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Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), sent a letter to President Obama about the upcoming commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, invoking the timeless words “Never forget. Never again.” The full text of the letter follows.
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President,
Last week we marked Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. As you said in your eloquent statement that day, “Yom HaShoah is a day to reaffirm our responsibilities to ourselves and future generations. It is incumbent upon us to make real those timeless words, ‘Never forget. Never again.’”
In that spirit, and mindful of our community’s sacred obligation to make sure that the “timeless words” you invoked are not empty phrases, we write to you today concerning the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide.
We are pleased that you are sending a high-level Presidential Delegation to the Republic of Armenia to participate in the memorial later this week. One of the most shameful chapters of modern history demands commemoration.
It also demands honesty in how we describe what happened 100 years ago. The genocide of over 1.5 million Armenians beginning in 1915 by the Ottoman Turks and the subsequent exile of an additional 500,000 Armenians cannot be described accurately by any other term.
In her Pulitzer prize-winning book, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power, currently our brilliant U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, marshals history as call to action. “In 1915 Henry Morgenthau Sr., the U.S. Ambassador in Constantinople, responded to Turkey’s deportation and slaughter of its Armenian minority by urging Washington to condemn Turkey and pressure its wartime ally Germany.” Morgenthau also defied diplomatic convention by personally protesting the atrocities, denouncing the regime and raising money for humanitarian relief. When the Turkish interior minister pressed Morganthau, “Why are you so interested in the Armenians anyway? You are a Jew, these people are Christians.... What have you to complain of? Why can’t you let us do with these Christians as we please?” Morganthau replied, “You don’t seem to realize that I am not here as a Jew but as the American Ambassador.... I do not appeal to you in the name of any race or religion but merely as a human being.”
We recognize that the Turkey of today is vastly different from the Ottoman Empire of Morgenthau’s day. However, our respect for modern Turkey's traditions of pluralism should not deter us from learning the lessons of past mistakes.
Jewish history compels us to be forceful and clear on this issue. In this we join with Pope Francis and other religious leaders who rightly respect the magnitude of this historical slaughter.
Mr. President, as you know better than most, words matter. What we choose to call things matters. Failing to call the slaughter of over 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 “genocide,” not only diminishes the suffering of those who were annihilated but teaches those of us living today that it is acceptable to recast the retelling of past massacres to ease modern sensibilities.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs
President, Union for Reform Judaism