After the 107th, we need a sharper edge

Posted on May. 12. 2022

by Stepan Piligian | The Armenian Weekly

The 107th commemoration of the Armenian Genocide is in the books. It’s history. Let the planning for the 108th officially begin. The years, frankly, have become irrelevant. It is more about the content. Our behavior has become slaves to rounded numbers. Everyone was all hands on deck for the 100th, but the 101st was an “off year.” Does the year actually change our mission? Should we put more energy and thought into the traditional years like the 75th or 100th versus a mundane anniversary like the 107th?
Perhaps I am fighting human nature on this one, but the need for urgency for our struggle has actually increased since the 100th. Artsakh hangs by a thread due to external and internal influences. Armenia is threatened and divided, and our leadership crisis continues. 1915 has never been closer to 2022 than this moment right now. The causes of the current trauma are directly related to the behavior of a Turkish government that has borrowed the playbook of the Young Turk murderers: unite the Turkish people territorially from Asia Minor to east of the Caspian Sea. In order to accomplish that goal, the indigenous Christian populations of western Greeks, Assyrians, Pontic Greeks and Armenians had to be eliminated. The method they used was the lowest form of humanity called genocide. Now, with a Sultan wannabe in Erdogan and a willing rogue partner in Azerbaijan, the dream has been revitalized. They are employing different methods, but they share the same objective. Our cause for justice for the crime of genocide has become one with the cause for sovereignty and freedom in the Armenian homeland today. We must no longer speak of the Genocide in the finite terms of 1915-23 as if some profound enlightenment struck the Turkish authorities in 1923 and the oppression ceased. The methods changed only because there were no longer substantial populations of Armenians in the western highlands to annihilate or expel. The cover-up became institutionalized. The duplicity with Turkey as a western “ally” began, and the remaining Armenian population in the Republic of Turkey struggled with a subordinated identity. The discriminatory policies against Armenian foundations continued living under a successor government of criminals that denied any wrongdoing despite overwhelming evidence. It is a dangerous society in which to speak the truth. Ask any of the thousand hidden Armenians or the jailed Turkish intellectuals. They have continued their intolerance with the open assault on their Kurdish citizens. This is the environment today. The fez has been replaced with a suit, but the threat to the Armenians remains high. Have we internalized these changes in recent years that should be reflected in our behavior? Do we really understand the incredible responsibility we have as descendants of saints with the canonization of the martyrs? Have we moved on from victims and mourners with this unprecedented event? Has our political message remained crisp and focused or are we diluted in our efforts?
Allow me to continue by stating that this is not intended to be a personal criticism of the work of our dedicated brethren. It is simply a series of observations based on our current direction. The intent is always to inspire dialogue and to afford us optimal effectiveness. I will never challenge the intent and commitment of the dedicated individuals across the diaspora. I am concerned about whether our messaging to the general public, the various government bodies and our own people has been consistent and focused. The causes of this can be somewhat attributed to the mission of the sponsoring organizations or the background of the leadership that is responsible for organizing the events. As I have discussed in previous columns, the question of why we remember and what our message contains is complicated yet important. We use the word “justice” frequently in our speeches and publicity, but does justice have a reasonably common definition? Some of our people are perfectly content with an annual remembrance and a religious ceremony. The religious content has changed from a requiem to an intercession with the canonization of our martyrs. For those who seek a political definition to justice, they are satisfied with international recognition, essentially giving the Genocide its rightful place in history. Still, others see recognition as the first major step in enabling some form of restitution. The remaining position of others is that recognition of the crime of genocide enables holding the criminal party legally responsible for reparations.
During the 107th commemorations, all of these positions were on display at various events. The diversity of our thinking can be confusing to our intended non-Armenian audience. Once we get their attention (which I believe we have thanks to the superb work of our advocacy groups such as the ANCA or the Armenian Assembly), in one way or another, we are asked, “What do the Armenians want?” There is no single answer to that question, and as we make further inroads in the journey, it will be increasingly problematic.
Our programming this year reflects this concern. In my view, the synergistic approach is to integrate spiritual remembrance with our culture and political cause of justice. Everything else is a distraction to our core mission and serves to dilute our message. We are a Christian people, and leading with our faith is essential. Displaying our culture is the essence of our identity and a reflection of our survival and prosperity. The political cause for justice is the only earthly action that will bring closure for our people. The victim mentality and dark cloud of the Genocide continues to dominate our global nation. We will not abandon our responsibility, thus the importance of justice. It is the only closure path that will fully move the Armenian nation forward.
On Saturday night, I attended the Boston commemoration at Armenian Heritage Park. With due respect to the effort (the organizers are fine and dedicated Armenians), the event lacked a theme that will bring our people closer to our intended goal. It is very important today that we offer sharp and clear messages to the public and inspire our emerging generations. This requires a very focused effort that avoids redundancy and traditional practices that are respectful, but do not inspire. Many of our commemorations this year were focused on the theme of “genocide education” based on legislation at the state level or the recent legislation at the federal proposal. Although it is a reasonable idea, I do not understand how it will contribute to our goals. Educating American youth through the school systems on the history and impact of genocide is a “soft” exercise that may encourage better human beings on this earth. But it is difficult for me to rationalize the use of our limited resources in this domain when Armenia and Artsakh are hanging in the balance for the same reasons as in 1915. Being “global citizens” sounds wonderful, but none of this will prevent further genocide. We have a UN charter on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide initiated in 1948 and ratified by 1952. Countless millions have been slaughtered in this world since this convention with little preventative activity and even less punishment. Do we really believe that knowing more about genocide will be a deterrence? And what will this actually do for our cause while we expend precious resources? It may be a noble effort but much too high on our priority list given the current and foreseeable Armenian reality. We can’t solve all the world’s problems. A sharper edge would be to consider the return for the Armenians before engagement. Will we feel fulfilled if our American youth are better educated and Armenia succumbs to a continuation of the barbaric actions of the Turkish cousins? If we are serious about our mission, we need the courage to review and change our tactics when they are not delivering results. Feeling respected as Armenians does not equate to justice.
Another area we should review is this “nice guy” approach we take in nearly all actions. This approach has created a political naivety that sub-optimizes our impact. During the Boston event, I was shocked to hear the master of ceremonies recognize by title and name the Israeli Consulate General of Boston. We have many friends in the Jewish community that we respect and are thankful for. I don’t think it’s controversial to state that Israel has not only denied the recognition of the Genocide and worked in the past to defeat recognition resolutions, but has openly supplied Azerbaijan with drones and other weaponry that have killed Armenians. Why are we quick to repeatedly show everyone how civil, understanding and benevolent we are? What message are we trying to send? Meron Reuben​’s government helped kill Armenians and overtake territory, but we welcome you. He should not have been recognized as an official. There is a major difference between respecting the Jewish people and disagreeing with a policy of the State of Israel that is harmful to peaceful Armenians. My anxiety subsided slightly when Dr. Henry Theriault spoke, and I finally heard the words “justice” and “Artsakh.” I will not compare, but I will comment that there were many events that were very focused with messaging and impact. This gives us hope. It is not about criticism, but we are all the stewards of the cause of justice.
I fear that in the absence of focus on our goals (which means we need to rally around a clear set of objectives), these commemorations will become so robotic that their value will diminish. When we have these gatherings, we should have two objectives constantly at the forefront. First, our message to the general public and government officials should be crisp and current so that it connects to the core of politics—self-interest. In addition, we should strive to inspire the Armenian community participants. They should all leave the events with a renewed sense of purpose. Once we move into an obligatory mode rather than nourishment approach, we will be in an unintended decline. We need to feed our people with behavioral changes they can adopt to make a difference and not simply check the box that they fulfilled their responsibility by attending another obligatory rally. Let’s also keep in mind that many in our younger generation are superbly educated on our challenges and committed. Some refinement in our activities will further encourage these leaders of today and tomorrow. If we fail to inspire them, then what exactly is the point? It is time to sharpen our edges to deliver improved results and sustainability.

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