Empathy for the innocent

One of our challenges as a global nation is to express public empathy and support for those experiencing the horror of man’s inhumanity. There should be a special bond between peoples who have suffered unspeakable atrocities, but it is not always a certainty. Armenians have for too long been mired in our own tragedies. Where were we when the Bosnia, Darfur or Rwanda genocides were happening and in their aftermaths? The unspoken excuse may be that there are limited cultural or political intersections to spur our interest. Apparently, our common existence as humans is not sufficient. There needs to be a relationship, common history or geopolitical connection for most nations, including Armenians, to stand up. This is unfortunate and reflects our need to mature as a global community. Tragically, the instability of our world affords us many opportunities to stand against oppression and atrocities. As victims of genocide, we should be the first to oppose violations of the human dignity of others. Shared interests are the key to political alliances, yet we remain silent.

Tragically, the instability of our world affords us many opportunities to stand against oppression and atrocities. As victims of genocide, we should be the first to oppose violations of the human dignity of others. Shared interests are the key to political alliances, yet we remain silent.

The Kurds have been victims of atrocities in Turkey, Syria and Iraq. We have much in common with the Kurds considering the oppressive policies committed by the Turks and our geographic proximity. Instead of recognizing the protection that Kurds provided to many Armenian villages in northern Syria during the ISIS incursion, we focus on the complicity of some Kurdish tribes during the Genocide. Rather than connect with the Kurds in southeastern Turkey for their local support to rebuild Soorp Giragos church in Diyarbakır, for example, we remain focused on the past. Is this an ethnic bias, anti-Muslim perspective or do we need to desperately upgrade our political thinking? 

The current Israel-Hamas war is another opportunity for us to end our silence. I would prefer to label this conflict as Israeli-Palestinian. With over 15,000 Palestinians dead (70-percent of the victims are women and children), I think it qualifies as a broader conflict than simply targeting Hamas. The western media likes the term Hamas, since it fits the public narrative that this is a war between a nation defending itself against terrorists. It downplays the incredible “collateral damage” to civilians, justified by a search for hidden militants within the general population. No one can justify the killing of Israeli civilians by Hamas. It is an extreme group with foreign funding that is bent on destruction. Yet discussions as to why an extreme group governs the densely populated Gaza Strip typically whitewash all Palestinians as hate-driven racists. The Palestinians are a very cultured people with legitimate rights, yet they are portrayed as either terrorists or merely existing. 

Extremes usually come to power as a response to dysfunction or a loss of hope. The Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank have been deceived and betrayed by many parties in the region and have emerged with a bitter view of life. The Israeli relationship with the Palestinians is a matter of control through subjugation. When Israel decided to “leave” Gaza, it sealed it off from the world, controlling the flow of energy, water and food. Gaza is a virtual prison, and its young people are filled with despair. Maintaining this environment is not in the interests of Israel or Palestine. It breeds mistrust, anger and an endless supply of youth who see fighting as the only answer. Netanyahu is a controversial figure with his own set of legal problems in Israel. The discontent of common Israeli citizens with his policies and drive for judicial reform is masked today, as the nation is consumed with the Palestinian war. His policies of land grabbing and illegal settlements are well documented, reflecting his long-term objective of reducing the Palestinian presence. 

With two extremes governing Gaza and Israel, the region remains a powder keg for violence. Moderate leaders are needed to build confidence. What is the end point of Netanyahu’s campaign of horrific violence? Is it the eradication of Hamas or the permanent displacement of the Gaza Palestinians? Even with the former, what is the governing plan? Netanyahu has already stated that the Palestinian Authority that governs the West Bank is unacceptable. Keeping the Palestinians divided serves a more nefarious purpose and is not in the long-term interests of Israelis.

Where are Armenians relative to the latest outbreak of violence in the Middle East? Our relationships with the two adversaries are quite complicated. Armenians, particularly here in the United States, have always had an affinity for the Jewish people. There are natural connections as victims of genocide and the common cultural attribute of entrepreneurship. Armenians and Jews in America are generally well-educated and are the product of strong traditional family values and Judeo-Christian tradition. The challenges lie in the political impact of Israel’s policies. Many Jews are appalled by the Israeli government’s aggression. Others are aligned with their homeland. For Armenians, a gap has emerged between respecting the Jewish people while disagreeing with the policies of the Jewish state. Israel has not only refused to recognize the Armenian Genocide but has actively worked over the years to prevent its recognition in the U.S. This policy is shameful given our shared history with genocide. In addition, Israel is a major arms and technology provider to the terrorist state of Azerbaijan, which has resulted directly in the loss of Armenian lives and territory. Azerbaijan and Israel’s swap of energy and spy capabilities for military aid is painful for Armenians. The current controversy in the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem only further complicates an already tense interplay.

“From Artsakh to Gaza, No More Genocide” (Armenian Action Network, Twitter)

The Armenian-Palestinian relationship is equally complicated, with diverse views within our community. Many Armenians maintain an unfortunate anti-Muslim bias based on historical conflicts. With this perspective, we tend to forget that it was the Arab nations that welcomed Armenians after the Genocide. In the West Bank, where Armenians maintain responsibility for many churches and holy sites, the Palestinian Authority has been very supportive over the years and provided the small Armenian presence a counterbalance to the difficult situation facing Christians. 

In the U.S., the current dilemma illustrates that it is dangerous and inappropriate to paint anti-Semitism and opposing Israeli policies with the same brush. Generalizations regarding race and ethnicity are a convenient tactic to put critics on the defensive. I believe Israel has a right to exist and defend itself, and we should all have empathy in response to instances of anti-Semitism. Likewise, Palestinians have a right to live in dignity with self-determination. Removing those inalienable rights by force will lead to resistance (remember our fedayees and our Artsakh heroes) and is not in the best interests of either party.

Hamas came to power as an extreme group several years ago in part due to the horrendous conditions in Gaza. Their rise to power led to extreme acts that cannot be condoned. Prior to the establishment of Israel, the Zionists were frustrated by the British position on establishing a Jewish state. Menachem Begin, who later became prime minister of Israel, was leader of the Irgun military group that implemented terrorist activities, the most significant being an attack on the British HQ at the King David hotel, where many civilians died. He became a wanted man but was a hero to his fellow Jewish nationalists. This history, however, does not justify the deaths of the innocent in the Hamas attacks. Nothing can rationalize such horrific violence. Likewise, the eradication of Hamas does not give the government of Israel the license to conduct a scorched earth policy in Gaza and continue land grabbing and oppression in the West Bank. With the massive number of casualties, the war has transitioned from self-defense to atrocity revenge. 

Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas on earth. 2.3 million people live on a small strip of land. Palestinians living in the north were told to move to the south, which was subsequently bombed beyond human comprehension. Now there is nothing to return to, except a replica of Dresden in WWII. What is the end point if Hamas is removed and the Palestinian Authority is unacceptable? The permanent displacement of these people, with the establishment of buffer zones or deportation paths to Egypt, is criminal. The United States, the major military and diplomatic ally of Israel, has made it clear that it is unacceptable to permanently displace the Palestinians, but Armenians in Artsakh heard those same empty words. For the oppressed, trust is a difficult response when you are fighting for survival.

Armenians must be more active in opposing atrocities and violations of basic human rights. If we expect the world to respect our rights, then we need to reciprocate when appropriate. Unchecked aggression will leave thousands of innocent Israelis and Palestinians dead, with a destroyed infrastructure in Gaza. The construction of more refugee camps and dependence on humanitarian aid to assist the millions displaced will only generate more anger, frustration and revenge. Where is the leadership with the leverage to stop the violence and end the oppression?

Supplying arms to Israel has made the United States appear complicit in the eyes of those on the receiving end of the carpet bombing. Netanyahu is obsessed with destruction. Is this his way of covering for his gross lapses in security? It pains me to discuss this with my Jewish friends, but generations have not known peace in Israel. The demonstrations organized by Jews seeking a ceasefire should be an eye opener for all of us. They have a right to be war weary, as are the Palestinians. This problem will not be solved by denying human rights to one group. While the political and humanitarian complexities are sorted out, we must stand against what is wrong. Armenians should internalize the many parallels with the plight of the Palestinians. Supporting Palestinian rights is not anti-Semitic. It is possible to support the rights of Israel and the rights of Palestinians. It is also appropriate to be critical when human rights are violated. We can earn respect by showing respect.

Stepan Piligian

Stepan Piligian

Stepan was raised in the Armenian community of Indian Orchard, MA at the St. Gregory Parish. A former member of the AYF Central Executive and the Eastern Prelacy Executive Council, he also served many years as a delegate to the Eastern Diocesan Assembly. Currently , he serves as a member of the board and executive committee of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR). He also serves on the board of the Armenian Heritage Foundation. Stepan is a retired executive in the computer storage industry and resides in the Boston area with his wife Susan. He has spent many years as a volunteer teacher of Armenian history and contemporary issues to the young generation and adults at schools, camps and churches. His interests include the Armenian diaspora, Armenia, sports and reading.
Stepan Piligian

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  1. Who are the innocent? Aren’t they the women and children who got killed by Hamas terrorists on October 7? Children, women, innocent party goers were taken hostage. What was Israel supposed to do? Not to take action? Why the terrorists hide among civilians in Gaza? They make them targets too.
    Who’s Hamas biggest supporter? Where does the leaders of Hamas live? Yes, in Turkey.
    Just like little Armenia is surrounded by 100 million bloodthirsty Turks, little Israel is surrounded by 500 million Arabs, Turks and Iranians. Both countries face existential threats.
    Armenians would support Israel in its fight to exist. Armenians supporting Islamic terrorists, the allies of Turkey, are dead wrong. They shouldn’t be naive.

  2. Diodotus Bactrianos, let me take you back to 1948 when Palestine was invaded by Jews, there were 2 million Palestinians living in Palestine what has now become Israel. Palestinians are fighting for their homeland just like we Armenians are fighting for our homeland. Think of the Turks who invaded Constantinople in the 15th century. You don’t think the Greeks are entitled to take back their homeland? While Turkey has become the cancer of Europe, Israel has become the cancer of the Middle East. Think of Israel aiding AZ and Turkey invading NK recently. Are we not entitled to reclaim out homeland?

    • Palestine was never invaded by Jews. They always lived there, not all of them went into exile after their expulsion from the Romans. The crusaders in the 11th century, when they conquered Jerusalem, slaughtered the Jews too. In the 19th century with the emergence of Zionism, the Jewish agency was buying land in Palestine way above the going price. There were lines of Palestinians waiting to sell their land.
      The Palestinians are Arabs, they say it themselves. They conquered the land in the 7th and 8th century during the caliphate.
      The Palestinians rejected many times the offers of Israel for a peaceful coexistence. They want to exterminate the Jews. Just like their friend, Turkey did to the Armenians.
      Before the genocide of 1915, 1.5 million Armenians lived in the Ottoman empire. How many live in Turkey now? 2-3,000 the most and all in Istanbul. None in the Armenian provinces of Van, Cilicia, etc. You said 2 million Palestinians lived in Palestine before 1948. Now there are more, even in Gaza. Where do you see the genocide of Palestinians by Israel?
      I’m Greek from Cyprus and I’m a refugee from the Turkish invasion of 1974. I have a lot of Armenian friends. It hurts me when I see naive Armenians or Greeks support the Palestinian terrorists, the close allies of Turkey

    • Nora – what specific year in history would you like all of humanity to revert back to? 1948? 1915? 1491? 301? “the 15th century”? We’ll bring back all the countries / empires / city-states that existed during that time, and their borders, whether that is the Roman Empire, Prussia, USSR, Yugoslavia, Assyria, etc. At some point, even before Armenia’s 5,000 year history, all land “belonged” to someone else. Then was invaded, conquered, invaded again, etc. So it seems to entirely depend on what year / time period you want to focus on for who “owns” the land.

      Also – was Jesus not a Jew from the exact region where Israel is now? Sounds like Jews “belong” there, based on your logic of homelands. By rights, that 2,000+ years of history should trump Palestinians, right? Or what exactly defines “homelands” and who is “entitled” to “take back”? If you’re living in America, YOU are also a “colonizer” and should immediately hand any property you have to Native Americans (and probably leave the country entirely). Or at least, they’re entitled to take back their homelands, no?

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