YEREVAN, Armenia—Walking atop Tsitsernakaberd Hill overlooking the Armenian capital of Yerevan, one can see the striking similarities to Jerusalem. The view resembles that from Yad Vashem, the main Israeli memorial site that honors and commemorates the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
At Yad Vashem, also located on a hill, there is the “Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations,” where trees have been planted to commemorate gentiles who saved Jews. In Yerevan, foreign leaders and other dignitaries are also asked to pay respect to the memory of those who died by planting trees.
Tsitsernakaberd (which means “swallows’ fortress”) hosts the central memorial monument to the 1.5 million Armenians who died as a result of the Ottoman Empire’s premeditated decision during World War I to harass, arrest, and eventually deport them to the Syrian Desert to let them die.
The 144-foot-tall monument is meant to symbolize rebirth. Twelve slabs form a circle that represents the parts of Armenians’ historical homeland in present-day Turkey, and an eternal flame dedicated to those killed during the Armenian genocide lies in the center of the circle.
After the war, during the short-lived first Armenian Republic, assassins volunteered for Operation Nemesis. Its aim was to avenge the deaths of their people by killing Turkish ministers and generals who were responsible for the genocide. Among those assassinated were the “Three Pashas”: the war minister, Ismail Enver; the interior minister, Mehmed Talaat; and the navy minister and governor of Syria, Ahmed Djemal.
More than 20 years later, after World War II, Jewish fighters known as “The Avengers” also decided to take revenge and devised a plan to kill German SS officers responsible for murdering Jews during the Holocaust. They planned to poison German drinking water and bakeries. (Dozens of Germans were killed, but the poisoning plans failed.)
Despite the shared experience of genocide, Israel and Armenia are worlds apart today.
Israel has consistently refused to acknowledge that what happened to the Armenian people was a genocide. This decision doesn’t derive so much from a desire to monopolize victimhood and portray the Holocaust as a unique and unparalleled historical event. It is primarily a cynical political ploy.
For many years, Israel feared Turkey’s wrath if it recognized the genocide. Since the late 1950s, Turkey had been a strong strategic ally of the Jewish state—one of its only friends in the Muslim world. There were close ties between the two nations’ intelligence and security establishments, and Turkey was an important and lucrative market for Israeli weapons. Whenever Israeli parliamentarians, human rights activists, and historians called for recognition of the Armenian genocide, the initiative was blocked by the government. Regardless of their ideology and political orientation, consecutive Israeli governments, knowing that any change of heart and policy would anger Turkey and jeopardize arms sales, placed economic interests before universal values. They agreed to define the genocide only as a “tragedy.”
But in the past decade, relations between Turkey, under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Israel have deteriorated. Arms sales were halted, and the clandestine intelligence cooperation aimed against the mutual enemy—Syria—was terminated. Nowadays, with Turkish-Israeli political and military relations at a new low, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his son Yair regularly exchange nasty verbal blows over Twitter with Erdogan, calling each other “tyrant,” “murderer,” and more.