‘Genocide’ in 1915: Law, Language, and Politics

27 Apr

 [This post is supplemental to what was contained in yesterday’s post, seeking to take advantage of the attention given to the events of 1915, to encourage a rethinking of the nature of the conflict. I am arguing that the historical argument should be put to rest, and that the issues that yet need to be resolved relate to the legal questions surrounding the applicability of genocide, as well as the related semiotic and political questions associated what be called ‘the politics of genocide.’]

            The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the American President, Barack Obama, have both been accused of ‘denialism’ by representatives of the Armenian community in response to their official statements issued to commemorate formally the 99th anniversary of atrocities committed in 1915 against the Armenian minority living in Turkey.


            The accusations directed at the two leaders are somewhat different as is the tone and substance of their two statements. Obama is essentially being attacked because the Armenian diaspora community in the United States was led to believe during his presidential campaign of 2008 that he would if elected formally affirm that what happened in 1915 to the Armenian minority living in Turkey constituted genocide. Obama’s statement adopts strong language of condemnation: “We recall the horror of what happened ninety-nine years ago, when 1.5 million people were massacred or marched to their deaths in the final days of the Ottoman Empire.” He added, “I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view has not changed,” apparently seeking to console those who expected more, while refraining from crossing the red line associated with the G-word, which is what Armenians were waiting for. Obama calls for a “full, frank, and just acknowledgement” of the facts as being in the interests of all sides, and part of the struggle to “build a foundation for a more just and tolerant future,” and with a nod toward national humility Obama observes that Armenian/Turkish reconciliation should go forward “as we [in America] strive to reconcile some of the darkest moments in our own history.” But this is not enough to satisfy those who articulate the views of the Armenian campaign that will settle for nothing less than the unambiguous avowal that the Armenian ordeal was ‘genocide.’ Any other description of these events is dismissed as unacceptable, being regarded as evasive or denialist in relation to this insistence on the word.


            Oddly, the complaints about Erdogan’s response to the 1915 anniversary are rather similar, although his rhetoric is more problematic in relation to how the events in question should be historically understood. For Erdogan many ethnicities suffered unjustly during the final stage of the Ottoman Empire, including Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Armenians and millions of others during this “difficult period.” He calls for an approach that appreciates “all the sufferings endured..without discriminating as to religion or ethnicity.” And further, that no justice is rendered by “constructing hierarchies of pain nor comparing and contrasting suffering.” Erdogan pushes back against Armenian pressures by saying “using the events of 1915 as an excuse for hostility against Turkey and turning the issue into a matter of political conflict is inadmissible.” In effect, Erdogan repudiates the major premise of the Armenian campaign.


            Erdogan articulates, as well, an approach that Turkey has more broadly embraced in its sponsorship (with Spain) of the Alliance of Civilizations: “The spirit of the age necessitates dialogue despite differences, understanding by heeding others, evaluating means for compromise, denouncing hatred, and praising respect and tolerance.” More concretely, he repeats the call for “a joint historical commission,” which would have the benefit of an expanded access to the extensive Turkish archives now available to all researchers. Along these lines Erdogan also proposes that the diverse peoples of Anatolia, who lived together peacefully for centuries, “talk to each other about the past with maturity and to remember together their losses in a decent manner.” And somewhat piously at the end, “it is with this hope and belief that we wish the Armenians who lost their lives in the context of the early twentieth century rest in peace, and we convey our condolences to their grandchildren.”


            As might be expected, the Armenian reaction to such sentiments is one of anger, and feelings of disappointment that can be summarized by the reaction, ‘nothing new.’ Erdogan’s message is the familiar Turkish refrain that refuses to accept the central Armenian grievance—that Armenians were the main target of the lethal Ottoman policies of 1915 to such a deliberate and systematic extent as to justify the label of ‘genocide.’ The Armenian campaign for rectification is centered upon the unconditional demand that governments throughout the world, especially Turkey, and secondarily, the United States, confirm that what took place was genocide. For this reason, although the differences between what Obama and Erdogan had to say are significant, even profound, the Armenian reactions are almost equally dismissive.


            To some extent more nuanced Armenian responses to Obama and Erdogan might help lead toward a more constructive approach to persisting tensions. After all, Obama basically subscribes to the Armenian understanding of what took place in 1915, while Erdogan rejects the far more basic idea that Armenian suffering is of such a grave character as to warrant special consideration. It would seem desirable and reasonable for Turkey to move beyond this view of plural suffering to a willingness to accept the historical narrative long convincingly put forward by respected scholars and representatives of the Armenian and international community, and concentrate attention on how this terrible past episode may be properly acknowledged during 2015, a hundred years later. The responsible debate at this time is about the legal status of the 1915 events, taking the historical facts as sufficiently established as to not require further investigation. Indeed if the Turkish government were willing to make this concession it might ease the way toward creating a process with some real prospect of mutual accommodation. From this perspective, it should be possible to start by agreeing with the descriptive accuracy of Obama’s formulation and move beyond what Erdogan proposes while incorporating his remarks encouraging dialogue and tolerance.


            What seems most helpful at this time is shifting away from a focus on the historical interpretation of the events of 1915 toward a consideration of how to achieve an agreed rendering of the legal and semiotic issues that are the true residual core of the controversy. Such a shift will at least allow us to understand the overriding importance attributed by both the Armenian community and the Turkish government to whether the word genocide should be treated as applicable or non-applicable in the good faith search by the parties for justice and reconciliation. In the spirit of moderation it needs also to be realized that time has passed, that the hurt of such remembrances can never be fully assuaged, and that the best that can be achieved is some compromise between remembering and forgetting. Such a compromise is essential if the shared objective of the Armenian community and Turkey is to escape finally from the twinned entrapments of embitterment and rationalization.    

10 Responses to “‘Genocide’ in 1915: Law, Language, and Politics”

  1. wingsprd April 27, 2014 at 1:58 pm #

    Eminently sensible and balanced as always Richard.

  2. Gene Schulman April 27, 2014 at 2:00 pm #

    Richard, it seems to me from this post that you yourself hesitate to call a spade a spade,and are waffling between admission of genocide and saving face of the Turks. Might you have a dog in this fight?

    Frankly, I cannot see why the Turks can’t just say, yes it was genocide, but it happened in another time. The Armenians would be satisfied, and the Turks could move on. That is, if the Armenians would accept such an apology and without claiming reparations.

    Just a thought.

    • Richard Falk April 27, 2014 at 3:15 pm #

      Gene, there are serious issues relating to the discourse on genocide or for that matter
      any alleged crime. There are important differences in consequences whether what happened in
      1915 is viewed as genocide, including domestic political repercussions. I do have a dog in the
      fight but at the same time trying to be constructive, and take account of my closeness to both
      sides. In a way, I have both dogs..

      • Rabbi Ira Youdovin April 27, 2014 at 7:27 pm #

        Gene Schulman is free to sniff any flowers he wishes, but he’s not entitled to define genocide on the basis of his olfactory proclivities. What smells to him like genocide, may not be genocide at all.

        Prof. Falk notes that the criteria for genocide vary in different contexts. But when it’s used to characterize Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, the intent clearly is to defame Israelis by depicting them as Nazis. This establishes some very specific criteria that must be proven or the accusation is defamatory. There are many objectionable aspects to the Occupation. These are criticized daily in the Israeli press and media, and by Jewish NGO’s in Israel and throughout the world. But there are no death camps, no gas chambers and no crematoria.

        To repeat: this is not intended to excuse the Occupation’s excesses nor deny its malignant character. But “genocide” means something very specific in Jewish and world history. Hitler murdered eleven million human beings, six million of them Jews, including 1.5 million children. In sharp contradistinction, the Palestinian population of Israel has remained a constant 20% of the total from 1948 to the present (from approximately 156,000 to 1.8 million). The Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories has also increased exponentially. An expanding population is hardly a sign of genocide or ethnic cleansing.

        Prof. Falk’s observation that “Jews have been living in the West Bank and Gaza all along without the slightest difficulty” is revisionist, and his citing Amira Hass as an example is ludicrous. Arab violence against Jewish immigrants began almost immediately with the advent of Zionism, and there is a subsequent history of inter-communal violence, much, but by no means all of it initiated by Palestinians. Small incidents expanded into larger one such as the Arab riots of April 1920, and the Jaffa riots of 1921. The 1929 Hebron massacre took the lives of 67 Jews, including 23 college students, in a town that had had an uninterrupted history of Jewish inhabitants dating back to Abraham and Sarah.

        Regarding Amira Hass. She is an Israeli journalist who writes virulently anti-Israeli articles from her base in Ramallah. It’s no surprise that the Palestinian Authority welcomes her with open arms, but she is hardly a typical case. More typical is PA president Abbas’ vow that no Jews will be allowed to live in the new state of Palestine. This is not to say that Jews and Palestinians have never gotten along anywhere. They have. But it hasn’t been typical.

        (What is most impressive about Hass’ situation is that her articles appear in a major, mainstream Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, which is generally referred to as the Israeli New York Times. Freedom of the press is not typical in the Middle East!.)

        Finally, it should be noted that Prof. Falk often blames “single-minded” Jewish readers for invading his blog, dragging it into lengthy and unproductive debate. As this is frequently not the case, it’s significant to note that it was Gene Schulman who seized upon Prof. Falk’s post, which didn’t mention Israel, and introduced hostile anti-Israelism several days before Prof. Falk’s moratorium expired. His comment, and Prof. Falk’s response, drew the ensuing discussion far away from its Turkish-Amenian base.

        Rabbi Ira Youdovin

      • Fred Skolnik April 28, 2014 at 12:38 am #

        The rhetoric that prevails among the Israel haters is nothing more than the equivalent of children using dirty words. If Mr. Schulman had been a “good American” 60 years ago he might have been calling the Israelis “dirty Commies.” By perverting language these people undermine their own arguments, so that only people like themselves will take them seriously.

    • petian7 April 29, 2014 at 11:40 am #

      Richard Falk wrote in 1994:

      “Slowly, yet with increasing authoritativeness, the reality of the Turkish genocide perpetrated against the Armenian people has come to be accepted as established, incontrovertible historical fact. Such a process of moral pedagogy has overcome formidable obstacles, especially the well-orchestrated, shameful, as yet ongoing campaign by the Turkish Government to impose silence by promoting a variety of coopting devices, by disseminating various falsifications of the historical record, and through cajolery and intimidation.”



  1. TRANSCEND MEDIA SERVICE » ‘Genocide’ in 1915: Law, Language, and Politics (II) - May 5, 2014

    […] Go to Original – richardfalk.com […]

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