Why ‘Compete’ with the Holocaust?

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Israeli politics has reached a consensus on recognition of the Armenian genocide. Voices from the right to the left all agree that the time has come for the Jewish State to declare that what happened to the Armenians in 1915 was a genocide. This recognition comes on the heels of attempts in France to make it illegal to deny the genocide. In April 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama also spoke on the occasion of Armenian Remembrance Day but did not mention the word “genocide.”

What is interesting about the decision to recognize the Armenian genocide is not so much the recognition, about which there should never have been a debate, but the strange way the genocide is manipulated in order to “compete” with the Holocaust. In a December 2011 editorial, Haaretz claimed, “The approximately 1.5 million Armenians who were murdered or driven out in death marches in 1915 deserve international recognition of the holocaust they suffered.” The editorial goes on to explain that Israelis used to oppose recognition because of “fear over the loss of the concept of ‘Holocaust’ as an exclusive Jewish ‘property.’” In the Hebrew language version of the article, the writers used the term “HaShoah HaArmini” several times. 

The use of the word “holocaust” to define what happened to the Armenians is not happenstance. Those who use the word “shoah” or “holocaust” to describe the Armenian genocide do so with the direct intention of denigrating the memory of the Holocaust and making it a generalized term that means “genocide,” rather than referring to the Holocaust of the Jews.  This is a disturbing trend, all the more so because there is no reason for it.   

Former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg’s The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise from its Ashes, is focused on undermining the Holocaust as a uniquely Jewish event. Burg attacks the “obsessive and cheapening use or abuse of the Holocaust as a theological pillar of Jewish identity.” He writes again and again about the “Armenian Holocaust” and the “Herero Holocaust.” In the latter instance, he is referring to a little remembered genocide of the Herero people in German East Africa in 1904, where as many as 100,000 tribesmen were killed. 

Robert Fisk, the rabidly anti-Israel writer for the Independent, has been fighting for many years to have the term “Holocaust” with a capital H applied to the Armenian genocide. He has written often on the subject, which he calls the “first Holocaust.” In 2010 he wrote, “Israel can no longer ignore the existence of the first Holocaust.” Fisk points out in his article that many Israeli leftists who support recognition of the Armenian genocide, such as former education minister Yossi Sarid, have referred to the genocide as a “Shoah” for some time.

The problem with all this is that it doesn’t make sense. If the Armenian genocide was a “holocaust” or a “shoah,” why didn’t Jews—or anyone else--refer to it by that term before the Holocaust took place? Why is it that certain pundits only decided that the Armenians suffered a “holocaust” after that term was applied to what befell the Jews? If the term Holocaust and Shoah had never been used to describe the gas chambers, then it seems whatever term was used for the attempted extermination of European Jewry would have been appropriated and applied to the Armenians.  Herein lies the issue. Why must the genocide of the Armenians be defined in Jewish terms in order to be important? 

For many years Armenians referred to the genocide as “the great crime” in Armenian, the “Meds Yeghern” (Mec Yeġeṙn). When the Jews suffered genocide, the Armenians didn’t feel a need to apply their term to the Holocaust. The Meds Yeghern remains an Armenian word for the evil that was done to their nation. 

It may sound strange, but this is also true in regard to the “Nakba,” the term used by Palestinians to describe the events of 1948. No one appropriates the word Nakba to describe forced movements of people in time of war. So why is it only ‘Holocaust’ and ‘Shoah’ are expropriated to deny the Jewish people a unique term for their genocide?

Dangerous long-term harm is done to the meaning of the Holocaust when the word “holocaust” is applied to the Armenian or other genocides. Jewish publications and intellectuals should consider this when they write on the subject. 

Seth J. Frantzman is a writer, journalist and scholar residing in Jerusalem.

Posted on January 16, 2012 and filed under Holocaust, Israel, Opinion.