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Armenian Issue Revisited

There Was No Genocide: Interview with Prof. Bernard Lewis

By Dalia Karpel

Haaretz daily (Weekend Issue), Jerusalem 23/01/98

Half a year ago historian Bernard Lewis incurred a huge insult in Israel. The Tel Aviv municipality changed its mind to bestow on him honorary citizenship because of his statements in the French paper "Le Monde" which were interpreted as denial of the Armenian genocide and ended with Lewis standing in front of a criminal court. Already last week everything looked different. Tel Aviv University organized a special evening party for Lewis on the occasion of the publication of the Hebrew version of his book, "The Middle East: Two Thousand Years of History." Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Labour Party leader Ehud Barak, and other respectable people addressed the party, there was a lot of applause and a lot of honours. For Lewis, this evening a sort of compensation for the insult half a year ago.

In this interview, Lewis wishes to clarify the circumstances of the scandal, which aroused huge criticism against him [in France], as well as in Israel, and caused him to stand trial.[Lewis said], "Four lawsuits were filed against me in Paris and all were based on my interview in 'Le Monde' on November 16, 1993. Among other things, the interviewers asked me on the massacres of the Armenians in 1915. I was aware of the risk entailed in any critical interpretation of such events. I was not enthusiastic to discuss this subject in the narrow framework of a journalistic interview. But the question was posed in an honest way, so I agreed to be interviewed. I never thought that a professional historian could refuse to respond to a question which falls within my expertise. I told them that the issue is not whether the massacres happened or not, but rather if these massacres were as a result of a deliberate preconceived decision of the Turkish government. I told them that there is no evidence for such a decision. The attempt to deal with such doubts through courts and libel cases did not cause these historians to change their minds."

The legal suits against me were filed by several organizations, in their eyes my views, or rather my doubts, arouse opposition. One of the suits based itself on the French Law which regards the denial of the Jewish Shoah as a criminal offense, the three other suits were civil suits." The verdicts of these suits were given in March, June and July 1995 respectively. Two out of the three suits were rejected. In the third suit, it was not proved that "I was guided by any consideration alien to my vocation as historian, but I made a fault that I did cite in the interview 'elements which go against my thesis,' and thus overlooked the pain of the Armenians. The verdict was that I had to pay one franc to all the parties."

Lewis continues: "Wrong assumptions were also adopted by journalists of "Haaretz" in connection to the whole polemics. These are mainly two issues: a) that the massacres of the Armenians in 1915 and the extermination of the Jews of Europe are basically events of the same kind; b) any critical discourse of the Armenian massacres is similar to Neo-Nazi denial of the Shoah. "Anybody who has a minimum concept of the historical evidence will admit that these analogies have no validity. The Armenians are proud of their struggle for an independent Armenia against the Ottoman regime. It was a national liberation movement, and they fought with great courage. But what happened to the Armenians has no similarity to what happened to the Jews in cold-blooded bureaucracy."

Q: Why is this distinction so important for you?

"Because I am not a Turk nor an Armenian and I have no allegiance to any of these groups. I am a historian and my loyalties are to truth. The concept of genocide was defined legally. It is a term that the UN used and the Nuremberg trials made use of it [as well]. I side with words which have accurate meaning. In my view a loose and ambiguous use of words is bad."The meaning of genocide is the planned destruction of a religious and ethnic group, as far as it is known to me, there is no evidence for that in the case of the Armenians. The deniers of Holocaust have a purpose: to prolong Nazism and to return to Nazi legislation. Nobody wants the 'Young Turks' back, and nobody want to have back the Ottoman Law. What do the Armenians want?

"The Armenians want to benefit from both worlds. On the one hand, they speak with pride of their struggle against the Ottoman despotism, while on the other hand, they compare their tragedy to the Jewish Holocaust. I do not accept this. I do not say that the Armenians did not suffer terribly. But I find enough cause for me to contain their attempts to use the Armenian massacres to diminish the worth of the Jewish Holocaust and to relate to it instead as an ethnic dispute."

[Unofficial translation from the Hebrew original]

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