When genocide concerns you

Today is Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day and I’ve been reading through Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story: A Personal Account of the Armenian Genocide while eating some Armenian snacks from my Ararat Box.

Genocide is a weighty word and the recognition of it implies our moral responsibility not to be bystanders to the egregious evils of which we admit being aware.

During the First World War, Henry Morgenthau, a German-born Jewish American was serving as the the fourth 4th US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.

As ambassador, he did his utmost to try to reason with the Ottoman authorities, to stop the genocide, and to implore the U.S. government on behalf of the Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians who were being persecuted and massacred.

He served until 1916 and, upon his return to America, promptly published his account of the Armenian genocide and dedicated his life to exposing the truth and campaigning for its acknowledgement in American public life.

In 1918, he told the Ottoman Interior Minister: “After this war you will face a new situation. You say that, if victorious, you can defy the world, but you are wrong. You will have to meet public opinion everywhere, especially in the United States. Our people will never forget these massacres. They will always resent the wholesale destruction of Christians in Turkey. They will look upon it as nothing but willful murder and will seriously condemn all the men who are responsible for it.”

We can only imagine how moved, relieved, overwhelmed, and grateful Ambassador Morgenthau would be at today’s Statement by President Joe Biden in which he formally recognized the genocide committed against the Armenians during the Ottoman era to honor the victims and “so that the horrors of what happened are never lost to history.”

We do not have to imagine what it means to Armenians today because Armenians and the Armenian diaspora, including descendants of genocide victims and survivors, are attesting to the importance of this recognition in powerful and personal ways all around us.

Throughout the day, I have found it difficult to read about the crimes of the Ottomans against the Christian minorities. Whatever evil acts we can contemplate were all perpetrated – as were so many more and so much worse.

What I find most meaningful about marking this day this year is learning about how Ambassador Morgenthau acted with moral courage and clarity. As the ambassador and as a human being, he acted with the conviction that this genocide concerned him. Certain things were actually up to him. He faced a lot of frustration and futility, but not without leaving us some notable examples of how to take the side of the oppressed.

Once the Ottoman Interior Minister asked Ambassador Morgenthau, “Why are you so interested in Armenians, anyway? You are a Jew; these people are Christians. The Mohammedans and the Jews always get on harmoniously. We are treating the Jews here all right. What have you to complain of? Why can’t you let us do with these Christians as we please?”

To this the Ambassador replied, “You don’t seem to realize that I am not here as a Jew but as American Ambassador. My country contains something more than 97,000,000 Christians and something less than 3,000,000 Jews. So, at least in my ambassadorial capacity, I am 97 percent Christian. But after all, that is not the point. I do not appeal to you in the name of any race or any religion, but merely as a human being.”

Later on, during his term, the Germans sent a Jew named Dr. Nossig to Morgenthau in an effort to dissuade the Ambassador against his efforts to protect the Armenians.

Ambassador Morgenthau curtly dismissed Dr. Nossig and told him he could return to the German Embassy to see if he could campaign to get him recalled. “If I am to suffer martyrdom, I can think of no better cause in which to be sacrificed. In fact, I would welcome it, for I can think of no greater honour than to be recalled because I, a Jew, have been exerting all my powers to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Christians.”

As Horace said, “It is your concern when your neighbour’s wall is on fire.”

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