Armenians and Jews: Natural Allies, Kindred Spirits


The Yerevan Holocaust Memorial

Armenians and Jews share many things in common: they are both ancient Near Eastern people with a long and storied history. They have often faced persecution, which culminated in the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and the Holocaust of the Jews in WWII. Adolf Hitler in fact modeled the Holocaust on the Ottoman extermination of the Western Armenians. The similarities between Armenians and Jews, and Armenians and Israelis, go deeper in fact: both people are known for their prowess in the arts and commerce and value education to an almost preternatural extent. There is an Armenian quarter in Jerusalem that dates back to at least the 4th century A.D. Armenia, broadly defined, has known at last three historic migrations of Jews and was most recently considered a haven for Soviet Jews, a land where anti-Semitism was--and remains--virtually nonexistent. In fact when you visit Armenia you will meet Armenians with names like Israel Aharonian and Movses Kaplanian--the kinship has been lost over many centuries of co-existence, but looking at names and even physiological similarities, it is not hard to imagine how close these two people have been historically.

Recent attempts by Azeri lobbies and right-wing writers in Israel to portray Armenia as an anti-semitic country are abhorrent in the extreme. Commentators such as Arye Gut--who is a member of the Board of the Israeli-Azerbaijani International Organization--have recently taken it upon themselves to deform the truth, openly lie and make up incidents which simply don't exist in order to try to drive a wedge between Armenia and Israel. Considering the denialist nature of the Azeri government which will not even acknowledge the Armenian Genocide and falsely accuses Armenia of starting the war in Nagorno-Karabagh, none of this should be surprising. It won't work. Go to almost any Armenian household in the Armenian Diaspora or the Republic of Armenia and Jews are looked up to and even revered. Armenians are even known in certain quarters as the "Jews of the Caucasus." In contrast, at the recent Gezi Park demonstrations in Istanbul, Turkey--a close ally and ethnic "cousin" of Azerbaijan--a policeman shooting at the demonstrators was overheard shouting "You are not Turks, you are Armenians and Jews."

In a recent open letter to world Jewry, the Head of the Jewish Community in Armenia Rima Varzhapetyan Feller stated the following, worth repeating in some detail: "...targeted efforts have been exerted recently to cast a shadow on Armenian-Jewish relations...those attempts cannot but fail. The history of the two ancient peoples - Armenians and Jews - is full of similarities and mutual contacts, and even with the utmost effort in the world, one can not derail those relations....Can the restoration of the Jewish medieval cemetery in one of the provinces of Armenia at the expense of funds allocated by the Government, be considered as an expression of anti-Semitic policy?...Armenians always treated Jews and the State of Israel with admiration... one cannot even imagine holding anti-Semitic and anti-Israel demonstrations in Armenia [such as those] which took place in different towns of Azerbaijan a couple of years ago." "

Like Israel, Armenia finds itself surrounded by mostly hostile states--in particular Turkey and Azerbaijan. Israel is in a difficult position. It has been blackmailed by the Republic of Turkey into not recognizing the Armenian Genocide, while oil rich Azerbaijan buys arms by the bucket load from the tiny and imperiled Jewish state. But Israel has recently learned during the Mavi Marmara incident that Turkey and President Erdogan--and Azerbaijan by extension--are fair-weather friends at best. And while it is true that Turkey let in thousand of Jews fleeing the Inquisition into the Ottoman Empire, they did so in large part because these wealthy immigrants helped them finance their war against the powerful Republic of Venice and other European states. Since then, Jews in Turkey and Azerbaijan have regularly been persecuted. In 1915, as the Ottoman Empire's 3 million-strong Christian population was slowly extinguished, many Jews saw the handwriting on the wall and emigrated. More recently as many as 50,000 Jews were slaughtered and/or expelled from the Rumeli Region alone. Hundreds of the Republic's wealthiest Jewish members were sent to labor battalions along with Armenians during the wealth taxes imposed on minorities in the 1950's.

In a recent piece in Ha'aretz cleverly titled "Baku to the future: Azerbaijan, not Armenia, is Israel's true ally," Maxime Gauin and Alexander Murinson repeat the same old canards about Karekin Njhdeh--an Armenian revolutionary who fought the Ottoman Turks in 1915--and write about a supposed "Nazi" Armenian battalion in WWII. Both writers are part of the extreme right-wing in Israel: for good measure, the authors use a picture of the Presidents of Armenia and Iran together at an official welcoming ceremony, implying that a friend of Israel's enemy must be an enemy of Israel as well, an absurd proposition in international relations. Armenians have a long history of living in the Persian Empire and Iran is one of the only trade partners Armenia has in the region as both Turkey and Azerbaijan have blockaded the country--something that Israelis are all too familiar with given long-standing Arab boycotts of their own country.

Unlike many countries in the region that have denied the Holocaust, on January 27th the President of Armenia Serzh Sargsyan reiterated his commitment to commemorating the event and recalled the similar destinies of Armenian and Jew: "The genocide committed against the Jews during the World War II was one of the most tragic pages in the human history. January 27th symbolizes the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp...This year Armenian people are commemorating the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide, and we more than anyone empathize with the pain of the Jewish people." You can't get much clearer than that.

Finally, I would like to recall that the Ottoman Turks led by Cemal Pasha along with their Azeri allies planned to wipe out the entire Lebanese and Jewish populations in Palestine after doing away with the Armenians. If that, combined with the recent anti-semitic bile that President Erdogan and Aliyev have both spouted is not enough to convince Israel of who their true ally is, then nothing will. In fact, most Armenians are not worried--everyone knows that Israel and Armenia, and Armenians and Jews, are kindred spirits and friends. To believe otherwise is simply to turn the world upside down.