Why is Turkey only now the villain of the piece?

Israel’s protests — in the wake of the flotilla crisis — at Turkish misdeeds are cynical in the extreme

By Keith Kahn-Harris, July 1, 2010

In the wake of the flotilla crisis, Israel's relations with Turkey have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Once Israel's closest ally in the region, both countries fearing Islamism together with Iranian and Arab expansionism, the alliance now hangs by a thread.

As the geopolitical tectonic plates shift, so does the rhetoric of Israel's defenders. Into the crosshairs of Hasbara-niks and pro-Israel campaigners comes the Turkish state. Turkey certainly has many deeply disturbing features that can and should be highlighted. To say nothing of its recent Islamist turn, this is a country that continues to oppress the Kurdish people and of course in 1917 carried out a genocide in its slaughter of over one million Armenians. Not only has Turkey never apologised for the genocide, it has vigorously denied it, protesting against commemorations of the slaughter and persecuting Turkish writers who have tried to come to terms with the past.

In recent Israeli demonstrations against Turkey and in vigils outside its embassy, placards have been prominently displayed reminding the world of the Armenian genocide. But until very recently not only were Turkish human rights abuses – past and present – ignored by Israel and its supporters, they were among the most active in perpetuating the denial of the Armenian genocide.

In his book The Banality of Denial: Israel and the Armenian Genocide, Yair Auron recounts the shameful history of Israel's complicity in Armenian genocide denial. Driven by short-term political considerations, Israeli governments have resisted recognising the genocide and in 1982 tried to pressure Israeli scholars from taking part in an international conference on the subject.

In the diaspora, the record of most Jewish and pro-Israel organisations has been equally woeful. There was pressure on the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC not to mention the Armenian genocide. In 2007, the Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman was central to the successful suppression of a renewed attempt at commemoration.

And now? With the war of words between Turkey and Israel growing ever more virulent and with grassroots pro-Israel groups taking every opportunity to remind the world of Turkish atrocities, Jewish and Israeli complicity in Armenian genocide denial looks likely to end. As Morris Amitay, a former executive director of AIPAC has said: "If someone asked me now if I would try to protect Turkey in Congress, my response would be, 'You've got to be kidding.'"

But if cynically denying genocide was bad then cynically affirming it is almost as repellent. It undermines moral credibility and - most dangerously given the spread of Holocaust denial in the Muslim world - risks tarring Shoah commemoration with the same cynicism.

It may be tempting to put consideration for Israel's strategic interests above respect for history and human rights, but it should be resisted. If Turkey is now too morally tainted to be worthy of having Israel as an ally, then it never was a worthy ally. When the next dodgy alliance rears its head (China? Russia?) Israel and its friends should remember the Turkish example and put moral survival first.

Keith Kahn-Harris is honorary research fellow at the Centre for Religion and Society, Birkbeck College. His book (co-authored with Ben Gidley) ‘Turbulent Times; The British Jewish Community Today’ will be published this month

Last updated: 1:24pm, August 13 2010


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