On March 4, 2021, the following open letter appeared in various Israeli newspapers
We the undersigned are Jewish and Israeli scholars in the field of Near and Middle Eastern studies. We are writing this open letter in defence of the honor and good name of a people and their country near our homeland: Armenia. We are writing this because there has been a campaign in the Israeli and Jewish press, we suspect funded by the government of Azerbaijan, to slander and defame the Armenians. One such article appeared on the Arutz Sheva website,(which, it should be added, also posted several articles explaining the Armenian viewpoint) in an article by Paul Miller on 23 February 2021, in the Jerusalem Post and Tablet.
The Armenians are an ancient civilization and were the first to accept Christianity as their national faith. The Armenian Quarter in the Old City of our national capital, Jerusalem, has existed for fifteen hundred years. For sixteen centuries Armenians have written their language, which is distantly related to Greek, in a unique phonetic alphabet whose shape a scholar-saint perceived in a mystical vision. They carve delicate filigree crosses of volcanic stone. They have illuminated manuscripts that are treasures of world art.
The Armenians love to get together for sumptuous, hospitable dinners. They are very sad people: as the nations around them converted to Islam and they did not, they became an island ravaged by invasions and depopulated by exile. Having lost independence, without political and military power, they created, as our people did, a kingdom of creativity, of good deeds. The far-flung Armenian community excelled in business, in medicine, and in arts and letters— their name for diaspora comes from the Hebrew word galut. Although Armenia has no indigenous Jewish community, the presence of Hebrew religious terminology in Armenian suggests some very early connections.
A century ago, Ottoman Turkish nationalists used the First World War as a pretext to exterminate the Armenians, who were accused, as Jews often are, of being a disloyal fifth column. Some of the Turks’ Azerbaijani cousins participated in anti-Armenian pogroms in various places including a region called Mountainous Karabagh. A generation after the events, a Polish Jewish lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, coined the term “genocide” to describe what had been done to the Armenians and what was happening in the Second World War to our own people in Europe.
A Czech Jewish novelist, Franz Werfel, wrote The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a bestseller about the successful armed resistance of Armenian villagers to Turkish deportation orders. The book inspired both our Warsaw Ghetto fighters in 1943 and our Haganah as it prepared to fight the last stand on Carmel if the Nazis broke through to the Land of Israel.
In the wake of World War I, the Western powers courted Turkish friendship in the crusade against Communism. The United States abandoned its policy of advocacy of the destitute, homeless survivors of the Armenian massacres. At the eastern edge of historical Armenia, in the Soviet-ruled Transcaucasus, a little Soviet Armenian survivor state was founded.
It used to be said of Israel that it had more nightmares per square block than any other country. Armenia was somewhat like this: broken people beset by memories of horror, trying to plant trees, build cities, and make a new life. In Israel, we made the desert bloom; the Armenians did the same on their rocky soil, but they had to contend with collectivization, Stalinist purges, the heavy hand of Big Brother to the north, and the attentive ear of the secret police.
When the Soviet Union broke up, extreme nationalist ideologies and religious extremism rushed into minds vacated by seven decades of enforced Communist dogma. Pent up ethnic tensions erupted into war both inside and between many former Soviet republics, including the neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan. The two newly-independent countries went to war over the Armenian-majority enclave of Karabagh in Azerbaijan, whose population had demanded autonomy. Some thirty thousand lives were lost, and the Armenians gained both Karabagh and a wide strategic buffer zone of the surrounding districts. Nearly a million Azerbaijani refugees were forced to flee their homes and farms.
Oil-rich, pro-Western Azerbaijan, which borders Iran, meanwhile became a trading partner and ally of Israel, offering our air force parking space near the Iranian border. The present Iranian regime spews anti-Semitic calumny and vows to destroy Israel: after World War II it would be insane not to take such existential threats seriously. Moreover, there is a large and very old Jewish community in Azerbaijan. We stress here that we do not take issue with the vital national interests of our country and we offer no apology to anyone on earth for defending ourselves.
In the autumn of 2020, Azerbaijan launched a war to retake Karabagh. Russia sold arms to both sides; Turkey massively supported Azerbaijan with men and materiel, including high-tech drones; and Israel, too, sold drones and other materiel to its ally. Russia has a defence pact with Armenia, but since Armenia proper was not invaded, Putin chose to stand aside. In this way, he was perhaps pursuing a longer-term strategy of wooing Turkey away from NATO.
Azerbaijan inflicted a crushing and total defeat on the Armenians: Russia stepped in at the last moment to broker a ceasefire agreement and station some peacekeeping forces of its army in the area. This was not Israel’s war. We have correct relations with Armenia. We should not be taking sides.
Antisemitism is deep-rooted and endemic in Armenia, though no more so than it is in most Christian societies. Several of us, scholars in Armenian studies, have experienced such prejudice first hand and on numerous occasions. Unsurprisingly, the recent war served as a pretext for such attacks on Israel, notably in social media. Azerbaijan took advantage of this to mount a propaganda offensive in the Jewish and Israeli media. Articles ostensibly by various authors from different places seem, interestingly, all to harp on the same two or three points.
These articles mention recent vandalism of the modest Holocaust memorial in the Armenian capital, Erevan. That is true; but it would be hard to name a country, sadly, whose Holocaust memorials have not been vandalized. Not to justify vandalism at all, one still must point out that the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and research center in Israel carefully avoids all mention of the Armenian Genocide in its exhibits, despite the fact that Hitler was inspired by it in making his plans for the Final Solution. The more we know about the history of the Nazi movement, the more important a prototype – the murder of the Armenians – becomes.
The other main point the articles make is that Armenia erects statues and otherwise reveres the memory of Garegin Nzhdeh, a leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, or Dashnaktsutyun, who formed and commanded an Armenian unit in the Nazi army. In America in the 1930s, the Dashnaks organized a youth movement called the Race Worship Society. Although the party had a wide popular base and most Dashnaks did not participate in terrorist acts, its policies were often extremist. Dashnak hit men stabbed to death a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, Archbishop Ghevont Tourian, in his church in New York while he was celebrating Mass on Christmas. His crime? He had voiced support for tiny, newborn Soviet Armenia. Thousands of Armenian Americans were outraged by the murder, many were in uniform fighting Hitler a few years later.
But here’s the thing. An Armenian boy, also a survivor, was among the thousands of horrified worshippers who witnessed the murder in the Holy Cross Church of Armenia in upper Manhattan. His name was Avedis Derounian, and the crime inspired him to vow to fight fascism in his adopted country, America. Using the name John Roy Carlson, he infiltrated a number of extreme right-wing, antisemitic organizations: the America Firsters, the Silver Shirts, the German-American Bund, the supporters of Father Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh. His book, UnderCover, became a bestseller and wakened Americans to the menace of Nazi sedition at home. After the war, Derounian went to the Middle East: his book From Cairo to Damascus exposes the close ties of the corrupt Arab regimes to escaped Nazi war criminals hoping to finish the job by destroying Israel. Derounian, hounded by red-baiting Dashnaks during the McCarthy era (the Dashnaks have since rebranded themselves as “leftist” and “progressive”), lived out his remaining years in quiet obscurity, often spending his days in the B’nai Brith library. The Azeri propagandists prefer to forget Derounian. But should we?
We agree that what Nzhdeh did was criminal. But he is being commemorated in Armenia, not for his record in World War II but for his previous military role in the defense of the nascent first Armenian Republic after the Genocide of 1915.
And it’s easy to twist a story: most of the Armenians who were recruited into the Nazi Wehrmacht were Red Army prisoners of war who would have been killed in concentration camps, had they not joined his unit. For most of them it was the only way to avoid certain death; and many used it to escape back to the Soviet lines. These desertions made Hitler so mistrustful of the Armenian division of the Wehrmacht that he had it assigned the dangerous and important task… of guarding vineyards in the south of France. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Soviet Armenians gave their lives in the fight against Hitler, rolling into battle in tanks with the name of the medieval Armenian epic hero David of Sasun painted on their sides. Many fought under Marshal Baghramian, commander of the Byelorussian front.
And back in France, north of those vineyards, a poet, factory worker, and survivor of the Armenian Genocide named Missak Manouchian was tasked by the Communist party with forming a unit to carry out especially dangerous missions for the Resistance. His comrades were Polish Jews and Spanish Civil War refugees. Manouchian and his fellow fighters for freedom were captured by the Gestapo, tortured, and killed. For years, Manouchian and his men were not thought “French” enough to be recognized by the country they died for. Now the propagandists of Azerbaijan, in painting the Armenians as Nazis, desecrate their memory anew.
It is easy to use a fact to tell a lie, as the Azerbaijan apologists do. We prefer to provide the truthful context to those facts and to record the other facts that they omit. That is the difference between scholarship and propaganda, between truth and lies.
Azerbaijan is presented in this propaganda campaign as the best friend of the Jewish people. Again, that is not the true picture. We will adduce but one instance in which an Azeri community acted with deliberate and gratuitous hostility towards a defenceless Jew. Lev Nussimbaum grew up in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, and moved after the Russian Revolution to Berlin. He converted to Islam, took the name Kurban Said, and published a romantic novel, Ali and Nino. The hero is a Muslim boy; and the villain of the book is a rich Armenian with a big, black, long, powerful… car. During the years of the Nazi regime, the local Azerbaijani community in Germany kept fingering poor Mr. Said to the Gestapo as a Jew. He escaped to Italy and survived there, miraculously, in hiding. You will not find this unedifying incident in the panegyrics to Azerbaijani philo-Semitism.
We cannot address all the misinformation streaming out of Baku. But we would like to declare here that we, precisely as Jews and Israelis, support the right of the Armenian people to live as a free nation in their homeland. We respect their ancient, honourable, unique culture. We condemn the hateful slander directed against them. We also condemn all expressions of antisemitism, regardless of their pretext. We oppose aggression against the Armenians and believe our country should have no part of it. We will stand by their side.
The first casualty of war is truth. We know this; and we know, too, the old Hasidic saying that the truth is ubiquitous because wherever it tries to live, people run it out of town. And we can add to the dossier this Armenian proverb: If you tell the truth, keep one foot in the stirrup. (That is, so you can make a fast getaway.)
There have been many wars, and they keep on happening because the truth is a casualty in all of them. But the truth, rather like us, the People of the Book, can’t be killed. It keeps coming back. The dictators Putin and Erdogan can do what they please in their unhappy countries, sacrificing the innocents to play their dirty games, but not here. We will not let Azerbaijan’s propaganda factory, however, much oil money it pays its agents, runs the truth out of Israel. And we have both feet out of the stirrups and planted firmly on this ground: we will continue to bear witness to the truth and we are not going anywhere, either.
James Russell, Mashtots Professor emeritus of Armenian Studies, Harvard University
Michael Stone, Professor Emeritus of Armenian Studies and of Comparative Religion, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Yoav Loeff, Instructor in Armenian Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Oded Steinberg, Lecturer in International Relations and European Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Reuven Amitai, Professor of Middle Eastern History, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem