Of course there was an Armenian genocide: Why Benny Ziffer is just plain wrong

Daniel Baltman
Since the end of World War II, scholars have been trying to understand a recurrent historical phenomenon that has been appearing for thousands of years: What causes one group of Homo sapiens to attack another with utter murderousness and attempt to wipe it off the face of the earth?
Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish jurist who coined the definition for this phenomenon and made it an international crime that requires punishment, laid the foundation for the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.
In the years since, researchers have added definitions and characteristics of genocide that were not included in the convention. Historian Scott Straus found that in scholarly literature there are more than 20 definitions of genocide based on criteria not cited in the convention.
And now we learn that an original definition was also created in Israel: Defining genocide according “what my father told me” and what politicians say. Benny Ziffer proposes these definitions (Haaretz, May 1), and comes to the firm conclusion that the Armenian genocide is nothing but a hollow post-modernist invention.(*)
The Yiddish and Hebrew writer Elhanan Leib Lewinsky, among the early members of the Hibat Zion literary group in Odessa, wrote that “Laymen need to know their place and not leap to the forefront and go argue with the nations of the world.” In the case we have here, the layman does not know his place, and his arguments carry a strong whiff of denial, quite similar to that of Holocaust denial.
“There is still a certain degree of sanity and ability to distinguish between nuances that post-modernism tried to blur,” Ziffer maintains against those who place the Shoah and the Armenian genocide in one category. But what can you do when the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews and the one perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks against the Armenians have such similar traits?
The Armenians were murdered on their historic land, and the catastrophe wiped out the nation’s social, religious and national undertakings. Very little of this was rehabilitated in the survivors’ communities in the West and in the young state of Armenia. The Jews were murdered on land where large segments of the population perceived them as foreigners. Their national, social, religious and cultural heritage were almost wiped out, but they managed to rebuild some of it in an independent Jewish state or in communities elsewhere.
Approximately 200,000 Armenians were murdered by the Turks between 1894 and 1896 and in 1909. In the wake of this, small groups began amassing weapons to try to defend their communities. In World War I they joined forces with the Russian Army that invaded the east of the country. “Tens of thousands of Turkish soldiers and civilians froze to death or were cut down then in a hopeless battle against the Russian army, which enjoyed the active aid of Armenian nationalists,” says Ziffer in a bid to justify the Turkish response.
The Jews, of course, did not amass weapons, for they had no reason to expect a murderous attack by Germany in the 1930s. But they did start to collect weapons in several ghettoes in Eastern Europe when they realized, in 1942, that their people was being exterminated.
Ziffer essentially places the responsibility for the murder on its victims.(**) In international law, the murder of a million women, children and other noncombatant populations is not considered an acceptable response to an occurrence on the battlefield. One wonders what Ziffer would have to say to the argument made by Holocaust deniers that Himmler decided on the Final Solution for the Jews only after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, in fear that the Jews were about to spark the peoples of Europe to revolt, and to protect the German home front.
Beyond declarations of the desire for the Jews to disappear, before the end of 1941 there was no firm decision to systematically pursue total murder. The Nazis developed the idea of the Final Solution mainly as a last resort among the alternatives at their disposal for resolving the “Jewish problem.” Up until late 1941, many leading Nazis still believed that expulsion and forced emigration was the best option. The Holocaust was more of an evolving process than a genocidal policy from the get-go. It gradually crystallized and was a side effect of the reality of the war.
In the Armenian genocide, there was a similar process, but it evolved over a shorter time frame – from the summer when the war broke out until the genocide got underway. The expulsion and extermination plans were readied between August 1914 and April 1915.
An oft-repeated argument is that the Nazi genocide was not directed solely against the Jews in the lands under Nazi control, but that the intention was to include all Jews everywhere. And that in contrast, Armenians who lived in certain places, such as Constantinople, were not hurt, and many were also given the option of saving themselves by converting to Islam. In fact, the Armenians in Constantinople were not spared from expulsions. 2,345 intellectuals, businessmen, political leaders and others were arrested, and a majority were killed. Another 30,000 Armenians in the city were also arrested, and at least 10,000 of them were murdered.
This, of course, requires addressing the question of how absolute and uncompromising the Nazi genocide was in regard to the Jews. Weren’t there groups of Jews who managed to escape it or weren’t included in it? And in general, is it right to distinguish between victims of the Holocaust and victims of the Armenian genocide?
165,000 German Jews were permitted to emigrate from the country. In the Armenian case, there is not a single example of Armenians who were permitted to emigrate from Turkey. Moreover: Out of 330,000 French Jews, 80,000 were sent to their death and the rest managed to survive in one way or another. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the Nazis didn’t want to wipe them out, too, but they did not succeed, just as the Turkish heads of state opposed the idea of permitting Armenian women and children to convert, but were unable to fully impose their will due to the interests of local players.
But all that matters to Ziffer are the stories he heard from his father’s family: “I feel that I am speaking now from the mouth of my late father: He and his family were saved from the Shoah thanks to Turkey, which received them as stateless refugees and afforded them the possibility to earn a living and acquire an education.”
Never mind what the UN convention and historians say. The narrative history of the Ziffer family is the ultimate and most accurate litmus test for defining genocide.
Even more bizarre is his reliance on Barack Obama’s failure to use the word “genocide” in relation to the Armenians. “What’s known as the Armenian holocaust, which in the end did not receive supreme, official recognition as genocide from U.S. President Barack Obama,” he contentedly proclaims.
Okay, fine, but if we want to accept this approach, then why not also apply it to the statements made by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, that the Holocaust is a myth that the Western world refuses to deal with? Since when do we let politicians, as good and important as they may be, determine what is and isn’t true about history, and how to define historical phenomena?
So what is Ziffer really trying to say? He adheres to a very rigid message of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, one which even Jewish Holocaust scholars no longer feel comfortable with, and takes it beyond the line that separates the Holocaust and other instances of genocide. Basically, as he would have it, only the Holocaust may be referred to as genocide. And thus he gloriously denies the Armenian genocide.
True, the Armenian genocide is not the same as the Jewish Holocaust. Both are cases of genocide that share some similarities yet also have some unique characteristics, as would any two instances of genocide.
Ziffer waxes poetic and says he can picture his father up in heaven above the clouds, saluting President Obama for saving the enlightened world from a historic travesty. My own dearly departed father, through whom I first became aware of the Armenian genocide when as a teenager he brought me the book “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh,” would surely salute the unknown Armenian who wrote this poem in 1915, during the expulsion in the Syrian desert: “In dust and smoke of the Deir ez-Zor desert/The Turks who lost their religion and their faith/Alas! My God, Lord of the Land!/What is happening, what will happen to us?/Is the Armenian people doomed to die”?

"Haaretz," May 11, 2015

(*) "Postmodernism suffered a devastating blow this week. It turns out that this magic wand – with which, it was thought, historical narratives could be created at the customer’s order – is not living up to the high expectations people have of in it. In other words, there’s a limit to how far nations can go in demanding that the world recognize them as victims of a holocaust, along the lines of the Jewish Shoah, without it being clear beyond any doubt that a holocaust of that kind actually occurred and in the same format.
I refer to what’s known as the Armenian holocaust, which in the end did not receive supreme, official recognition as genocide from U.S. President Barack Obama"  (Benny Ziffer, "Not recognizing the Armenian genocide is a triumph for common sense," Haaretz, May 1, 2015).
(**) "Tens of thousands of Turkish soldiers and civilians froze to death or were cut down then in a hopeless battle against the Russian army, which enjoyed the active aid of Armenian nationalists, who were under the illusion that Greater Armenia would be established with the help of the Allied powers in territories of eastern Turkey. What the Armenians want to see recognized as genocide is the violent Turkish reaction in the wake of that wretched campaign, a response which to this day is perceived by the Turks as part of a battle for their homeland."

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