Israel Charny on Israel's Failed Armenian Genocide Response

Israel Charny Looks Back on the Momentous Conference That Almost Wasn’t

The Armenian Mirror-Spectator

APRIL 20, 2021

by Alin K. Gregorian

JERUSALEM — Prof. Israel Charny, a longtime champion of recognition of the Armenian Genocide, is looking back at the uphill battle he has waged in his country for the recognition of that genocide, the cost to him personally and professionally, and why he keeps on doing what he does.

In a recent interview from his home, Charny, 90, spoke with enthusiasm about his new book, titled Israel’s Failed Response to the Armenian Genocide: Denial, State Deception, Truth Versus Politicization of History and his reasons for writing it.

The book details the efforts by the Israeli government to thwart the first International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide, organized by Charny, in 1982. The conference was notable for including for the first-time scholars presenting papers on the Armenian Genocide in a conference on the Holocaust.

In the end, the conference went on, but not without a bruising fight from Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Remembrance Center, and Elie Wiesel, noted Holocaust survivor and human rights advocate, acting at the behest of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs led by Shimon Peres.

The book presents the chain of events through cables to and from the Foreign Ministry, which tried to disrupt the conference.

Charny recalled that the impetus for the book came from one of his graduate students who had been participating in his monthly seminars and had successfully dug up once-classified government communications regarding the event.

The student, he said with a smile, “made a youthful discovery. I never even thought of looking for it. She dug up the cables in the archives of the Israel Foreign Ministry from that period of the conference which had been locked up as secret. It’s fun to look at them and see ‘secret,’ ‘top secret,’ ‘classified.’”

She sent him the “hundreds of pages” and he “lay in bed a few nights reading these cables and oohing and ahing and discovering all sorts of angles I had not known from their point of view, the inside of their efforts to close the conference and then I hit on the smoking gun.

The smoking gun was a cable from the chief consul of Israel in Turkey to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem about two days before the conference was scheduled to open. He [the consul] wrote, ‘Nice going on all of your tactics to close the conference down. Maybe it will even bust out completely still. But there is one thing I don’t understand. I am the chief consul here in Turkey and you’ve been claiming all along that Turkey has threatened to close off the escape route of Jews escaping Syria and Iran through Turkey, which would mean their death if the route was closed down but I don’t know anything about it. I haven’t picked up a single signal here in Turkey for any such threat,’ he said.”

Seeing the exchange of all the cables between the officials in Turkey and Israel, as well as with Yad Vashem, Wiesel and others, lit a fire in Charny. “They had really gone all the way, including making up the threats to justify their behavior. And then I couldn’t do anything but pick up a pencil and start writing,” he said.

But what would cause that?

Again and again, he spoke about the duality of the issues which cause him great pain: his love for the state of Israel and his paramount wish for its safety and existence, while recognizing the immoral stance it had chosen to take regarding the Armenian Genocide.

That same duality — or ambivalence — applies to his interaction with Wiesel, of whom he remained very fond, despite seeing a side of him which deeply disappointed him.

As for the former’s actions, he explained, “I have to answer rationally about rotten, irrational behavior. Israel’s horrible policy for years has been to court favor with Turkey and maintain a relationship with her. We understand the practical reasons for it but I and many people strenuously object to the immorality of it when it comes to issues like the simple basic truth of recognizing the Armenian Genocide.”

But, he realized, that was not the only reason. “Turns out there is a further inside reason. When you study the correspondence of the period,” for many Jews and Israelis, the official position of Yad Vashem is, “there really has never been anything that really qualifies as genocide to the extent of the Holocaust and any attempt to refer to other genocides in a major kind of way is an insult that degrades, belittles, reduces, the significance of the Holocaust. This irrational position is what I think lies at the heart of the matter in addition to the realpolitik position,” he added.

From Psychology to Genocide

Unlike many scholars involved in genocide studies, Charny is a clinical psychologist and not a historian. That academic background brings a different interpretation to history.

Charny received his PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Rochester in 1957. He established and directed the first group psychological practice in the Philadelphia area (1958–1973), where he was also the first Professor of Psychology at the newly founded Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia.

He, along with