(October 19, 2014 / JNS)
After nearly a year of protests, the Obama administration has finally agreed to permit a rug connected to the Armenian genocide to be publicly displayed. The long ordeal of the Armenian Orphan Rug, held hostage to fears of angering Turkey, has finally ended.
Or has it?
The controversy began in the autumn of 2013, when the Smithsonian Institution announced it would hold an event featuring a new book, “President Calvin Coolidge and the Armenian Orphan Rug,” by Hagop Martin Deranian.
The 18-foot long rug was woven 1925 by 400 Armenian orphan girls living in exile in Lebanon. They were survivors of the Turkish slaughter of approximately 1 million Armenians. The girls sent the rug to President Calvin Coolidge as a gesture of appreciation for America’s assistance to survivors of the genocide. Coolidge pledged that it would have “a place of honor in the White House, where it will be a daily symbol of goodwill on earth.”
Instead, it has become a daily symbol of politics taking precedence over combating genocide.
The White House refused to loan the rug to the Smithsonian. Neither the White House nor the State Department would give an explanation as to why they were keeping the rug locked up. The only plausible explanation is pressure from the Turkish government, which to this day denies the genocide occurred.
As a presidential candidate in 2008, then-Senator Obama said, “America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide.” Yet the statements that President Obama has issued each April on Armenian Remembrance Day have never included the G-word. Instead, he has used an Armenian expression—“Meds Yeghern,” meaning “the great calamity.” Fear of displeasing the Turks appears to be the only plausible motive for that rhetorical evasiveness.
Armenian-Americans are not the only ones who should be outraged. American Jews should be up in arms, too. Not only because of the sympathy that all victims of genocide naturally share—but also because if the White House can permit political considerations to take precedence over recognition of the Armenian genocide, there is a danger that memorialization of the Holocaust could one day suffer a similar fate.
Indeed, Adolf Hitler reportedly once assured his subordinates that their atrocities would not be remembered since “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Last week, after numerous protests, the Obama administration announced that it will permit the rug to be displayed for six days in November—kind of a week-long furlough from its imprisonment in a White House closet.
But there is a catch. A big one.
The rug will not be part of a display concerning the Armenian genocide. Instead, it is being mushed together with other foreign gifts to the White House, in a display called “Thank You to the United States: Three Gifts to Presidents in Gratitude for American Generosity Abroad.”
The genocide rug will be sandwiched in between a Sevres vase presented by France to the United States after World War One, and a piece of artwork called “Flowering Branches in Lucite” sent by Japan after the 2010 tsunami.
Grouping victims of genocide together with those who drowned in a tsunami or were left homeless by World War One disguises what happened to the Armenians. It blurs the distinction between something that was inevitable and something that was not. Weather-related disasters and damage caused by wars are inevitable. But the Armenian genocide was different: it was an act of mass murder, systematically planned and implemented by evil men driven by religious and ethnic hatred.
The Armenian Orphan Rug is a work of great beauty. But the point of displaying it is not for the sake of its aesthetic value. Its power is its message. Its significance is as a symbol. It is a reminder of the genocide that the Turks perpetrated against the Armenians. Six days in an exhibit about gifts to the White House is no victory. On the contrary—it is a defeat for everyone who cares about historical truth and everyone who seeks to learn the lessons of the past so that they will not be repeated.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, D.C. His latest book is “FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith.”