Collective Guilt, Collective Atonement

060420_armenian_hmed_12phmedium.jpg“This shall be to you a law for all time: to make expiation for the Israelites for all their sins once a year.” — Leviticus 16:34

The concept of collective guilt is central to this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. The parasha powerfully teaches that communities, just like individuals, are able to bear guilt. And just as with individuals, this guilt cannot be allowed to remain in the collective soul – it must be faced honestly by the nation if it is to be successfully expiated.

The issue of collective guilt was on the front pages this past Tuesday as the world observed Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day. Those who attended the official observance here in the US might have noticed that there was a careful avoidance of the use of the word “genocide.” As a recent Chicago Tribune article explained:

US officials have avoided the word because Turkey, a key ally, strongly opposes the characterization to describe the early 20th Century deaths of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks.

In the past, members of the House and Senate have proposed resolutions calling on the president to utter the phrase “Armenian genocide,” but the efforts have run aground in the face of political concerns voiced by both Democratic and Republican administrations.

A JTA article noted that the Jewish community has become increasingly “caught in the middle” of this high profile controversy:

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a Jewish congressman with a substantial Armenian constituency, has tried multiple times to pass such a resolution. This time he has garnered nearly 200 co-sponsors for his non-binding resolution, and believes he has the backing of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), speaker of the House of Representatives. Pelosi has met with U.S. Armenian leaders.

The lobbying has had some effect. Four groups – B’nai B’rith International, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs – are set to convey a letter from Turkish Jews who oppose the resolution to U.S. congressional leaders.

The ADL and JINSA have added their own statements opposing the bill.

“I don’t think congressional action will help reconcile the issue,” said ADL National Director Abraham Foxman. “The resolution takes a position; it comes to a judgment.

“The Turks and Armenians need to revisit their past. The Jewish community shouldn’t be the arbiter of that history, nor should the U.S. Congress.”

It is surprising and, quite frankly, shocking that a prominent American Jewish leader (and Holocaust survivor) such as Foxman would counsel that Jews and Americans should not mix in on this issue. Jews should not hold countries accountable for committing genocide? If not us, who?

Here is the historical record: between 1915 and 1918, the Ottoman Turkish government subjected the Armenian people to widespread deportation, expropriation, abduction, torture, massacre, and starvation. The Armenian population was forcibly removed from Armenia and Anatolia to Syria, where the vast majority was sent into the desert to die of thirst and hunger. In addition, significant numbers of Armenians – including many women and children – were methodically massacred throughout the Ottoman Empire.

In 1915 (thirty-three years before the UN Genocide Convention was adopted) Turkey’s treatment of Armenians was condemned by the international community as a crime against humanity. Indeed, the very word “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin, a human rights lawyer and activist (and Holocaust survivor) who viewed these Turkish atrocities as a clear precedent to the Nazi genocide.

Even in the face of compelling historical evidence and comprehensive eyewitness testimony, Turkey has resolutely refused to recognize its collective guilt. Using arguments that have the same alarming resonance as Holocaust denial, Turkey has claimed that the number of Armenians killed is vastly exaggerated, that those targeted were enemies of the state, and that most died from disease and starvation during their “relocations.”

Why are many American politicians and Jewish leaders hesitant to hold Turkey accountable? The answer has nothing to do with history and everything to do with politics. Turkey is, of course, a crucial NATO ally and offers the US open access to their Incirlik air base, an important transit point for nearly three-quarters of all military cargo headed for Iraq. Turkey is also a critical Western transit-point for Western oil interests. US companies have a significant stake in the continuing construction of an oil pipeline running from Azerbaijan to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. (Indeed, Turkey is not above politically retaliating against those countries that raise the Armenian genocide issue. In 2000, the House of Representatives withdrew a resolution on the Armenian Genocide after Turkey threatened to close its airbases to US planes on fly-over missions in Iraq.)

Notwithstanding Abe Foxman’s politically motivated remarks, Jews and Americans have a critically important voice to add in “arbiting” the resolution of this issue. Though Turkey may be a political ally of Israel, there is a deeper, countervailing value that is demanded of the Jewish people here. As Jews, we have experienced the collective trauma of genocide first-hand, and as such we have an added responsibility to shine the brightest light possible on all those who would perpetrate similar crimes against humanity. We, of all people, cannot ignore the Hitler’s tragically prophetic statement: “Who now remembers the Armenians?”

As Americans and citizens of what some people choose to call the “world’s only superpower,” we have a unique responsibility as well. Samantha Powers’ important book “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” has documented a our nation’s shameful inaction when confronted with the moral challenge of genocide. In the first chapter, she chronicles America’s nonresponse to growing reports of Turkish atrocities. Powers poignantly presents the pleas of Henry Morgenthau Sr., then the US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, as he helplessly witnessed the plight of the Armenian people (“It is difficult for me to restrain myself from doing something to stop this attempt to exterminate a race…”) Powers then goes on to demonstrate America’s repeated choice of political “strategic” expediency over moral leadership:

America’s nonresponse to the Turkish horrors established patterns that would repeated. Time and time again the US government would be reluctant to cast aside its neutrality and formally denounce a fellow state for its atrocities. Time and time again though US officials would learn that huge numbers of civilians were being slaughtered, the impact of this knowledge would be blunted by their uncertainty about the facts and their rationalizations that a firmer US stand would make no difference.

It’s time for us to break the pattern of nonresponse. Click here for more information about how you can urge your senators and representatives to call for swift passage of the Armenian Genocide Resolution (SR 106, HR 106) and take concrete steps to stop the ongoing genocide in Darfur.

3 thoughts on “Collective Guilt, Collective Atonement

  1. lauriekendrick

    I wish I better understood why there’s mo much unrest in the Middle East. On some levels, it seems that peace is so attainable. Then you look at him from a perspective of flawed mortals, then you see the picture for what it is. I pray it won’t always be so violent.

  2. Harb Garabedian

    Rabbi Rosen, thank you for your expression of support for standing against genocide and not just some genocides. I understand the position of my country (USA) vis-a-vis Turkey and I understand Israel’s holding onto the relationship with Turkey. These are instances of short-term expediency trumping the forward progress of humanity’s development. The imperative of “Never Again” deserves better from both nations.

  3. Jim McGowan

    Brant: Discussions of past genocide always remind me of a lecture I once heard from Jennifer James, a cultural anthropologist and a terrific speaker. In a nutshell (look at to get the full commentary), her argument is that it is as important for nations to apologize as it is for individuals. A failure to admit guilt, and to indicate a desire to atone, has practical ramifications as well as theoretical ones. She cites the example of Japanese businessmen, as eager as their American counterparts to profit off the burgeoning Chinese marketplace, who nevertheless have to have bodyguards when they travel in China because the Chinese people still remember–and resent–Japanese atrocities during World War II. The oft-heard protest phrase, “No justice, no peace,” isn’t just a slogan; it’s a fact of life.


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