Snap judgement: Between Ararat and Zion

Jerusalem Post (subscription), Israel
Aug 4 2004

Snap judgement: Between Ararat and Zion

For centuries, a people with its own unique culture, language and
religion lived in exile from its ancestral homeland as it lay under
foreign rule.

Scattered in diaspora communities across the globe, these people
suffered ostracism, persecution and even genocide, while dreaming of
the day their nation would regain its independence. Finally, through
an almost miraculous set of geopolitical circumstances, that dream
was fulfilled against all odds.

It’s not the Jews I’m talking about – it’s the Armenians, whose
homeland achieved long-awaited independence with the breakup of the
Soviet Union in 1991.

At that time, Armenia’s resident population was thought to be
comparable with that of the Armenian diaspora, numbering in the
three-to-four million range. No longer. Armenians are now free to go
home; however, they are also free to leave, and apparently, many are
doing just that.

According to a recent report in The Washington Post, there has a been
a mass exodus of Armenians out of their country in the past decade.

Although an Armenian census in 2001 listed the official population as
3.2 million, most Armenians believe the actual figure is now at least
a million, if not two million, lower than that. Most of the emigrants
have gone to Russia, with others joining the large ethnic Armenian
communities in France, North America and elsewhere.

“It’s the economy,” a member of the Armenian community in Jerusalem
told me. “It’s gotten so bad people can barely get bread to eat

Gevorg Pogosyan, a sociologist in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, told
The Washington Post: “I call it depopulation. It calls into question
whether Armenia is a country with a future. We are a weak society,
weakened both politically and economically by this migration.”

Why are things so bad in Armenia? Well, it’s a small country with few
natural resources that must share its borders with hostile Muslim
countries (Turkey and Azerbaijan)… you get the idea.

Reading of Armenia’s plight, I couldn’t help thinking of the
similarities with Israel, as well as the differences. Comparisons
between Armenians and Jews have been noted fairly often in the past,
and Armenian activists have admitted taking inspiration from their
Jewish counterparts in trying to get the world to acknowledge what
they see as the Turkish genocide perpetrated against their people
during World War I.

The Armenian diaspora, just like the Jewish one, is also pumping
billions of dollars back home to alleviate the situation there. “If
not for these billions, we would have had riots and revolutions
here,” Pogosyan told The Washington Post.

Although things aren’t quite as dire in Israel, the parallels between
the Armenian and Jewish diasporas in the relationship to their
“national homelands” are striking. Both even express their
nationalistic yearnings through the symbolism of holy mountains,
Ararat and Zion.

Is there anything useful for Israel and the Jewish people to learn
from Armenia’s current migration plight? One lesson almost too
obvious is that the deepest feelings of yearning for a beloved
motherland, even those inculcated from birth, are not enough to
attract (or even hold) a population there if that nation cannot offer
its people adequate material conditions.

All the money invested in such worthy programs as birthright israel
won’t help bring aliya from the Western world if foreign capital
isn’t also being invested in Israeli businesses. Promoting Israel to
the Jewish world primarily as a charity case also doesn’t help
matters, which is why Jewish Agency Chairman Sallai Meridor was right
this week to take exception to the new government plan to use funds
raised abroad to directly underwrite the providing of hot lunches for
Israeli schoolchildren.

Maybe, though, we should be cautious about taking this comparison too
far. After all, Israel has gone through bad patches comparable to
Armenia’s, perhaps even worse in terms of the security situation. And
although an estimated hundreds of thousands of Israelis have voted
with their feet to seek a better life elsewhere, this country’s
population has risen steadily, often dramatically, since its birth,
sometimes during its most difficult periods.

The difference, of course, lies not with the situations of the
nations of Israel and Armenia, but of their respective diasporas. A
series of historical circumstances since Theodor Herzl first called
for the re-establishment of a Jewish commonwealth more than a century
ago has propelled much of the Jewish world back to its ancestral
homeland, often not out of ancient yearnings, but as a last refuge.

Looking back over just the past quarter-century, it’s remarkable how
a confluence of events in most of the remaining major centers of the
Jewish diaspora – the former Soviet Union, Argentina, and now France
– has seemingly contrived to nudge a significant number of Jews in
the direction of Israel. As bad as things have gotten here at times,
it seems there is always someplace else in the world where it’s even
worse for the local Jewish population.

This isn’t cause for complacency, though, and Israel should take note
of Armenia’s current woes as a cautionary example. It’s in this
context, perhaps, that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s recent call for
the Jews of France to make aliya should be understood – and not as
French President Jacques Chirac interpreted it, as a rebuke to France
for failing to prevent the rise of Muslim anti-Semitism. If Jews
aren’t coming to Israel, from France and elsewhere, then they’re
probably leaving it, and “depopulation” is a phenomenon this nation
can’t afford.

Gagik Yeganyan, the government official in charge of dealing with the
Armenian migration crisis, told The Washington Post: “We have a
national idea – ‘One country, one nation, one culture, one religion.’
It means that Armenia is considered the motherland for all Armenians
living around the world, even though only 30 percent of Armenians
live on the territory of the motherland. Armenians who leave always
think they are not leaving forever.”

Right. Now where have I heard that one before?