I listened today to an NPR interview with Peter Balakian, an Armenian-American poet and historian of the Armenian genocide. Friday will be the centennial commemoration of the Armenian genocide. Coincidentally, yesterday was Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day and today is Israel Independence Day, aka Nakba to Palestinians. The nexus of all these events in this single week deserves acknowledgement.
One particular statement in Balakian’s interview struck me. Robert Siegel, the interviewer, noted that the genocide, which transpired between 1915-16, didn’t spring ex nihilo. Rather, it followed a period of extreme violence against Armenian Turks which began in the 1890s. In the last few decades of the Ottoman Empire, an Armenian intelligentsia began to lobby for reform. It was met with a counter-attack and violence from traditionalists and the Old Order.
Balakian notes this preliminary period is part of a “continuum of destruction,” which allowed the Ottomans to dehumanize the Armenians. It’s only after a long period of such dehumanization that a society can be prepared for a full-scale genocide. This is what happened in Turkey as the Ottomans were in their last throes.
This term, continuum of destruction, comes from Ervin Staub, who wrote The Psychology of Good and Evil: Why Children, Adults and Groups Help and Harm Each Other. He coined it in describing the genocides against the Jews, Armenians, Cambodians and, to an extent the Argentinians. Here is what he wrote:
…Groups of people impacted by difficult life conditions…scapegoat some group…[as] enemies…As they turn against the scapegoats and ideological enemies, an evolution begins. As individuals and groups harm others, they change. Learning by doing occurs. Discrimination and violence becomes easier and more likely. A society can move, with “steps along a continuum of destruction,” toward genocide.
Certain characteristics of the culture make all this more likely. These include a history of devaluation of a group…very strong respect for authority, lack of pluralism, a past history of the use of violence to resolve conflict…I have come to realize the importance of unhealed wounds in a group, due to past violence against them, as a cultural characteristic that can make genocide more likely.
Bystanders, tragically, are often passive, which has crucial impact. Passivity by internal bystanders–members of a perpetrator group who themselves are not perpetrators–and by external bystanders–outside individuals, groups and nations–encourages perpetrators. As perpetrators move along the continuum of destruction, they frequently develop intense commitment to their ideology and to the destruction of their victims. Only actions by bystanders can halt their further evolution toward genocide. But frequently they are not only passive but, by continuing with business as usual in their relationship t perpetrators…they encourage genocide.
Those of you who read this blog regularly likely can tell where I’m headed. But before I get there, I want to make one thing clear: Israel’s sins or crimes against the Palestinians are not genocide. There is a difference between a crime, even a war crime, and genocide.
But I do think it’s possible to see the period from 1948 till today as similar to that period between the 1890s and 1915 in Turkish history. Genocide, as I said, doesn’t spring from nothing. It takes root slowly in a nation’s soil. It is fed by hatred and blood. If it is not tamed then it eventually blossoms into that terrible creature called genocide.
But returning to Staub, clearly the Holocaust is an “unhealed wound” involving past violence against the Jewish people which can make the possibility of genocide more likely. Anyone who reads this blog regularly can see that Israel devalues Palestinians as a group, that it harbors strong respect for authority, lacks pluralism and has a past history of violence used to resolve conflicts. This is almost a note-perfect recitation of the ills of modern-day Israel.
I’ve called the 1948 Nakba, Israel’s Original Sin. It’s perhaps the first step on the Israeli continuum of destruction. The refusal to recognize this injustice; the refusal to grapple with its meaning–indeed Israel’s severe case of historical amnesia regarding the devastation wrought against Israel’s indigenous Palestinian community–this is the first step in the continuum of destruction.
The ongoing series of wars and 50 years of Occupation are further steps on this road. The 30,000 Palestinian dead since 1948 have anesthetized Israeli Jews to any pain or even feeling regarding the suffering Israel has inflicted. As Balakian noted in the NPR interview: it is only by dehumanizing the victim that the ultimate crime may be committed.
But there are reasons why Turkey of 1915 is not Israel-Palestine of 2015. At the time of the Armenian genocide, the world was fighting a massive World War. Attention was diverted. There were no international bodies which could intervene. Even the word genocide would not be invented for another 25 years. The Ottomans got away with murder because they acted in a vacuum. No one championed the Armenian cause. No one intervened on their behalf. As Staub wrote, the bystanders remained largely passive and the perpetrators succeeded in their evil plot.
Today, there is a United Nations. There are international bodies whose mission is both to prevent genocide and the suffering that precedes it. There is international media today. Communication is instantaneous. When Israel murders Palestinians no one can hide this as the Turks did their slaughter.
But in some ways Israel is in an even stronger position to harm Palestinians than the Turks were to commit genocide. Israel has weapons of mass destruction that can kill on a massive scale. It has allies who encourage its reckless behavior, whereas Turkey had none. These allies too are passive bystanders as Staub noted. They do little or nothing and continue with “business as usual” (again to use Staub’s term).
In the past few decades there have been several genocides to rival the Armenian and Jewish Holocausts. In Rwanda and Cambodia, the world stood by and did almost nothing. International bodies whose mission was to prevent the killing fields failed miserably. So why would they do better in the event of a Palestinian genocide?
My quarrel with the world regarding genocide is that it’s much better at judging it in hindsight than it is at preventing it. We had the Nuremberg trials and Hague tribunals after the fact. We held perpetrators accountable after their work was complete. But why didn’t we see genocide coming and stop it before it happened?
As I wrote above, there is no genocide in Palestine. There is suffering, there is state sponsored violence. There is state-sanctioned theft of land and property. We are in the period of the 1890s, the preliminary phase before the final onslaught. It’s very possible that Israel will not proceed to the stage of outright genocide because of the reasons I raised above.
But I fear that preventing outright genocide is not enough. Israel may still resort to an act that borders on, but doesn’t attain the enormity of genocide. It could, for example, repeat the Nakba. It could define a million of so Palestinians as untermenschen. But instead of eliminating them physically through murder, it could eliminate them physically through expulsion.
Many may argue this is highly unlikely. The world, we will hear, would not allow it. The era of such expulsions is has passed. But has it? There have been similar mass expulsions of ethnic groups in Africa. In Burma, the Buddhists are in a preliminary stage that could lead to either expulsion or genocide against the Royhinga. The Sinhalese killed hundreds of thousands of Tamils in the Sri Lankan civil war.
What would stop Israel if it was determined to expel Palestinians? What is to say that the United Nations, EU or United States, so ineffectual in stopping Israeli killing until now, would muster the fortitude to stand up to Israeli obduracy? I say it is possible. I say do something now before it’s too late.
As an aside, I’m bemused by the back-flips Israel and the Lobby have done over the decades about the issue of Armenian genocide. As long as Israel was allied with Turkey, it was a genocide denier. The ADL even made a point of firing its New England regional director for expressing too much sympathy for the Armenians.
The goodies offered Israel from its alliance with Turkey (being able to boast of a Muslim ally, military cooperation, trade, etc.) were too good to pass up. Morality would take a backseat to utilitarian matters.
But after the Mavi Marmara incident and the souring of relations between Turkey and Israel, the latter “got religion.” Now the Lobby can’t shout loud enough about the Armenian genocide. Isn’t it nice when morality can be so “flexible?”
But what happens if the sun comes to shine once again on Israel-Turkey relations? Then the genocide will have to go back into the closet for the sake of Israel’s national interest. But the truth is that the Armenian tragedy was a genocide before Israel acknowledged it and has never been anything but genocide.
Morality is an absolute. It must never fall prey to national interests, especially when defined as narrowly as Israel does.