By Yair Auron
In an Israeli forest dedicated to Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, 613 trees were planted last month to mark “24 years since the Khojaly genocide” in Azerbaijan. The only ones commemorating this “genocide” – in which 613 people were allegedly killed – are Azeris, Turks and, in recent years, Israelis. The Azeri press is overjoyed: “It is not surprising that Israelis remember the victims of Khojaly. The Jews know more than any other nation the pain of innocent victims, murdered only because they belonged to a certain group.”
The battle for Khojaly took place in February 1992, at the height of a vicious war between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. There are several versions regarding what happened, including a disputed numbers of victims. There are some who claim there was not even a massacre, but one thing is clear: No genocide took place there. I say this as a genocide researcher and as a person who believes that the murder of even one person because of his affiliation is an intolerable crime.
At the start of the war, observers were convinced Azerbaijan would wipe out the Armenian enclave within days, but after six blood-soaked years, with both sides perpetrating massacres, the Armenians won.
The “genocide” at Khojaly is a cynical Azeri fabrication, evil and cruel. It is being fostered by Azerbaijan, which explicitly declares its intention of conquering Nagorno-Karabakh and destroying its villages.
In recent years, the State of Israel – the main arms supplier to Azerbaijan – has become a direct and indirect supporter of these genocide claims. President Reuven Rivlin spoke of the Khojaly tragedy in his January 2015 speech to the UN General Assembly on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, referring to acts of genocide that took place in our time. He didn’t specifically define what happened in Nagorno-Karabakh as genocide, but he linked the two by talking about “the killing in Khojaly.”
Rivlin has previously stated publicly, including when he was Knesset speaker, that Israel should recognize the Armenian genocide (perpetrated by the Ottoman government, starting in 1915), but refuses to repeat this as president. His words at the United Nations were interpreted by both Azeris and Armenians as if he had used the term “genocide” in reference to Khojaly.
To me, the planting of trees in an Israeli forest and the Azeri-Jewish “brotherhood of victims” that was emphasized at the ceremony are a desecration of something sacred. Describing Armenian soldiers as Nazis, the clear links made between the Holocaust and the massacres at Babi Yar, Lidice, Oradour and Khojaly are a terrible distortion of a basic historical truth.
How the wheel of history turns. In April 1918, Weizmann’s personal secretary, Shmuel Tolkowsky, published an article called “The Armenian Question from a Zionist Standpoint.” The article presented the positions of the Zionist Movement at the time, especially that of its London leaders, Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow. It was written with Weizmann’s support and approval.
“We Zionists feel a deep and sincere sympathy for the fate of the Armenian people. We do so as human beings, as Jews and Zionists. As Jews, we were exiled from our ancient land and experienced suffering for many centuries. We were turned, I dare say, into experts on martyrdom. Our humanitarian sensitivities were honed in an unparalleled fashion, to the point where the suffering of other nations, even those alien to us in their origin and distant in their location, cannot but shake our souls, giving rise to a fraternity between us and our suffering brethren, a deep fraternal link that could be termed ‘a brotherhood of sorrow.’
Among all those suffering around us, is there any nation whose history of martyrdom is more similar to ours?”
Last year, after various “Khojaly memorials” and the words of our president at the UN, a very senior Armenian cabinet member invited me to his office. “I speak to you not as a minister in the Armenian government but as one human being to another, as an Armenian to an Israeli Jew: how much more can you hurt us?” he asked. “You don’t recognize the 1915 genocide, you deny it, you sell arms to Azerbaijan – whose only purpose is to obliterate the Republic of Karabakh – and now you take part in events commemorating the ‘genocide in Khojaly,’ topped by your president’s words at the UN. We can’t take it anymore.”
The Dean of Yerevan University, where I teach, was once a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Earlier this year he said to me, “Yair, you are desecrating all moral values. You are defiling the memory of the Holocaust.”
Mentioning Khojaly and the Holocaust under one title at a recent, so-called scientific conference is indeed a desecration of the Holocaust and its victims. This event was attended by Knesset members and parliamentarians from Azerbaijan. It was organized at the initiative of a group called Aziz, the Israel-Azerbaijan International Association. This is a group the attorney general has been asked to investigate.
The forest where the trees were planted belongs to the Jewish National Fund, an official state institution. Who approved this odious act? Israeli officials talk of “our dear Azeri brothers.” They say: “We, Israelis and Jews, sympathize with your feelings.” Or “Jerusalem, just like Khojaly, was under siege.” And “We express our solidarity with the families of the victims and the Azeri people, solidarity with basic human values.”
Yes, Israel, we are indeed desecrating basic human values, and defiling the memory of the Holocaust and its victims. No one gave us the authority to do so!
The writer is a genocide researcher. This year he launched the “Genocide Studies and Human Rights” course at the American University of Armenia in Yerevan.