Armenian Museum in Washington: Beyond Genocide

Armenian Museum in Washington: Beyond Genocide

WASHINGTON – I had the great pleasure and unique opportunity to visit the future site of the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial the other day. It is truly an amazing location and space whose value in its potential to reach out to the Armenian-American community, the US political establishment, and American society as such cannot be underestimated.

Of course the ongoing disputes and legal matters dogging the project have been disappointing and, frankly, embarrassing and shameful. More than that, however, even as this idea was made public a few years ago, I got the impression that the efforts may be better served to highlight Armenian history and culture generally, as opposed to a giant commemoration of the Armenian Genocide alone.

Indeed, the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown in the Boston area is just that kind of informative, educational, and outreach establishment which I imagine could be realized on a larger and more successful scale in the heart of Washington, DC.

Most members of the Armenian-American community trace back their roots to the Armenian Genocide and I cannot blame a majority of the community for basing its identity on that one tragic chapter of our history. Yet, there is so much more to the Armenian experience generally that is worthy of being celebrated and shared.

Armenians and Jews: more different than similar

I often get the impression that the Armenians of America take their lead from the Jewish community in this country. I don’t know why that should be the case.

We Armenians certainly do have some things in common in terms of our history and culture, but, for the most part, the comparison ends after loosely applying a couple of terms such as “diaspora” and “genocide.”

The fact of the matter is that the Jews of the United States are much greater in number, wealthier, better-organized in some ways, and certainly far better-established and more influential on policy. That may inspire Armenians and other groups to take on their tactics, but the Jewish hold on the public consciousness of the US extends to the classroom and the media in a way which could never be duplicated in the short- to medium-term.

Movies, books, and TV and radio are replete with regular Jewish references. The Jews are an immense, visible community in the US today, just as they were in the old countries, in the European societies the heritage of which many Americans bear. The fact that most people who live in this country are Christian and exposed to the Bible automatically ensures some familiarity with the Jewish heritage anyway, which continues in everyday life as many Americans have friends, neighbors, and colleagues who are Jews, much more than they have Armenian acquaintances. Many are even partially Jewish by blood.

There are innumerable celebrities in the field of the arts and entertainment, business and politics, sports and academia who are Jewish. The strong political relationship between the United States and Israel and the ongoing, prominent dispute over the Holy Land only adds to the big part that Jews and their legacy play in the national conversation which reaches out to any even partly-informed or educated individual in America.

We Armenians could never have the sort of reach that the Jewish community has in this country, barring extreme circumstances. Our successes in the United States are praiseworthy, but, at the end of the day, we are fewer in number, much less wealthy, and not as well organized as the Jews.

The Armenian vote could only influence the popular elections in a handful of districts at the most, and there may be a few more where there are influential and rich individual Armenians who have the ear of the local decision-makers and their counterparts in Washington. Our language or humor or art and culture have had little to no influence on the public consciousness in this country.

For that matter, even when it comes to those points in common, our diaspora tradition is not as ancient as the Jewish one, to say nothing of the tradition of being a victimized minority. The latter, in fact, is a very rare phenomenon in Armenian history which was taken to the extreme in the last half-century or so of the Ottoman Empire.

In fact, as a Christian people subject to Muslim overlords in the middle ages, the Armenians often bore a distinct status with some cases of positions of influence under Turkish and Persian rule. The Armenian merchant class, for example, would often serve as the mediator with Europe and the rising Western powers in that era. All of that changed by the nineteenth century, of course.

What is more, the Armenian Genocide for today’s Armenians, the youth in particular, is one generation removed from the Holocaust and the young Jews of this country. It was my great-grandparents who were kicked out of what is Turkey today, great-grandparents whom I have never met, with whom I have never spoken. Their memory is sacred to me, worthy of being honored, but that removal across time, I feel, discourages me from basing my identity as an Armenian on that one event alone, especially given the earth-shaking events in Armenian history over the past few decades with the re-establishment of a sovereign Republic of Armenia and the continuing struggle over Artsakh.

We have managed to convince academia of the narrative of the Armenian experience as “the first genocide of the twentieth century”, the prototype of all genocides, serving as inspiration, of course, most particularly for the Holocaust. It cannot be a matter of pride that led us to that point. It can certainly be a matter of truth, of facts speaking for themselves.

Whatever it may be, I find it uncomfortable to establish and perpetuate a complex of victimization for the Armenians of America, and, by extension, the world, to institutionalize playing the victim all the time. And why do we even want to keep on playing the victim in a country with its own, in many ways ongoing, tradition of genocide against a native population? That does not make much sense to me at all.

The plans for an official memorial to the Holocaust in Washington were not without controversy, both within and outside the Jewish community. (The Jewish and Armenian communities and states also share the similarity of being divided into political, religious, and other factions, a characteristic which can have an effect on the process of establishing museums among other things.) It took over a decade to get the project going. It should please some that mention of the Armenian Genocide happens to form part of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s exhibit as well. But it seems to me that the Armenian-American community has once again tried to imitate Jewish initiatives, only without federal funding and without property right by the National Mall. Maybe it will take us a decade and more to finally inaugurate our facility too, past the desirable 2015 date.

All this is to say that we Armenians have much going for us which need not be reflected on the Jewish model, and that we have an enviable opportunity to capitalise on things uniquely Armenian just a few blocks from the White House which ought not be squandered. The Armenian-American community, I find, is often very inward-looking. An establishment that showcases our history and culture would provide an excellent opportunity for outreach to the world generally and also across Armenian communities within the United States and beyond.

It is our unique culture and our rich history which sets us apart from others. Our traditions may share a great deal with other peoples in the region as well, but many aspects of our music and dance, clothing, cuisine, and architecture are particular to us, not to mention our very special language and our distinctive church tradition, and also those unique pages in our history which no other peoples can claim to share, such as our success as a kingdom in Cilicia for a couple of centuries, our remarkable community in India, and such figures as Anania Shirakatsi, Hovsep Emin, and Komitas, to name but a few. To have a structure known as “Armenia House” in downtown DC would be much more attractive for visitors to share in the celebration of our tradition, to say nothing of the much more positive name as a location for receptions and other events, as opposed to a genocide museum and memorial.

We have a legitimate, just cause in making our demands for the recognition of the dispossession of the Armenians and other Christian peoples over the course of many decades during the turn of the last two centuries in what is today Turkey, as well as the formal acknowledgement and protection of that heritage by the Republic of Turkey. Our aim, as I understand it, is to alter the perceptions within society in Turkey and to fundamentally shift the national, state policy of the Republic of Turkey with regards to Armenians, as well as Greeks, Assyrian and other Syriac peoples and other minorities, their cultural heritage in Turkey, their current circumstances, and future relations. An establishment in Washington, DC marking that dispossession – and only that dispossession – could only serve to highlight one aspect of our struggle. An establishment which celebrates our entire immense and rich cultural legacy, on the other hand, our history, our language, our church and, of course, that dark, tragic page of our history which was the Armenian Genocide, could serve to renew our connection as Armenians with the heritage that we bear, as well as introducing this most interesting member of the family of peoples to American society generally.