If you had the choice between telling the truth about 20th-century genocide — and thereby alienating a contemporary strategic ally of the United States and Israel — or ignoring or downplaying the genocide and keeping the ally happy, which would you do?
Is this just an interesting hypothetical for grad students in ethics or philosophy to chew on?
No. It is a real-life question that must be answered not only by American lawmakers, but by Jewish organizations that are simultaneously pledged to promote both the strategic interests of both the the U.S.-Israel alliance, as well as speak out on issues of human rights.
A Faithful Ally
The dilemma concerns the history of Turkey, a nation that has in recent decades assumed tremendous importance in the Middle East.
Turkey is a NATO ally that faithfully stood by the United States during the Cold War, even sending troops to fight alongside ours in Korea. It was also the first Islamic country in the region to recognize the State of Israel.
More than that, its defense establishment has ties with the Israel Defense Force, and the two nations form an informal, loose-alliance of non-Arab states with a mutual interest in resisting the rise not only of Islamist terror, but the malevolent influence of rogue states like Syria and Iran.
That's due primarily to the influence of Kemal Attaturk, who led the Turkish state that emerged from the ruin of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Attaturk created a modern Turkish nationalism based on strict secularism.
Relations between Israel and Turkey have cooled a bit in recent years due to the election triumphs of Turkish Islamists who sought to distance Ankara from Jerusalem. And in the aftermath of the country's refusal to participate in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and their embrace last year of a Palestinian Hamas terrorists, they can no longer be termed reliable.
But even pessimists about the future of Turkey understand its crucial role as a firewall against jihadists. Turkey's military — the most powerful force in its society — is still an effective check on the Islamists, and has participated in joint military exercises with the Israelis.
But it does have one sensitive point that poses a problem. It refuses to own up to the crimes committed by Ottoman forces against ethnic Armenians during World War I.
Though the Turks like to act as if this episode is a great historical mystery that defies explanation, the truth is relatively simple. During the First World War, the Ottoman Turks fought the Russians. Caught in the middle were Christian Armenians, who were despised as dhimmi sympathizers with the foreign enemy. After a series of military reverses, the so-called "Young Turk" government in Istanbul ordered mass deportations of Armenians from parts of Anatolia. From 1915-17, as many as 1 million Armenians died as result of the attending hardships, as well as atrocities on the part of Turkish troops.
It was the first modern genocide, and the fact that the perpetrators were never held accountable is often cited as a reason why the Nazis thought they could get away with trying to exterminate the Jews.
But since their modern state came into being fighting for the hegemony of Turkish ethnicity over the large non-Turkish enclaves inside their country, the notion of owning up to the truth about that era has always been anathema to the Turks. To this day, their government denies that the deaths of Armenians were the result of a concerted plan, and claim that it should only be understood in the context of a war in which casualties were experienced by both sides.
The Turks would do better to acknowledge what happened and move on. But living as they do with ongoing conflicts over land and identity with Cypriot Greeks and Kurds, they cling to their policy of stonewalling the Armenians and demand that their allies back them up.
For almost a century, Armenians have sought to keep the memory of their suffering alive. That's the point of a congressional resolution on the question set to be passed by the House of Representatives that will recognize the atrocities against the Armenians as "genocide."
You would think that a Jewish community that has expended so much effort not only to enshrine the memory of the Holocaust but to ensure that it serve as an example to warn against crimes against others would be aligned with the Armenians, but that's not entirely correct.
Truth or Survival?
Though many Jews support the genocide resolution, some of the biggest Jewish communal players, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs (which has worked for years to build support for the Israel-Turkey alliance), are not. ADL head Abe Foxman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that "the Jewish community shouldn't be the arbiter of that history, nor should the U.S. Congress."
How do we balance the need to support historical truth against the strategic imperative of the present?
The answer is that we can't.
No one should expect Jews, of all people, to lie about mass murder. The Turkish policy of official historical revisionism is as absurd as it is counterproductive. The Turks' stand on the Armenians only harms their international standing and efforts to integrate with the West. But their realpolitik apologists have one point worth considering.
Given the current state of the Middle East and the West's ongoing battle against the jihadists, is this really the best moment for us to be pressing the Turks about their past?
In theory, a victory for historic truth ought to serve as insurance for Jews and any other people who have faced annihilation and may yet again. Moralists may be right to pose this question as one of absolutes, but in wartime, you can't always pick and choose your allies. Would it be worth it to damage an alliance with Turkey just to make a point about the truth of Armenian suffering? That might makes us feel righteous, but if it leads to more deaths in the future, would it be right?
Will an Armenian genocide resolution help us defend Israel against the threat of, say, an Iranian attempt at nuclear genocide better than a friendly Turkey? Some might believe that to be true. But can anyone who cares about the possibility of another mass murder of a non-Muslim population in the Middle East be indifferent to the possibility that it won't?