Imagine a world where Germany emerged relatively unscathed from World War II, formed alliances with other Western countries, was successful in escaping responsibility for the horrors of the Holocaust, and for more than 60 years continued to deny the destruction of Europe’s Jews. Imagine that a lecture is organized for the Jewish community in a town in Massachusetts, where the grandson of one of the top leaders of the Nazis is to speak.
The event is advertised as a “historic meeting.” The grandson of the top Nazi leader talks about the kinds of food Germans and Jews shared, says that “the Germans endured suffering too on both the eastern and western fronts,” and repeats the expression “let us respect each other’s pain” a dozen times.
He says, “We should not become captives of our history, not become prisoner of our pains and sufferings…a peaceful tomorrow cannot be established by remaining captive to the past.”
Some members of the audience are moved; they applaud enthusiastically. A historic meeting indeed!
Returning to our world, the Armenian community of Watertown, Mass., shared a comparable experience on Nov. 17, when prominent Turkish journalist Hasan Cemal—who happens to be the grandson of Cemal Pasha, one of the leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) that planned and implemented the Armenian Genocide of 1915—spoke to them.
The panel discussion, organized by Friends of Hrant Dink and featuring Cemal, was advertised as a “historic meeting” with the Armenian community. And historic it was, for all the wrong reasons: the historic power asymmetries between Turks and Armenians, and the historic practice of relativizing the suffering, destruction, and dispossession of the Armenian nation were all at play as Cemal delivered his speech.
Cemal spoke of Armenians and Turks eating dolma, repeated slain journalist Hrank Dink’s words “first let us respect each other’s pain” a dozen times, and said: “The Turks have endured suffering, too. There was the pain of expulsion from the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the pain they endured in Anatolia during the wars. The Kurds suffered, too. They suffered the pain of being denied their language and their very identity. I know very well that pain such as this cannot be measured or compared or equated. That would be wrong. One people’s suffering cannot be compared with another’s.”
In no way did he imply, of course, that the pain and suffering of the Armenians might—just might—have been a bit more than that of the Turks. Or that the pain of being exterminated in one’s own homeland is different from the disintegration of an empire. Or that Armenians had nothing to do with Turkish suffering in the Balkans.
Cemal also repeatedly advised Armenians to be patient (read: It has only been 94 years, folks. Be patient!). It would take time to educate the Turks and change things, he said. The prominent Turkish journalist also mentioned that he has been reading Taner Akcam’s writing since the early 1990’s. Minutes later, however, he noted that he does not know much about 1915.
Cemal did try—and failed—to show genuine empathy, because his discourse was very similar to the one used for Turkish audiences. Moreover, he advised Armenians to be careful when talking about 1915 to Turks because tactlessness would rub the Turks the wrong way and all efforts to educate them would be made in vain. After all, we should be very sensitive about the feelings of Turks (but we can say all we want to Armenians)!
Cemal, by repeating the “let us understand each other’s pain” mantra, demonstrated that he never even considered what the Armenians would feel upon hearing such a statement, and seemed to have no clue that Hrant Dink himself—whose name and friendship he constantly evoked—was trying to be “tactful” with Turks by saying such a thing, but would not use the same discourse when he talked to Armenians.
We do not want to question the good intentions of Hasan Cemal. However, during the lecture we were reminded time and time again that the road to hell, too, is paved with good intentions.