What is our message on April 24, 2024?

Spring is in the air, and with that our Genocide commemoration season is upon us. Times have certainly changed since the “great re-awakening” in 1965, when our remembrances were supplemented with activism. Today our cause for justice is a year-round mission and not simply a spirited event in April. There is obvious good news with that evolution, but it also represents a challenge. 

In the past, our observances were largely mournful religious gatherings coupled with demonstrations demanding meaningful but distant objectives. Activism was defined primarily as international recognition of the Armenian Genocide. The powerful combination of scholarship and research along with focused advocacy has delivered tangible results in the last 50 years. When this process began, denialist scholarship was rampant, and western politicians often questioned the veracity of the Genocide. The truth has once again taken its rightful place. Major nations and virtually every international organization have formally recognized the crime committed by the Ottoman Turks as genocide. The outliers are isolated as denialists. Perhaps even more significantly, the level of awareness among politicians and the general public has dramatically changed. If you lived in the 1960s or earlier, you can fully appreciate how the environment has improved. 

These are changes to applaud and congratulate ourselves for, but let’s not fool ourselves. As Armenians, we see recognition as a de facto prerequisite for reparations. In our view, recognizing the crime is a path to punishing the perpetrator and its successor government. Until that happens, the emotional pain is pervasive. Unfortunately, that is not how the nations of the world see the end point. Most, if not all, view recognition as a correction to a historical error that essentially resolves the issue. They are more interested in seeing the current Turkish and Armenian governments reconcile through formal diplomatic relations and open their shared border than punishing Turkey for its crimes.

The road to recognition was a long one, and the reparations highway is longer. We should always keep in mind the nearly impossible task we achieved of waking up a forgotten world over the last 50 years when considering the probability of reparations. There are two major factors limiting support for reparations by the empathetic world. Unlike the Jews, who were the beneficiary of a “guilt” complex by the freedom loving world after World War II, there was no need in recent times to create an Armenia since the nation state existed and became independent in 1991 during the height of the recognition campaign. The fact that the Armenian nation state represented only 10-percent of Armenia’s historical lands as a result of the Genocide was of little concern to the world. Creating the state of Israel, on the other hand, was considered a form of reparations by western democracies. Statements recognizing the Genocide had little negative impact, except for the pseudo threats from Turkey. Advocating reparations for a crime committed a century ago, however, would require the entanglement of current day geo-political challenges. 

The other change is the presence of the Republic of Armenia. The recognition campaign has been driven by the Diaspora for decades, since the Republic became independent only in 1991. Armenia has been preoccupied with survival during most of its tenure, with severe economic challenges, hostile neighbors on three sides and a difficult alliance transition. Of course, the Diaspora continues its advocacy for reparations with sustained passion, because it is a very personal matter. The Diaspora was created out of the murder of the victims and dispossession of the survivors of the Genocide. Every family in Europe, North America, South America or the Middle East has its own story of loss, migration and resilience. They also know that their suffering has gone unpunished, leaving open wounds. 

The people in Armenia feel the same way but live in a different geo-political reality. We need to respect that, as difficult as it may seem. Nation states or regional groups such as the European Union and its affiliates view the Diaspora as constituents, but rightfully view the sovereign state of Armenia as a peer according to international law. This is a relatively new dynamic that we have not fully absorbed. This transition has been difficult for the Diaspora, particularly with its decentralized existence. The Diaspora operates in a less constrained political environment than the republic, advocating for what it believes is in the best interests of Armenia and the global Armenian nation. Perhaps this is where we have unanswered questions and need better alignment. 

In order for the western Diaspora, particularly, to be more effective, it must be better aligned with Armenia. The issues of financial support from the United States, international Genocide recognition, Artsakh and reparations are all foreign policy matters for the republic. In a perfect state, Diaspora resources would be aligned in support of the policy objectives of Armenia. Of course, there should room for internal disagreement, but public alliances would be solid. We are far from that goal. It is not clear to me how groups such as the ANCA can be optimally effective without a close working relationship with the Armenian embassy. In the absence of that connection, the Diaspora does what it thinks is right, with pure motivations, but works on a parallel basis. Disagreements aside, we must accept the role of Armenia as the recognized party on these matters. Semi-independent efforts with good intentions may not fully help Armenia. Each action we take should be accompanied with an honest assessment of whether we are helping Armenia. In the world of politics, people who disagree find ways to work together. 

One of the challenges to consider during the April observances is, how do we keep the message clear, relevant and fresh? Putting our eternal emotional commitment aside, it requires thoughtful assessments to keep an event that began 109 years ago alive. For years, it was a bit depressing to gather each year and mourn. Engaging succeeding generations is always challenging, as their emotional connection to the Genocide fades. The church has done its job with the canonization of the victims of the Genocide. With the Feast of the Holy Martyrs, we no longer mourn the victims, as they have been sainted and are in Our Lord’s heavenly kingdom. We seek intercessions from them through prayer. 

Hagop Toghramadjian speaking at the Genocide Observance at the Armenian Heritage Park in Boston, April 20, 2024 (Photo: Ken Martin)

As we now celebrate a feast day in our churches, what remains is activism. Given the unbearable tragedies that the Armenian people have experienced, we run the risk of confusing our non-Armenian audiences. Is it about recognition? Is it reparations? Have the Azeris replaced the Turks as the main enemy? Is the loss of Artsakh and the deportation of 120,000 of our brethren our main concern? What about Western Armenia? What about the threat to Armenia’s eastern and southern borders by the Azeris? We have all attended events recently where literally all of these crimes are presented to the audience. It is overwhelming and lacks direction. I can only imagine what U.S. politicians think during their photo ops, when most of them would be perfectly happy with recognition and friendship with the Turks. Our message must be more than a litany of tragedies.

The theme we must focus on is that the oppression, genocide and atrocities have never stopped. This is what makes 1915 relevant in 2024. The unpunished crime encourages the perpetrator to continue.

The answer lies in synthesizing the experiences into a common theme to support specific objectives. The list is too long for any of our supporters to absorb. Setting priorities does not constitute forgetting anything. It simply means that, in times of crisis, you make adjustments. I began to find some answers this past weekend at the Genocide Observance at the Armenian Heritage Park in Boston. The day was led by Hagop, a young lawyer from the community. I have known him since he was an undergraduate student. He has always possessed a unique maturity and ability to articulate his thoughts. Sifting through some of the more traditional aspects of the program, I found Hagop’s message to be interesting. He encouraged participation on the local level and activism on global issues. We have nothing in the Diaspora without participation in our institutions, organizations and community life. It is the base from which we launch financial support and our connection to the homeland. His other point was to fight ambivalence with activism. Stated more simply, talk is cheap. Although the Diaspora continues to be generous, we also make far too many open-ended comments and criticisms. Our general audiences need direction that is simple and clear. Activism must be based on what one can do tomorrow. Too often at these rallies, there is an outpouring of emotion, but little in terms of practical direction. Over time, people choose not to attend, because they consider it overly redundant. This may explain the modest attendance at many of these events. Without direction, we become programmed to attend only major anniversaries (the 100th, etc.). Connecting our history into a common contemporary theme is one of the few ways to gain political influence.  

The theme we must focus on is that the oppression, genocide and atrocities have never stopped. This is what makes 1915 relevant in 2024. The unpunished crime encourages the perpetrator to continue. This is what unites 1915, Western Armenia, Artsakh, Tavush and Syunik in one message. Our priority today must be to secure the homeland with the appropriate support, through the issues of border security and the genocide in Artsakh. Our messaging must contain pinpoint accuracy that integrates the last 109 years into specific, actionable priorities that will secure the homeland. In times of crisis, focus requires prioritizing the message. The homeland is threatened by the same genocidal mentality. Our people have suffered unimaginable atrocities at the hands of a determined enemy. Our uniting interest must be to prevent the loss of our homeland by those who have used genocide to erase Armenians from this world.

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.

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