Biden’s Recognition of the Armenian Genocide

Armenian American community members gathered to celebrate the  U.S.' recognition of the Armenian Genocide
Armenian American community members gathered to celebrate the  U.S.' recognition of the Armenian Genocide

Armenian American community members gathered to celebrate the U.S.’ recognition of the Armenian Genocide

BY SERGIO LA PORTA

In 2019 both Houses of Congress, in a rare show of bi-partisanship, overwhelmingly passed resolutions regarding the observance of and education about the Armenian Genocide. While still overdue, it seems that the executive branch will follow their lead, as President Biden intends to recognize the Armenian Genocide on Saturday. This announcement will be an important step forward for the Armenian community and for the United States. Not only would the President’s recognition allow for the proper education of Americans about the Genocide and America’s role in helping the survivors, it would also set our foreign policy goals on a more solid footing.

The facts of the Genocide are well known. The governing Committee of Union and Progress Party of the Ottoman Empire ordered the elimination of its Armenian population. Beginning in April of 1915, under the leadership of Talaat Pasha, the minister of Interior Affairs, the government oversaw the murder of one and half million Armenians, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands more. Motivated by a racist, nationalist ideology, the Committee sought to ethnically cleanse Turkey not only of Armenians, but also of Greeks and Assyrians. The method of killing was systematic and swift. Between April and August of 1915, military and militia groups killed eight hundred thousand Armenians, a rate of two hundred thousand people a month. A rate unfortunately to be later repeated during the genocide in Rwanda.

The majority of Armenians was marched on foot through the desert to concentrate camps like Deir el-Zor, but the regime also took advantage of modern technology, such as the telegraph and newly constructed railway lines, to relay orders and to transport Armenians. Through the promulgation of a series of laws, the government then appropriated the property and wealth of the deportees and liquidated that as well. All these facts have been recognized and accepted as constituting genocide by the International Association of Genocide Scholars, the European Parliament, and the Council of Europe, among many other governmental and non-governmental organizations and academics, including many brave Turkish scholars.

The very word genocide was coined by Polish Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin based on his study of the crimes against the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and his own family’s terrible experience during the Holocaust.

Recognition of the Armenian Genocide is not only a matter of importance to Armenians. The Genocide also played a pivotal role in American history. Our consular staff and ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau Sr., were outraged by the massacres of Armenians and provided critical documentation of the atrocities. Ambassador Morgenthau helped ensure that the United States was at the forefront of efforts to save Armenian survivors, launching the largest relief campaign in history. This campaign involved politicians, celebrities, and activists at an unprecedented level, and gave birth to the modern conception of an internationalized relief effort.

Due to political pressure, this history of our country goes unlearned by students in America. This is also an American story because many of the survivors of the Genocide arrived here in this country to build a new life. Despite the trauma of losing their families and surviving the years of uncertainty as deportees, Armenians successfully rooted themselves in the United States and have thrived. Yet, their story has been repeatedly silenced in schools and in the media. And recently, anti-Armenian activities have occurred in this country. On July 24, 2020, the Krouzian-Zekarian-Vasbouragan Armenian school in San Francisco was vandalized with racist and violent anti-Armenian graffiti. On September 17, 2020, the offices of St. Gregory the Illuminator’s Church and of the Genocide Education Project in San Francisco were destroyed by arson. There is no place for this hatred in our country.

At this moment of global insecurity and change, which resembles too much that of a century ago, it is particularly crucial that we all combat the rhetoric of ethnic hatred and policies of discrimination to help prevent the repetition of the atrocities of the past. There can be no path forward towards future peace and reconciliation without an honest recognition of history. The words of the president of the United States can begin to lay the difficult, but necessary groundwork upon which mutual respect and understanding can be built. They’ll also reassert America’s leadership in the world by showing our willingness to speak the truth to our allies and adversaries, even when it may be inconvenient. Despite the long delay for the Armenian Genocide to be officially recognized by the president of the United States, a declaration on Saturday would inaugurate a new era of global diplomacy and foreign policy.

Dr. Sergio La Porta is the Haig and Isabel Berberian Professor of Armenian Studies and Interim Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at California State University, Fresno.

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