For over 60 years, Jewish groups have monopolized and adopted sole proprietorship of the term "Holocaust". Individuals like Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League have characterized the Jewish Holocaust as a unique event, an assault against God Himself, and have minimized genocide directed against other groups. Meanwhile, some of those other groups, particularly Armenians, have been doing a slow burn while their own history has been minimized at best, and ignored at worst.
Now Armenians are speaking out. Nearly every one of the estimated 5,000 Armenians living in Utah has some link to what they believe was the first genocidal incident of the 20th Century. And the Deseret News reports that dozens marched at Utah's Federal Building in Salt Lake City on Friday April 24th, 2009, urging awareness of their ancestral deaths and seeking some form of official recognition from governments locally and around the world. Red, blue and orange Armenian flags, along with the Stars and Stripes, were carried by those at the gathering, representing the citizenship they claim. Others displayed posters demanding recognition for the killings, claiming that genocide denial is an "official Turkish government policy."
"It's insulting to hear that my ancestors were rebels and terrorists," said Zaven A. Sargsian, president of the Armenian Hyrenik Youth Organization (AHYO) in Utah. The University of Utah student said he's long fought the push by Turkish nationals to re-frame the killing and deportation of as many as 1.5 million Armenian people by the Turkish government.
A current resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives would recognize the incident as genocide, instead of the civil casualty case that many are calling it.
As the record stands, during the night of April 23-24, 1915, an estimated 250 Armenian political, religious, educational and intellectual leaders in Istanbul were arrested, deported to the interior and put to death. This unleashed a wave of deportations and mass executions which continued until 1918. Precise estimates of deaths vary; the Turks claim it was 300,000, and Armenians claim it was 1.5 million. A British Foreign Office estimate from that time put the total at 600,000. Ultimately, nearly all Armenians remaining in Turkey were deported and for years since then, the land-locked country was blockaded by Turkish officials.
But this was only the primary massacre. Turks launched two other massacres of Armenians. From 1894-96, the Hamidian Massacres took anywhere from 80,000 to 300,000 Armenian lives. And the more localized Adana Massacre in 1909 took 15,000 to 30,000 Armenian lives.
The Salt Lake commemoration is held every year at this time and is dedicated to the remembrance of those who lost their lives, as well as a demonstration against the ongoing denial by the Turkish government and an appeal to the U.S. federal government to recognize the events rightfully as genocide.
"It's a part of history that is just not represented," said Agnesa Bakhshyan, who is often mistaken for being Hispanic. She says many of her peers and acquaintances aren't aware of where Armenia is located. Some of her family members were killed for keeping a record of the 1915 incidents, long after the initial nation was destroyed. "It's still happening, yet there are states and nations that don't accept it even took place," Bakhshyan added.
The Armenians' activism will continue. Throughout the weekend, AHYO is sponsoring the first Armenian film festival in Utah, with films produced in the U.S., France, Italy, Russia and Armenia that promote the awareness of contemporary Armenian issues. Films are being shown from 3 to 10 p.m. Saturday, and from 12 to 6 p.m. on Sunday at the University of Utah Olpin Union Building theatre.
On a side note, one other Utah blogger has expressed strong interest in this issue. Salt Lake Crawler reports that on the Utah Amicus blog, Seth Wright takes issue with the announcement by The Turkish Coalition of America and the University of Utah of a new class soon to be taught at the University of Utah. The class is titled, “The Origins of Modern Ethnic Cleansing: Collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Emergence of Nation States in the Balkans and Caucasus”. In this class they will be using a text book titled, “The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey- a Disputed Genocide”. Wright believes the class will encourage the minimization of the genocide against the Armenians.
While it's great to see Seth Wright apply the term "Holocaust" to outbreaks of genocide against other peoples besides Jews, I am concerned about his demonization of "denial". Who defines "denial"? What is the actual definition of "denial"? Most so-called "Holocaust deniers" do NOT deny that Jews were targeted and killed in significant numbers. Instead, they merely dispute the demographics, the methodology, and above all, the singularity. When we place history off limits to debate, we destroy intellectual diversity. A free society requires dissent in order to thrive, just as a garden requires manure to grow.