Describing the timing of the debate, at a meeting of the Education, Culture and Sports Committee of the Israeli Knesset (legislature), on Dec. 26 as “clearly political,” Tal Buenos, an Israeli PhD candidate studying genocide issues at Utah University, warns Israel about the boomerang effect of this move in the future. “Both morally and politically it would benefit Israel if it were to carefully examine the origin and development of the term ‘genocide’ before opening discussion on any particular case. The false use of this political term may haunt Israel itself in the future as much as it troubles Turkey today,” Buenos told Today’s Zaman in an interview. “There are already some who claim that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians. … Such accusations have hurt Israel’s international relations already, and could prove a lot more costly in the future in case Israel no longer enjoys the same level of American support in the international system.”
Buenos also criticized the French National Assembly’s decision to pass the controversial legislation, saying “it is detrimental to allow parliaments to ‘legislate’ their own version of historical events in a manner that inhibits academic inquiry.”
According to him, “the recent steps taken in France add to the unfortunate confusion between the Holocaust and the Armenian tragedy.”
“It is simply historically inaccurate, and morally misguided, to compare Adolf Hitler with Talat Paşa -- or Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa with the Nazi SS -- because the former acted out of irrational hatred while the latter acted out of the natural need to survive. The Turks and the Armenians were in conflict over land, and posed a threat to the other’s national life.” Buenos said.
Lending support to a Turkish proposal to Armenia to establish a joint committee of historians on the 1915 events, Buenos also underlined the lack of academic contributions to the issue from the Turkish side. “Despite the growth of interest in genocide studies worldwide, there is not a single center for these studies in Turkey,” he said. “Turkey may provide space for the study of what had happened to Muslims in the Caucasus, and also in the Balkans, who suffered through regular ethnic cleansing and massacres. Some of these massacres were genocidal in scope and intent,” Buenos declared.
We discussed the matter further with Buenos.
How do you evaluate the recent decision by the French parliament to penalize denial of Armenian “genocide”?
The debate over the events of 1915 could be given an emphasis that is historical, legal or moral, but in France right now it is largely political. There are clear signs of narrow political considerations at play now that the French elections are near. Sadly, such a stance taken by the French government only adds to its perception as anti-Islamic and Orientalist and will likely affect the integrity of French scholarly activity on the issue of genocide. It is detrimental to allow parliaments to legislate their own version of historical events in a manner that inhibits academic inquiry.
Turkey, for its part, may negate these trends by facilitating scholarly debate that is free of political strains. It may do so by refraining from publishing propaganda pamphlets and opening its military archives for the free use of scholars. Just recently I had an article published in a special edition released by Middle East Critique, edited by M. Hakan Yavuz, which dedicated its academic space to promote an open discussion on the topic. Such endeavors here in Turkey will enhance the quality of conversation on what happened in 1915 and what the term “genocide” means. Replacing its current reactionary position with a facilitating role would provide an optimal reflection of Turkey’s good intentions.
Also, the recent steps taken in France add to the unfortunate confusion between the Holocaust and the Armenian tragedy. The very reference to “denial” is borrowed from the context of the Holocaust discourse and looks to make political gain by blurring the clear lines between scholars who debate the application of the loosely defined term “genocide” to the events of 1915 and pseudo-historians who deny that the Holocaust ever existed.
After France endorsed the bill, an attempt at an Armenian genocide bill took place in Israel. What were the Israeli parliament’s motivations?
The Israeli parliament’s education committee met on Monday morning to discuss the introduction of the Armenian tragedy into Israeli textbooks. The timing for this is clearly political, but it would be surprising if the Armenian diaspora had much to do with this development. The Israeli politicians who initiated this public debate say that Israel’s view on this issue has been pro-Turkish until now because of political reasons that no longer hold, and now that their view is free of politics, they can make the moral choice. In my view, this misguided position in Israel is regrettable because it universalizes the singularity of the Holocaust and it serves as another example of how the use of the term “genocide” in connection with the Armenian tragedy is politics disguised as morality.
If in fact, as Israeli politicians say today, they were ignoring the moral choice for decades because of their ties with Turkey, then that is tantamount to Israel declaring utter moral bankruptcy. Both morally and politically, it would benefit Israel if it were to carefully examine the origin and development of the term “genocide” before opening discussion on any particular case. The false use of this political term may haunt Israel itself in the future as much as it troubles Turkey today. There are already some who claim that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians. One example is the book “The Plight of the Palestinians: A Long History of Destruction,” which was edited by William A. Cook in 2010 and presents a collection of contributions by active personas in the humanitarian field who accuse Israel of genocide. Such accusations have hurt Israel’s international relations already, and could prove a lot more costly in the future in case Israel no longer enjoys the same level of American support in the international system.
Hopefully, Israel will come to reject such misuse of the Holocaust and look to improve the definition of the term [“genocide”]. There must be a concerted effort to solidify the definition of the term by rescuing it from the grasp of politicians and leaving less room for misuse.
Although there have been some steps taken in recent years among American Jews, there is a general perception that Jews don’t want to see the 1915 events accepted as genocide. There are claims that Jews don’t want the 1915 events to overshadow the Holocaust. Why do you think this is the case?
It could be that there are American Jews who are familiar with the details of both events to an extent where they would feel that it is unacceptable to compare them, while there could be others who are less informed about the details of the events and would want to appear as moral and compassionate by siding with the victim. It is very tempting for Jews to side with those who are perceived as weak because of Jewish history. In this regard, it is important to add that the Jews do not think or act as if they have a copyright on the concept of the Holocaust.
Can you compare the 1915 events with the Holocaust?
The Holocaust was a result of irrational hatred, whereas studies show that the events of 1915 were the result of conflict and a rational fear by the Young Turks that their nation’s survival was at risk. While the Turks fought for their survival, the Nazis went as far as interfering with their own survival as a state, compromising their capacity to win the war by occupying much-needed railroads with trains carrying Jews to death camps instead of soldiers and military supplies and by losing almost a third of their military production by killing Jews who provided [a] much-needed labor force. Such contextualization of the events shows undeniable differences that should play a significant role in how genocide is defined, especially in terms of intentions and modes of execution.
In my article for Middle East Critique, I distinguish between a nation’s intent to destroy, genocide, and a nation’s intent to survive, genovive, and offer a method, based on Thomas Hobbes’ political philosophy, through which one may analyze intent by asking two questions: Did the victim pose a reasonable threat to the assailant’s survival? Did the actions taken by the assailant against the victim give the assailant a better chance to survive? If the answer to both questions is “yes,” then the case is not genocide in its solid definition but rather genovive, a nation’s legitimate effort to survive by exercising its most natural right to remove anything that poses an immediate threat to its existence.
It is simply historically inaccurate, and morally misguided, to compare Adolf Hitler with Talat Paşa -- or Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa with the Nazi SS -- because the former acted out of irrational hatred while the latter acted out of the natural need to survive. The Turks and the Armenians were in conflict over land and posed a threat to the other’s national life. Whatever social contract exited between the two peoples was nullified. Therefore, they sought to secure the land and, moreover, eliminate chances of continued threat. Justin McCarthy’s “The Armenian Rebellion at Van” sheds much light on the uprising in Van: the anticipated revolt, the clearly stated Armenian national aspirations, the Armenian cooperation with the Russians, the collection of arms to be used against Turks and the quest for recapturing what the Armenians held to be their fatherland.
In sharp contrast, in the years preceding World War II, the Jews in Germany joined the German national identity by showing their love and admiration for their shared German fatherland. Moreover, the Jews were positively involved in Germany’s politics, culture, economy and military. It is a disgrace to the memory of such honorable citizens, who were absolute victims, to equate them with victims who are associated with rebellious intentions and actions.
The Turkish proposal and the Armenian reaction
How do you evaluate the Turkish proposal of leaving the issue to historians and accepting the result of their studies? What do you think about the Armenian reaction?
This proposal is very important and must be seen through. There are previous examples of successful joint committees of historians that were put together for the study of controversial events, and they did help create a shared narrative of the events. However, at this point, it appears that Armenian nationalist groups are opposed to the idea of establishing such a joint committee. The people of Turkey should understand that for the Armenians this is a delicate situation because over the years, genocide has become the new glue that holds Armenian identity together. Thus, opening a debate over genocide would also mean exposing the myths of modern Armenian diaspora identity and raising questions that would put their identity at risk. One of the more urgent aspects that are part and parcel with years of claims of having suffered genocide is that the group’s identity becomes inseparable from the group’s victimization. Unfortunately, this Armenian dependency on the genocide narrative comes at Turkey’s direct expense, and increasingly so.
Looking at today’s hot debates on 1915 in Turkey, how do you assess the evolution of the Turkish position, if there has been any?
The Turkish position has certainly evolved. It was a big mistake to constrain the debate in Turkey for decades and the state was heavy-handed. The debate is much richer and more sophisticated on the Turkish side. However, there are fewer studies in Turkey than outside it. The works of Edward Erickson, Guenter Lewy, Michael Gunter, Brad Dennis, Michael Reynolds, Benjamin Fortna and Justin McCarthy are taking place mainly in the United States. The number of Turkish universities has increased from 53 to 170, but their contribution to the debate is very limited and almost inconsequential. Many historians of Turkish origins in the US hesitate to step into the debate because they fear the possible Armenian reaction.
As of today, almost 21 countries have recognized 1915 as genocide. As an expert working on this issue, what does this mean in terms of what really happened?
Even if there are hundreds of countries’ parliaments that recognize the events of 1915 as genocide, it should not discourage Turkey from seeking to free this issue from its political shackles and engage in scholarly debate. The focus for Turkey should be on scholarship and encouraging a fact-based scholarly inquiry.
However, Turkey should be mindful of how it is perceived, and should not fail to recognize that thus far the Armenians have been rather successful in presenting themselves as the victim and the Turks as the villain. Turkey would be wise to engage the international community in conversation about concerns that the negative images of Turks in this regard reflect the existence of deeply embedded anti-Islamism in Euro-Christian circles. The ease with which some European states accept the Armenian claims with no serious investigation does indicate roots of hostility as well as fears of Turkey’s expanding role in the international system.
Turkey’s legal obligations and risks
What kind of legal obligations and risks do you think Turkey could face if 1915 is accepted as genocide?
The difficulties in answering your question are mainly due to the fluid definition of “genocide” and its dependency on the agendas of superpowers. The term “genocide” came to be in the context of post-World War II, when the Allied Powers, headed by the United States, wanted to justify their actions in the war and protect their political interests in Germany. The advent of “genocide” at that time was designed to influence the fragile minds of the Germans and convince them of the moral superiority of the victors so as to ensure that they would follow the path laid for them. Since the superficial resolution of the United Nations, and until the ratification of genocide by the US in President Ronald Reagan’s final months in office in the late 1980s, there were decades of international inactivity in genocide-related prosecution.
However, it is important to note that your question might mislead your readers into thinking that the legal consequences are the gravity of the matter when, in truth, it is more significant to the moral well-being of the Turkish nation to reject accusations against the Ottoman state if they are false, regardless of the penalty. In other words, even if the legal consequences were a fine of one Turkish lira, false accusations should not be accepted.
What other positive steps should be taken in Turkey regarding genocide studies?
Turkey should develop a more rational strategy. The government in Ankara has shown signs of becoming increasingly emotional whenever there is a debate that defines the events of 1915 as genocide.
First, there should be a concerted effort to improve the current quality of discussion at Turkish universities. Turkish universities need to invest and establish centers for genocide studies, to cultivate this new discipline. Despite the growth of interest in genocide studies worldwide, there is not a single center for these studies in Turkey.
The Turks need to confront their history in the Balkans and Caucasus. Turkey could provide the opportunities for the study of what had happened to Muslims in the Caucasus, and also in the Balkans, who suffered through regular ethnic cleansing and massacres. Some of these massacres were genocidal in scope and intent. It could be that in an odd twist of fate, the Armenian debate might lead many Turks to remember the events in the Balkans.