The Israeli Government's Genocide Politics

The Armenian museum in Jerusalem consists of three rooms tucked away off an Old City courtyard. In the room describing all of Armenian history, one end is dedicated to the Armenian genocide of 1915. A dozen blurry photos show horrors: the corpse of a naked, starved child; Ottoman soldiers posing behind on a pedestal on which rest bearded heads; more human heads lined up on shelves. A couple of brief texts tell the entire story of how a doomed empire sought to slaughter a minority. The photos are curling at the edges; the plaster on the walls is peeling. In the hour I spent at the museum recently, I was mostly alone.

On the other side of the city, Yad Vashem, the official Israeli memorial to the Holocaust, spreads across a 45-acre campus. It includes a research institute, archives, a library and the recently expanded museum. Photos, maps, texts and video displays line the jagged route through the main exhibition. There's a room set up like a German Jewish living room; later there's most of a Nazi boxcar. One section portrays the unwillingness of Western nations, including America, to accept Jewish refugees before and during the killing. "Australia cannot do more... as we have no racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one," reads a legend on a wall, a quote from an Australian official. Britain turned a refugee ship away from Palestine, claiming it might be carrying German agents. Another segment of the exhibition describes how fascist regimes such as Romania and Croatia collaborated in genocide. Every day, the museum is full of tourists. Austria's chancellor was here early this week; Britain's Prince Edward is scheduled to come tomorrow.

This comparison is perhaps unfair. Jerusalem is the center of the Jewish world, not the Armenian world. Private donors paid for much of Yad Vashem; philanthropists could build a larger Armenian memorial.

Still, the sheer physical contrast reflects the politics of remembering and forgetting, in Israel and beyond. Those politics have erupted in two separate affairs embroiling Israel and American Jewish organizations this summer -- over remembering the Armenian past, and dealing with Darfur's present. Both times, those who claim to be pragmatically protecting Israel have used arguments that undermine the Jewish claim to memory.

Skirmishes over recognizing the Armenian genocide have gone on for years in Israel. Turkey is a key Israeli ally, arguably second only to the United States. Turkey doesn't take kindly to friends labeling the slaughter during World War I as genocide. In 2000, left-wing Education Minister Yossi Sarid spoke about genocide at a memorial ceremony of the Armenian community in Jerusalem. The government disavowed his words. This spring, a leftist Knesset member sought a parliamentary debate on the Armenian issue, aiming at a resolution recognizing the genocide. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition voted to squelch the debate.

What's worse is that Ankara expects Israel to lobby Washington on its behalf. For many years, Israeli officials have acceded -- and some American Jewish groups have been ready to help out. Hence, this summer's uproar over House Resolution 106, recognizing the genocide. Most Jewish senators and congressmen are in favor. For those readers who were blessedly away from the news in August, Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman opposed the resolution and refused to describe the mass murder as genocide. When Andrew Tarsy, director of the ADL's Boston region broke ranks, Foxman showed that democratic centralism is alive in the ADL, and fired him. Under pressure from Boston Jewish leaders, Foxman backed halfway down. He agreed, yes, trying to wipe out a whole ethnic group was genocide, Elie Wiesel had told him so. He reinstated Tarsy -- but still opposed the resolution as posing a risk to "the important multilateral relationship between Turkey, Israel and the United States."

This is multi-faceted madness. If Croatia conditioned its relations with Israel on silence about its role in the Holocaust, I rather doubt Israel would agree. Turkey's expectation that Israel can bend American policy contains its own subtle anti-Semitism: Since the Jews run things, let's get them on our side. As for the ADL, if it is really dedicated to counteracting "hatred, prejudice and bigotry," as it claims in every press release, it should lobby Israel against to change its line on Armenia. Instead, Foxman pulls out his umbrella in New York whenever it rains at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem.

On the Darfur issue, fortunately, the Prime Minister's Office has faced a wide rebellion, both domestically and from U.S. Jewish groups. Some 1,700 Sudanese have entered Israel from Egypt in recent years, according to Eytan Schwartz of the Committee for Advancement of Refugees from Darfur, a coalition of Israeli groups. Of those, Schwartz says, 500 are from Darfur, most of the rest from southern Sudan. The refugees fear mistreatment -- or worse, repatriation to Sudan -- if they are returned to Egypt. Meanwhile, the trickle is growing. As Schwartz points out, Israel is the only Western democracy that can be reached overland from Sudan.

Olmert, who has an uncanny ability to miss opportunities for leadership, blew this chance as well. In July, he announced that he'd agreed with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that any refugee caught crossing the border would be sent back. That prompted 63 Knesset members, more than half the parliament, to sign a petition against deporting Sudanese refugees, citing "the Jewish people's history as well as the values of democracy and humanity." Nonetheless, authorities sent back a bus of over 50 Africans in late August, most reportedly from Darfur. One official argument is that Al-Qaeda activists could be among the refugees. Lurking behind that is fear -- expressed quietly even by some who oppose deportations -- that large numbers of refugees could change Israel's ethnic character.

Under pressure, the government has announced it will let 500 Darfur refugees stay. Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit -- a rival of Olmert from within his own Kadimah party -- says he'll grant the 500 citizenship. The other Sudanese are to be sent back to Egypt.

As a country of 7 million, it's true, Israel can't solve the Darfur refugee crisis. Then again, the Israeli population is now about one-twentieth that of America just before the Holocaust. If it is enough for Israel to let in 500 people fleeing genocide, then the U.S. could have met its responsibility by taking 10,000 Jews. In fact, 50,000 Jews came to America between 1933 and 1941, according a Yad Vashem scholar. That was insufficient refuge.

The underlying issue is that, pragmatically, Israel can claim it must protect its interests, even if that means indulging an ally ashamed of its history. It can argue that refugees pose a security threat. It can reject refugees in order to maintain its ethnic balance. But if it does those things, it has no grounds to speak about Western countries who turned away Jews in 1938.

The claims of history demand a different policy. For a start, Israel might announce how many Darfur refugees it will take in the future. Since even more refugees are likely to arrive, it could invite Western countries to a conference at which they will make their own pledges to take those fleeing Darfur. Room for that parley could be found at the wide campus of Yad Vashem.

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