The Path to Armenian Genocide Recognition: A Lesson for Palestine Activists?

The century-old struggle by the Armenian American community for US recognition that the large-scale massacres and deportations of their people in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 constituted a genocide was finally achieved on April 24 with US President Joe Biden’s presidential statement on Armenian Remembrance Day. The question arises as to what ramifications this struggle and ultimate victory has for other groups that have been victims, such as the Palestinians, of expulsion and dispossession. For the Palestinians and the larger Arab American community, the Nakba, or catastrophe, that started in 1948 similarly deserves recognition by US authorities in Congress and the White House as a grave injustice. Could this effort parallel that of the Armenian American community and eventually lead to US recognition of the Palestinians’ tremendous dislocation?

The Long Road to Genocide Recognition

The Armenian Genocide that resulted in a million and a half deaths at the hands of the Young Turk regime of the Ottoman Empire during World War I was initially well known to the American public, as American missionaries and diplomats in the region reported on the atrocities to their contacts in the United States, who in turn publicized them in the press. Congress and President Woodrow Wilson strongly supported humanitarian efforts that eventually became the Near East Relief charity that provided aid to the stricken refugees. At the time, American children were admonished by their parents to “think of the starving Armenians” and not waste food on their plates.

Wilson and officials in his administration were sympathetic to the plight of the Armenian people, calling what transpired a policy of “race extermination” (the term genocide had not been coined yet) and even supporting the idea of a US mandate for Armenia in the immediate aftermath of World War I. However, growing isolationist sentiment in Congress soon dashed any hope for political support for the Armenians. A few years later, the genocide was conveniently forgotten. The new Republic of Turkey, eager to whitewash what its predecessor regime had perpetrated, pushed the narrative that while some Armenians were killed in what it claimed was a “civil war,” and that deportations were a “necessary wartime measure,” there had been no systematic plan to exterminate them. Many prominent Americans, wanting to do business in Turkey, also adopted this narrative, while the US government simply dropped the issue altogether as if the genocide had never happened.

For the survivors of the Armenian Genocide who came to the United States in the early 1920s as penniless refugees, their main concern—once it became apparent they could not return to their former homes—was how to reconstruct their shattered lives and build a community in their adopted country. For the most part these early immigrants were poor, insular, and lived in urban ghettos in northeastern and midwestern US cities or on farms in and near Fresno, California.

The false narratives pushed by the new Republic of Turkey, coupled with Americans business interests and Turkey joining NATO, prevented any potential for recognition

There was some attempt at political activism in the immediate aftermath of World War II, with leaders of the community lobbying the newly formed United Nations for recognition of their genocide and the need for an independent Armenian state, but to no avail. The advent of the Cold War a few years later quashed any hope that the US government would be sympathetic to their cause, as Turkey became a member of NATO and Washington did not want to anger Ankara by acknowledging what had happened to the Armenians in 1915. This position remained US policy throughout the Cold War and beyond.

The Years of Sustained Activism

The early 1970s witnessed a political awakening by the Armenian American community, one that was the result of several factors. First, the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and the concurrent pride in one’s ethnicity led American-born Armenians, who had risen up the socioeconomic ladder in only one generation, to believe the time had come to bring justice to the issue and honor the suffering of their parents, many of whom were now passing from the scene. Second, the controversy over the Vietnam War led the third generation, most of whom were high school and university students at the time, to question the tenets of US foreign policy. Third, learning in school about the sufferings of other peoples while there was little or no mention of what happened to their own people, in history books or in current US government circles, spurred Armenian Americans to activism and advocacy. Underlying this activism was the strong bond between this generation and their grandparents, many of whom opened up to them about the atrocities they had experienced in ways they could not do so with their own children.

A concerted effort was made by Armenian American activists to lobby Congress and the executive branch to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide

Hence, from that period onward, a concerted effort was made by community organizations and youth activists to lobby Congress and the executive branch to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide. These activists also vowed to become more involved in American politics in general. Members of Congress with large Armenian constituencies, or who saw the Armenian cause as a human rights issue, were the first to speak up. The community also reached out to other members to educate them on the issue while Armenian American academics devoted more attention to documenting and writing books and articles on the genocide.

But as Armenian American activism increased, so too did Turkey’s denialism. Ankara funded chairs in Turkish studies at major US universities and tried to make sure that those in charge of these endowed chairs were in the denialist camp. Turkey also hired high-priced lobbyists in Washington to block congressional attempts at genocide recognition. Turkish representatives also gave US Defense and State Department officials an earful whenever they would visit Turkey regarding the need to stop recognition efforts from going forward, threatening to close down US bases and end strategic ties if they did not toe the line. Turkey also enlisted pro-Israel groups like AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) to carry its water in Congress, as many AIPAC members believed it was important to be supportive of close Turkish-Israeli relations. All of these efforts succeeded for many years to keep the recognition issue in abeyance.

Changing Political Landscape and Outreach Efforts

Several of these factors changed over the past decade and a half, however. First, Armenian Americans essentially won the academic debate that what happened to their people was indeed a genocide, as Middle East scholars and genocide specialists came to support this view. Interestingly, during this period, even some courageous Turkish scholars, challenging their own regime’s narrative, came to the same conclusion.

Second, Armenian Americans pursued an effective outreach to American Jewish organizations, even shaming some of them for not recognizing that the Armenian people had suffered a fate similar to European Jews in World War II. One of the most remarkable episodes occurred in Massachusetts (home of the first Armenian American community) in 2007, when activists protested the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) campaign of “No Place for Hate.” Armenian Americans charged that because the ADL actively denied the Armenian Genocide, it had no moral claim to say it was supporting tolerance and human rights. This activism caused turmoil within the Jewish community of Massachusetts, with many individuals who had become friends with Armenian Americans over the years criticizing the ADL’s denialist position led by Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director at the time. Even the New England regional director of the ADL resigned in protest over Foxman’s intransigence, and many town councils in Massachusetts broke ties with the ADL. Eventually, the national ADL came around and supported Armenian Genocide recognition. Another major group, the American Jewish Committee, also changed its position after many meetings with Armenian American leaders. David Harris, the CEO of this committee, recently even “encouraged Israel to consider the American step”—that is, Biden’s recognition.

A combination of factors, including changes in the attitudes of American Jewish organizations and US departments of State and Defense toward Turkey and Erdoğan, laid the ground for the recognition 

Helping this endeavor was the decline in Israeli-Turkish relations over the past decade, with American Jewish organizations increasingly seeing Turkey under the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as an opponent for his outspoken criticism of Israel. In addition, in more recent years the US Defense Department, usually the most pro-Turkish of Washington bureaucracies, came to see Ankara as an unreliable ally for allowing Islamist extremists to cross its borders to join the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq as well as for its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system. Leaders in the Pentagon also criticized Turkey’s atrocities perpetrated against the Syrian Kurds after President Donald Trump gave the green light to Erdoğan to send Turkish troops and pro-Turkish Syrian militia forces into northeastern Syria in October 2019. The US military had partnered with these Syrian Kurds in the fight against IS and saw them as brave fighters who had suffered thousands of casualties.

Thus, when Congress took up the Armenian Genocide resolution again in late 2019, it

passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives and by unanimous consent in the Senate. By this point, most American Jewish groups had taken either a supportive or a neutral stand on the issue, and there was only a half-hearted attempt by the Departments of State and Defense to oppose it—unlike in previous years when these bureaucracies had lobbied vigorously against similar resolutions.

The biggest factor of all that led to the US recognition announcement was having President Biden in the White House, who was a longtime ally

The biggest factor of all was having a president in the White House who was a longtime ally.  Throughout his Senate career, Biden had been a supporter of Armenian Genocide recognition, and he attended the 100th anniversary commemorative event in 2015 at the Washington Cathedral when he was vice president under President Barack Obama. Although Obama reneged on his promise to recognize the genocide, many members of his administration reportedly believed that avoidance of the “G” word was a mistake. Hence, to the joy of the community, Biden kept his 2020 campaign promise and recognized the Armenian Genocide on April 24, 2021.

Lessons for the Palestinian Community

Many Palestinians including Palestinian Americans want US recognition of their suffering, displacement, and dispossession, an act they believe would lead to a genuine and even-handed US approach for a just Israeli-Palestinian settlement. In some respects, they face obstacles similar to those faced by Armenians, and perhaps even more so because the US-Israeli relationship is stronger than US-Turkish ties. Nonetheless, there are some lessons from the Armenian example that can be applied to their situation.

Palestinian Americans face obstacles similar to those faced by Armenians, and even more so because the strong US-Israeli relationship

First, while early Arab immigrants to the United States (mostly from Lebanon and Syria) shared similar experiences with early Armenian immigrants, including initially being of humble backgrounds and living in insular communities, Palestinians who immigrated to America from the 1950s onward have tended to be university students who excelled in the professions. When one combines this group with the broader Arab American community, which has climbed the socioeconomic ladder in just a couple of generations, it is clear that Arab Americans now enjoy a status similar to that of Armenian Americans. With this increased status has come a greater awareness of the importance of participating in the US political system, as witnessed by the increasing number of Arab Americans in elected office today. This all portends a more effective lobbying effort in the coming years.

Arguably, however, the Palestinian cause in the United States has faced more obstacles because the US-Israel relationship is supported by many millions of Americans, including most evangelical Christians, beyond the majority of the traditionally supportive American Jewish community. In addition, the idea that the Israelis were the underdog in the conflict has been a pervasive narrative in the United States since 1948, thus garnering more support for Israel. US policy, although not always in agreement with Israel (witness the Suez War of 1956), has generally taken Israel’s side in the conflict. Moreover, US assistance to Israel, especially since the late 1970s, has dwarfed whatever US aid has been rendered to the Palestinians. Like Turkey, Israel has also been perceived in policy circles as a strategic asset.

Solid bipartisan support for Israel is changing as Democrats especially in the progressive wing are more critical of Israeli policies and more sympathetic to the Palestinians than ever before

Nevertheless, views of the Israeli-Palestinian situation in the United States have been changing in recent years. Solid, bipartisan support for Israel is now on shakier ground because Democrats, especially those in the progressive wing of the party who extend their justice and human rights approach to the Palestinians, tend to be more critical of Israeli policies and more sympathetic to the Palestinians than ever before. (In a similar way, the American view of Turkey has been changing as Erdoğan has become increasingly authoritarian.) It is the Republicans—partly because of the support they have received from evangelicals—who are now uncritically supportive of Israel because they have essentially adopted the positions of the Likud Party in Israel.

But as American politics toward the Israeli/Palestinian situation has changed, so too has the American Jewish community. In recent decades, more progressive Jewish organizations have emerged which have challenged the older, more established groups. For example, J Street, which is opposed to settlement building in the occupied West Bank and has advocated for a two-state solution, has become an alternative lobby to AIPAC. In the political spectrum, progressive and growing organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now are moving the needle leftward. In addition, younger American Jews have become much more critical of Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians than their parents’ generation, and many no longer accept the old narrative of how Israel came into being as the underdog. This has been reinforced by a group called the “New Historians” in Israel and beyond, like Ilan Pappé and Avi Shlaim, who have been reexamining the facts of the 1948 period. This academic trend is similar to the efforts of some Turkish intellectuals who are taking a more honest approach to their country’s history.

Because of these trends, it would make sense for the Palestinian American and the broader Arab American communities to redouble their outreach to American Jewish organizations, especially in their efforts to lobby for Nakba recognition with their support. They will likely find that progressive elements in some of these groups are increasingly sympathetic to their cause, as Armenian-Americans learned. Of course, there will be pushback from organizations like AIPAC that are allied with the right wing in Israel but, significantly, more and more younger American Jews are challenging the positions of the establishment organizations.

Finally, it is possible that, one day, there will be an Arab American elected as US president, or at least a politician who has been an ally of the Arab American community and who is not afraid to speak openly and honestly about what really happened to the Palestinians in 1948. That day may be closer to today than the centennial year of the Nakba in 2048.

Gregory Aftandilian is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Gregory and read his publications click here