Israel Charny Looks Back on the Momentous Conference That Almost Wasn’t
The Armenian Mirror-Spectator
APRIL 20, 2021
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 has written several books on genocide, including the Encyclopedia of Genocide, Genocide: A Critical Bibliographic Review, and Fascism and Democracy in the Human Mind, each of which were elected “Outstanding Academic Book of the Year” by the American Library Association.
He is a clinical psychologist and practicing psychotherapist, was Professor of Psychology and Family Therapy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he was the founder of first director of the Program for Advanced Studies in Integrative Psychotherapy. In addition, he was the founding and first president of the Israel Association of Family Therapy and later a president of the International Family Therapy Association.
He turned to genocide studies after a particularly awful dream soon after attaining his board certification. “I passed and was very happy about that. I went to sleep and had a dream. I woke up from the dream and I had seen the Nazis killing Jewish children in my dream and I woke up thinking how can human beings do things like that? That was the day I realized I would be studying those questions the rest of my life.”
When asked what would drive various governments and populations around the world, in societies with no religious or ethnic commonality, to single out a minority for extermination with clinical precision, he replied, “I believe we human beings are universally sick with the need for too much power over others. I think the need for power in itself is a perfectly normal and healthy things. When that power extends to becoming superior to others and exploiting others, it leads to much of the ugliness in this world, including genocide.
What is happening in the denials of the Armenian Genocide by Israel and Israel’s general failure to be a real leader in empathy and caring about all peoples who suffered genocide is that Israel is acting out the very kind of striving for power that led to the disaster that befell us. It’s a tough answer, isn’t it?”
He further added, “I have come to believe that every one of us human beings is endowed from birth with two sets of instinctive machinery. One is to care about life, our own and others, and one is to destroy, including our own lives. Look at how many bad things people do to themselves. I believe that every group, that includes nations, has to do what every human being has to do, namely, to work out a philosophy and methodology of combining these two instincts where the instinct for living is given the winning position and the instinct for destroying is translated to the ability to use power constructively when necessary.”
As examples, he cited surgeons, who need to be aggressive enough to slice through a living body, but clearly for the purpose of healing, or engineers building dams who blow up rocks and structures, for the noble purpose of making better the lives of citizens.
“Societies that commit genocide are one after the other, examples of collectives that have failed the challenge in the task to become decent societies, where caring for life is stronger than the urge to destroy. America is going through a variation of it struggle these days. January 6 is a very clear example of the rottenness that awaits us,” he noted.
Elie Wiesel Dilemma
Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel holds a special place in the hearts of many Holocaust survivors. The Romanian-born Wiesel, who died in 2016, survived horrors beyond imagining in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Therefore seeing Wiesel as a disruptor of a conference dedicated to the Holocaust and other genocides, is jarring. The actions of Wiesel truly hurt Charny. He repeated frequently during the interview, however, his heartfelt respect for what Wiesel had experienced and how that must have shaped him as a child.
“When I think of Elie Wiesel, for me and many people it is a classic photograph of this little boy in one of those rotten, wooden beds in the concentration camps and I think of this man who survived that, something I don’t think I could have survived for one hour. I understand his drive, in subsequent years, to do everything possible to support the development of the state of Israel as the new and absolutely necessary refuge for the Jewish people,” Charny said.
“That, then, combined with the personal aspect of Wiesel, which is a real weakness of character, like we all have, was boy, did he like being favored by the leaders of Israel! There was an egotistical little boy inside him that was delighted that the prime minister and foreign minister feted him. When they gave him a direct order to close the conference down in the name of the state of Israel, which he loved and honored and cared about, he had no choice, even though you and I believe that with greater maturity, he should … not have done something that was so horrible, in terms of its impact on another people,” Charny said.
Instead of judging Wiesel, he chose to try to understand him. “It’s a real human story and I do believe that his basic legacy as the most prominent Holocaust survivor who periodically issued really caring statements about other people will last. A lot of Holocaust survivors couldn’t see [the suffering of other people] in this world and I understand them,” Charny noted.
In one communication with Charny, Wiesel had written, “Don’t you dare use the word genocide in the plural, because that would mean there were more genocides than the Holocaust,” Charny recalled.
Charny’s father was from Russia and had arrived in New York in the 1920s. “During World War II, I remember the day my father received the information that his entire family in Russia had been taken out to Babi Yar [Ukraine] and had been murdered there by the Nazis. I will never forget, the overwhelming experience from my strong daddy on learning that,” Charny said.
Holocaust v. Genocide
The government of Israel still has not recognized the Armenian Genocide, nor has it recognized others that have tragically happened in the 20th and 21st century, including those of the Yazidis.
“In my judgment the majority of the people of Israel are very caring people. I believe the majority of the people in Israel very much recognize the Armenian Genocide and at the same time a very strong majority of people in Israel believe that there was never anything that could compare with the Holocaust. Not all of them make the mistake of … not recognizing the genocide.”
He then spoke about a much more recent genocide, that of the Yazidi people in Iraq. “It is a minority that has been seriously genocidally persecuted by ISIS,” he said. “A member of the Knesset introduced a resolution for Israel to recognize the genocide of the Yazidis and express our empathy and her proposal was voted down. There’s another example of the inability as yet of the decisive mass of the Israelis and the political system to extend itself beyond the ancient ‘We suffered the most, nobody’s suffering can compare with ours.’”
He also suggested that for some survivors of a genocide, it is hard to believe others suffered as they did.
“I will always remember vividly a survivor of the Armenian Genocide who came over to me after I had spoken and he said to me with the full felling of a human being who had suffered terribly, ‘Professor, isn’t it true that what happened to us never happened to anyone else and was the worst event in the world?’ You know what I did? I put my arm on his arm and I said the Armenian genocide was terrible. I didn’t argue. I would never argue with a survivor. Their experience is totally understandable.”
Charny still works, offering both family and individual therapy.
When asked if delving into the very darkest aspects of humanity is not overwhelming, he said he is able to rise above it through his family.
“I live my life going to the gym every morning, loving my wife very much, loving my children very much, having fun, making jokes, when I am not studying the rottenness of us human being,” he noted.
He said he was delighted with the response to the book so far. “Pre-publication response is just growing very strongly. There have been hundreds of orders for the book before it was published based on the information about it,” he said.
About three years ago, a committee in the Knesset voted to recognize the Armenian Genocide. “I had the pleasure of being one of the witnesses. There were only two objections to the recognition during the witness part of the process. One was from a very weak representative of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the other was from a Jewish Azeri person with strong commercial ties to Azerbaijan but our position prevailed overwhelmingly in that committee. The vote was for recognition.”
Again, the government intervened and the bill never reached the full Knesset. “If it had reached the deliberation stage, it would have passed. The majority would have passed,” Charny said.
Will Israel ever change course regarding the recognizing of the Armenian Genocide? “Would Israel ever get liberated enough to overcome the government policy about Turkey and Azerbaijan and you know what I wish and what I am working for and what this book stands for but I can’t give you a final prediction in the world of corruption of policies.”
Charny stressed his sadness about the Karabakh war of 2020. “I am in grief along with the Armenian people at the loss in Nagorno Karabakh. I’ve seen what 5000 deaths feel collectively after a war. The sadness, the pain, goes on for years and years and years. Five thousand in a small population. My god!”
And, he added, “I feel a deep, deep shame and anger in Israel’s participation in that war, as the major supplier of arms to Azerbaijan. We have succeeded in creating some demonstrations about Israel’s arms policies, some degree of demonstrations regarding the policy with Azerbaijan. It is almost like talking about selling arms to Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. Many, many of us are upset.”
Israel’s Failed Response to the Armenian Genocide: Denial, State Deception, Truth versus Politicization of History is currently available on Academic Studies Press.
Copyright 2021 The Armenian Mirror-Spectator