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Commentary: U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s ‘present’ vote on recognizing Armenian Genocide is distressing

This commentary originally appeared in the Star Tribune.

October 31, 2019 

By Alejandro Baer , Tadeos Barseghyan and Steve Hunegs

As leaders of Minnesota’s Armenian and Jewish communities, joined by the director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota, we applaud the U.S. House for this week overwhelmingly approving H.R. 296 affirming that it should be the policy of the U.S. to “commemorate the Armenian Genocide through official recognition and remembrance.”

We are grateful to Rep. Betty McCollum for co-sponsoring this resolution, and for the support of every other member of Minnesota’s delegation — other than Rep. Ilhan Omar, who inexplicably voted “present.”

As far back as 2007, both our local Armenian and Jewish communities have supported passage of this resolution.

Praising the vote, Gov. Tim Walz rightly tweeted that “the #ArmenianGenocide is historical fact, and the denial of that fact is a continuation of the genocide. As a member of Congress, I sponsored this legislation. The memory of the victims and the commitment to the survivors demands that history acknowledge the lives lost.”

Armenians first came to St. Paul in the 1890s, as Jews had done in the 1840s. The Armenian and Jewish communities share a love of family and education. We are committed to our respective churches and synagogues and dedicated to the greater community. We are diaspora communities who are loyal Americans and care deeply about events abroad.

We also share in the suffering from terrible atrocities of the 20th century. That said, whether it is the Armenian Genocide or the Holocaust, genocide does not define us peoples. It does, however, provide us parallel and intersecting responsibilities to teach our histories so that the horrors of the past are not repeated.

Even the term “genocide” binds us together, as it was coined by Jewish Holocaust survivor Raphael Lemkin in part to describe what had happened to Armenians in 1915 and in part as a response to the murder of his own family at the hands of Nazi Germany.

This is why our communities, along with the center, partner to remember our tragedies, as well as to support each other at our times of need. For example, our local Armenian community’s traveling exhibit “Treasures of Memory and Hope,” which features ordinary belongings of survivors of the Armenian Genocide who resettled in Minnesota, was inspired by the Jewish Community Relations Council’s “Transfer of Memory” project, a touring exhibit of portraits and stories of Holocaust survivors who rebuilt their lives here.

We’ve partnered to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in 2015 at St. Sahag Armenian Church in St. Paul and through programming organized by the center.

In sharp contrast to this reaffirming work and the broad bipartisan consensus in Congress and our Minnesota delegation, stands Omar’s explanation for her vote. In a statement released on Twitter, which failed to explicitly mention Turkish responsibility even once, Omar stated, in part, that “accountability and recognition of genocide should not be used as a cudgel in a political fight. It should be done based on academic consensus outside the push and pull of geopolitics.”

Such comments echo a century of Turkish denialism.

The facts are beyond dispute. Broad academic consensus regarding the Armenian Genocide already exists and has long been recognized by the International Association of Genocide Scholars. Forty-nine U.S. states, including Minnesota, have officially recognized the Armenian Genocide by legislative resolution or gubernatorial proclamation. The Armenian Genocide is thoroughly documented in the U.S. and international archives, including statewide news coverage that documented the Armenian Genocide as it was happening. Minnesota citizens, both Armenian and non-Armenian, played an active role in assisting Armenian Genocide survivors through the congressionally mandated Near East Foundation from 1915 to 1930.

Minnesota Historical Society archives reveal that in 1919 Charles Evans Hughes warned Minnesota Gov. J.A.A. Burnquist that “Armenia is threatened with the imminent danger of extermination.”

The Republican nominee for president in 1916, Hughes wrote in his capacity as the honorary chair of the American Committee for the Independence of Armenia. Hughes would later serve as secretary of state, then rejoin the U.S. Supreme Court as chief justice.

Rep. Omar pointed to the “transatlantic slave trade and Native American genocide” as reasons why she couldn’t vote to recognize the Armenian Genocide. The logical fallacy is that somehow recognition of the Armenian Genocide precludes recognition of other heinous misdeeds. Global awareness of the Holocaust proves exactly the contrary.

The eminent Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt ruefully observed that “never again has meant again and again.” The first and most important step in ensuring that the most painful chapters of our history do not repeat themselves is to honestly acknowledge the past.

 

Alejandro Baer is director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota. The Rev. Tadeos Barseghyan is pastor at St. Sahag Armenian Church in St. Paul. Steve Hunegs is executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.