As part of a campaign to deny that massacres of Armenians occurred 70 years ago in eastern Turkey, Turkish officials are quietly exerting pressure on local and national Jewish groups to discourage Jews from recognizing Armenians as fellow victims of genocide.
In recent months, Jewish leaders in Los Angeles and New York have received telephone calls from the Turkish ambassador in Washington and cables from Turkish Jews in Istanbul urging them to cancel scheduled presentations by Armenian-American speakers on the 1915 genocide.
According to local Jewish leaders, Turkish representatives implied that if the Jewish-sponsored speeches went ahead in Los Angeles, they could imperil the well-being of Turkish Jews and might prompt the closing of a border crossing in Turkey that has been an avenue of escape for Jews fleeing Iran.
In one instance, the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles received a cable from the chief rabbi in Istanbul objecting to the group's sponsorship of a speech by Richard Hovannisian, an Armenian history professor at UCLA. Murray Wood, an executive director of the federation, said objections to the speech last November also were raised in calls from Turkish Ambassador Sukru Elekdag to the World Jewish Congress in New York.
"Here we are halfway around the world, and they are telling us we are doing something that will be detrimental to the Jewish community there," Wood said. "It was disturbing and frustrating. At one point, I was told the border was closed for 6 to 12 hours and several people were turned away, all because the speech went forward. I later found out that wasn't true.
"The threats were never expressly stated but the implication in the phone calls and cables was very clear. I can put two and two together."
In another instance, Jewish leaders in Turkey telephoned New York officials of the Anti-Defamation League objecting to a talk last December in Los Angeles by Armand Arabian, an associate justice of the Court of Appeal. Local league officials refused to cancel the talk, and Arabian gave a moving account before a Jewish audience of how his parents survived the Armenian genocide.
League officials said it was unclear if the Jewish leaders in Turkey were acting on their own or at the behest of the Turkish government.
'Amounted to Blackmail'
"There's no question that the attempts to cancel Judge Arabian's speech amounted to blackmail," said a league representative in Los Angeles. "The Jewish community in Turkey expressed terrible distress over threats to them because we attempted to establish a rapport with the Armenian community."
But the Assembly of Turkish American Assns., the largest Turkish-American lobbying group, denies that threats against the well-being of Turkish Jews were either expressed or implied when objections to the planned speeches were raised. They said the chief rabbi and other members of the Jewish community in Turkey approached U.S. Jewish organizations on their own, without pressure from the Turkish government.
The Turkish ambassador in Washington and the Turkish consul general in Los Angeles refused to be interviewed for this story.
"When Turkish Jews speak out, they speak out without pressure from Turkey," said Nan Canter, executive director of the assembly, which has eight regional offices in the United States. "They are responding as members of the Turkish community, and it is absolutely a misperception on the part of American Jewish leaders that some pressure and intimidation is involved."
The pressure felt by Jewish organizations is part of a growing national campaign by Turkey and Turkish-American lobbying groups to cast doubt on what most historians agree was a genocide in the obscure reaches of eastern Turkey between 1915 and 1918. Turkey denies that a genocide occurred and says that both Christian Armenians and Muslim Turks died during a civil war prompted by an Armenian revolt.
The campaign attempts to discredit diplomatic cables sent to Washington in 1915 by U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau, detailing a "race extermination" of Armenians, arguing that Morgenthau was a virulent anti-Muslim and depended solely on the eyewitness accounts of Christian missionaries, who ignored the deaths of Muslims.
Cite Link to PLO
In appeals to the Jewish community through personal lobbying and advertisements taken out in Jewish community newspapers, Turkey and Turkish-American groups have emphasized ties between an Armenian extremist group and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
Canter said the assembly also tries to show that recognition of genocide is just one of several goals sought by Armenian political groups that, if realized, would bring great harm to Turkey, an important NATO ally and the only Muslim country other than Egypt to have relations with Israel.