Israel’s Failed Response to the Armenian Genocide: Denial, State Deception, Truth Versus Politicization of History,
by Israel W. Charny. 2021
Reviewed by Jan Peczkis
Charny is the founder and onetime director of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide in Jerusalem. He extensively describes how the Israeli government acted to suppress the involvement of Armenian scholars in the 1982 International Holocaust conference. This was largely in deference to Turkish objections about the Armenian genocide. However, the questions raised by this book go far beyond this: They encompass the Holocaust supremacist marginalization of ALL the non-Jewish genocides. That is my focus.
THE VERY TERM HOLOCAUST HAS BECOME MONOPOLIZED, AND HAS ITSELF TAKEN ON SUPREMACIST CONNOTATIONS
The author discusses what the word Holocaust has come to mean. He quips, “One expression of Israeli claims of exclusivity and of the ultimate and unique importance of the Holocaust has been the literal rage directed against anyone who has committed the ‘worst sin of all’ by referring to the Armenian Genocide, or to any other genocide, also as a ‘holocaust’.” (p. 122). [I use the term Polokaust, in part, as a spoof and protest of the exclusivist and supremacist Jewish use of the term Holocaust.]
HOLOCAUST SUPREMACISM IS A VERY REAL ISSUE
In the Foreword, Yair Auron, an Israeli professor, writes, “With intellectual integrity, Charny criticizes the disrespect of the State of Israel to other genocides. When you deny another’s genocide, you betray your own genocide; when you deny genocide of the present or the past, you prepare the ground for a new one.” (p. xvii).
Author Charny quotes the Israeli Labour movement newspaper, Al Hamishmar, as follows, “‘How shall we protest the indifference of the world towards our people if we ourselves silence the memory of another people’s holocaust?’” (p. 55). Good question.
The author expands his critique of his fellow Jewish people as he remarks, “I emphasize that an important key to what is the ‘payoff’ for denials of another people’s genocide as a quest for exclusivity and superiority for one’s own people. When we deny, belittle, or are indifferent to the torture and killings of others in favor or promoting our own histories of suffering and being virtuous, it is as if we are saying: We are unprecedented/incomparable/unique and exclusive/superior/the ultimate people. The more shamed and shocked are we when we realize that we are seeing such hateful arrogance in people who themselves have experienced fiendish genocidal destruction, where we would rather have expected heightened sensitivity and caring for others who became victims.” (p. 118. Emphasis in original.)
Israel W. Charny adds that, “It is, of course, entirely human and so very legitimate for an individual survivor and also a given survivor group to becry their tragedy as the worst suffering and evil that ever took place, but it is wrong to translate these understandable human feelings as if into historical facts that one genocide is to be placed at the ultimate untouchable apex of a hierarchy of genocidal suffering.” (p. 104. Emphasis in original.)
Robert William Fisk, Middle East correspondent for The Independent, comments, “Charny’s latest work proclaims that every genocide is unique but that none has the right to claim unique suffering, and that denial is the final stage of genocide.” (inside front cover).
HOLOCAUST SCHOLARSHIP IS WEDDED TO HOLOCAUST SUPREMACISM
Charny elaborates on the deep roots of Holocaust supremacy, “There is also no doubt that an underlying commitment was in play of a long-time almost official Israeli ideology–certainly of Yad Vashem and also many others–that there can be no comparisons of other genocides to the uniqueness of the Holocaust. The implication is that it is best not to get too involved or to pay too much attention to other genocides. I have literally witnessed scenes in ostensibly scholarly and professional contexts where reference to a genocide other than the Holocaust has been treated as a serious and immoral violation of academic and public correctness.” (pp. 59-60).
Charny confronts Holocaust supremacy in all its ugliness as he comments, “At the same time, on an intellectual level I dare say that a collective effort by any people to place their own unbearable cataclysmic tragedy above the cataclysmic tragedies of other peoples is, even if unconsciously, inherently a continued expression of the same rotten intentions to lord it over and dominate other people that the hateful perpetrators of genocide expressed and translated into their deadly policies.” (p. 104. Emphasis added).
The author drives this point home, “In sum, it is more than ironically absurd that victim peoples can be found utilizing the same mindsets as perpetrators in seeking to be superior to others…by elevating their victim experience to establish their superiority.” (p. 110).
THE NAKBA (NAQBA): JEWS, TOO, CAN BE GENOCIDERS
The author does not equate the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians with the earlier Nazi German treatment of the Jews, but he does identify uncomfortable similarities between the two (see p. 107). He candidly laments, “And it is outrageously upsetting and painful to face the fact that victim peoples can carry within their histories various degrees of complicity also as genociders. As victims through the centuries, our Jewish people certainly know the grave dangers of claiming privilege, power, and ultimate significance over and above others. Yet now we have to face the disillusioning truth that we too are susceptible to making ourselves superior to others–beginning with our claims of utter uniqueness as victims, and continuing with various overuse and excesses of power by our beloved State of Israel even as its fights often so bravely in legitimate self-defense.” (p. 110).
THE DEFINITIONALISM TRAP: QUIBBLING OVER DEFINITIONS OF GENOCIDE
There has been a lot of talk about whether the Soviet Communist acts of mass murder can validly be called genocide, or whether Nazi-German-murdered Poles can properly be reckoned victims of genocide since (according to the Holocaust-supremacist argument) not all Poles had been targeted for annihilation. But such hair-splitting is fundamentally irrelevant. Israel Charny points out, “In all genocides, people are being cruelly tortured and murdered en masse. For me, this commonality is the largest fact, and no intellectualization whatsoever–what I have called ‘definitionalism’ or an endless obsessive controversy about the proper definition of genocide–can be allowed to obscure these masses of dead bodies or fail to give them a meaningful category name.” (p. 104. Emphasis in original). Amen to that.
SHORTCOMINGS OF THIS BOOK
Michael Berenbaum has a chapter in which he repeats the old mantra about Holocaust uniqueness in that all Jews were targeted for annihilation. (pp. 210-211). Evidently, an inferred total genocide is superior to “only” a partial genocide, and Berenbaum has learned nothing from Charny’s message.
Unfortunately, Charny egregiously misrepresents the Polish Anti-Defamation Law. He asserts that the law criminalizes any discussion of Polish killings of Jews during and after the Holocaust. (p. 108). It does no such thing: It only forbids the blaming of the Polish nation as a whole for the Holocaust. Quite a difference.