memory, we have the moral duty to show sensitivity to the calamity of other nations.
"A million and a half people were butchered. I know this is a sensitive topic and that throughout the years it has been used as a foreign policy tool in the hands of Israel's governments, but we have a moral duty. It is inconceivable that our school curriculums are silent on the Armenian genocide."
Foreign Ministry officials told the committee yesterday that Israel's view should be discussed "by historians, not politicians". Yaakov Amidror, security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urged postponement of the discussion because of the sensitivity of government efforts to repair relations with Turkey.