Jewish, Israeli scholars defend Armenians amid Azeri propaganda attacks

Jewish, Israeli scholars defend Armenians amid Azeri propaganda attacks

PanARMENIAN.Net - Jewish and Israeli scholars in the field of Near and Middle Eastern studies have published an open letter in defense of the honor and good name of the Armenian people, amid a campaign in the Israeli and Jewish press, reportedly funded by the government of Azerbaijan, to slander and defame the Armenians.

The letter reads, in part:

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 a 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 the arts and letters.

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.

In the wake of World War I, 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.

In the autumn of 2020, Azerbaijan launched a war to retake Karabagh [and] ... 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.

The other main point articles [commissioned by Azerbaijan] 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. 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 home land. We respect their ancient, honorable, 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.)"

The letter was signed by James Russell (Harvard University), Michael Stone, Yoav Loeff, Oded Steinberg and Reuven Amitai (all four from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

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