By Dr Harry Hagopian, Middle East North Africa (MENA) Consultant
Published on 19 October, this is the latest opinion piece from our consultant on the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region, Dr Harry Hagopian. Looking at two subjects that may not initially seem comparable, Harry examines the Armenian Genocide, commonly held to have started in 1915, and Palestine’s quest for independence. As an Armenian and former native of East Jerusalem, not to mention someone who yearns for his country to have “normal relations with Turkey”, Dr Hagopian is qualified to comment on both realities. Originally published on his website epektasis.net.
Those who have come to know me a bit over the years realise that I am ethnically Armenian, a native of East Jerusalem many moons ago when it was ruled by Jordan and someone whose legal, ecumenical or political work has often led him to wrestle with issues of justice and peace.
So I have at times found myself lobbying for the recognition of the Armenian genocide just as I have equally fought for the recognition of Palestine as a free and independent state.
I understand if some readers might at this early stage sigh with exasperation about the twin themes in my piece. After all, the recognition of the Armenian genocide does not start with the UK, or the USA and Israel, but rather with Turkey itself. And the past century has shown us how hard it is to wrest recognition from Turkey. Similarly, the creation of a sovereign Palestine does not start with the EU or the Arab league as much as it does with Israel. Yet today, both are nothing more than pipe-dreams. Granted, the international community has a key role to play in both cases as facilitator or even initiator and mediator, but the gritty – and painfully responsible – decisions have to be taken by Turkey and Israel. To recognise or not to recognise the Armenian genocide or Palestinian independence are two jaw-clenching challenges.
So let me blend those two rather disparate cases together to prove a point that often gnaws at my own conscience.
Almost every single credible historian, lawyer or politician knows that an Armenian genocide did occur under cover of the First World War just as almost every historian, lawyer or politician (forgive my emphasis on tautology here) also knows that East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza are territories occupied by Israel in 1967. Yet, despite a number of brave academics and authors in Turkey, the political establishment goes apoplectic whenever anyone dares suggest that they should own up to the genocide. Similarly, and whilst many Israeli organisations, authors, pundits and even politicians know that this landmass is under occupation and should be returned to Palestinians, successive Israeli governments have resolutely used every textbook on denial, procrastination and prevarication to avoid releasing most lands to their rightful owners.
Mind you, in the Turkish case, little has changed in terms of geography although the demography has altered considerably and Diyarbakir (to give only one of many examples) now houses more Kurds than Armenians or Syriacs. Conversely though, Israel has altered both the geography as well as demography of the land by building illegal settlements and outposts across Jerusalem and the West Bank and colonising Palestinian space with subsidised Jewish residents. So much so that historical Palestine has shrunk to a few dots drenched with massive Israeli conglomerations.
Therefore, my key question today is not stricto sensu political in terms of either the merits or demerits of either case. That is after all quite easy: the genocide would be recognised if it were not for an overweening Turkish nationalism and an excessive historical pride that couple too rapidly with a fear that recognition could herald compensation, reparation and restitution. So they shun recognition. Similarly, Israel should return the swathe of occupied territories back to Palestinians on the basis of the Arab Initiative of 2002 and a host of well-established parameters so both peoples can move forward and help create – in the words of no other than Shimon Peres – a Middle East of biblical milk and honey. However, Israel as a pioneering people has turned exceedingly arrogant and greedy and treats most Palestinians unjustly.
So minus any political prognostication, what is my blunt – call it naïve – apolitical question today?
Simply put, it is this: how can Turkish and Israeli politicians divest themselves of their very humanity, their sense of truth and justice in order to lie through their teeth or go into paroxysms of anger and self-righteousness every time they are challenged about recognition or occupation? Why is it so difficult for them to be true to their consciences and to their peoples by admitting an irredentist truth, acting on it and then helping build a less bellicose and a less unfair world?
Frankly, I often do not know what lurks in the minds of those decision-makers and purveyors of obfuscation! Yet, I do know how they affect me personally. I am someone who truly yearns for normal relations with Turkey. I wish to forge new friendships let alone see the Armenia-Turkey border open again. But this stiff denial from Turkey can only ignite a counter reaction in me. Similarly, I am the same person who went to Kikar Rabin in Tel Aviv and spoke about the murdered Yitzhak Rabin as an erstwhile foe who might not have become a chaver (friend) for Palestinians if he had lived long enough but rather a deft architect of peace. I admire Israeli achievements over six decades – not least in technology – but their scornful suppression of justice for Palestinians intuitively provokes in me Newtonian counter-reactions too.
Let me give one contemporary example. Over two decades, I have striven to find common ground with many Jewish associates and to enjoy those things we could agree upon. Yet, the moment I supported the non-binding Motion to recognise Palestine as a State in the House of Commons this week, the shutters came down. I was not supporting the Israeli narrative fully and uncritically. Ergo, I became anti-Israeli and – God forefend – anti-Semite or anti-Jewish!
Is political candour not de rigueur anymore? Would the world get much worse if Turkey were to recognise the Armenian genocide or Israel were to return the occupied territories? “I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war” (Psalm 120:7). Alas, we often wilfully camouflage our guilt with vile untruths or – at best – with bilious half-truths!
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This article was originally published on Dr Hagopian’s website.