Israel Charny is an Israeli psychotherapist and a well-known genocide scholar. He is a specialist in the treatment of Holocaust survivors, with a long career in clinical practice and professional leadership as a clinical psychologist and family therapist. Professor Charny is also the director of the Institute on the Holocaust & Genocide in Jerusalem, which he founded together with Elie Wiesel. He is also the co-founder and past president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, the author of award-winning books on the subject of genocides, such as Genocide: A Critical Bibliographic Review (1988), Encyclopedia of Genocide(1999-2000), and Fascism and Democracy in the Human Mind (2006). In April 2021, he published his last book, entitled Israel’s Failed Response to the Armenian Genocide: Denial, State Deception, and Truth versus Politicization of History. Together with Yair Auron, historian and Associate Director of the Institute on the Holocaust & Genocide, Professor Charny won the President of Armenia Prize “for his decades-long academic work on the Armenian Genocide and activities contributing to its international recognition, as well as for his significant research into the field of Genocide denial.” In this interview, Professor Charny tells us about Israel’s attempts to cancel an international conference on genocides in 1982, Israel’s relationship with the Armenian and other genocides, and his personal involvement, as a psychotherapist, with genocides. This interview has been edited for clarity and flow.
Professor Charny, let us start with your new book, entitled Israel’s Failed Response to the Armenian Genocide: Denial, State Deception, Truth versus Politicization of History, where you focus on Israel’s attempts to foil an academic conference on the Shoah and the Armenian genocide in 1982. The book contains lots of information and archival sources, including your personal letters to Shimon Peres, who aligned with Israel’s official policy of denying the Armenian genocide. Could you tell us more about this episode, which you defined as a “moral failure” of Israel?
In 1982, I and others organized an international conference in Tel Aviv. The conference, entitled International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide, was the first conference that had ever been designed about the notion of genocide that we know of in the world. Most importantly, it was the first conference linking the notions of Holocaust and genocide, connecting the Holocaust to previous and ongoing genocides of all other people to “project genocide as a universal problem in the history and future of all peoples” and to “reconcile the specifically Jewish victims with the universality of all victims”. We originally had a pre-registration of 600 people, but, due to the enormous pressure that was put on people not to come, only about 300 people took part in the conference. Members of the Israeli government personally called those registered to the conference and asked them, in the name of Israel, not to take part in the conference. In some cases, Israel even fabricated stories about Turkey’s having threatened Jewish lives to convince participants not to go. Israel’s goal was to have the conference canceled. In the end, the conference took place nonetheless, and 300 people decided to come when they learned that we were going ahead with the conference. It was a very moving occasion. The atmosphere was electric: the participants were aware of our struggle against the government and identified with us, with our courage and persistence in standing up against the attempts to cancel the conference.
Why do you think the conference was necessary, and what can we learn from it?
That conference was the first known effort to bring minds and hearts together to look at genocide as a universal problem of humanity. Over the years after our conference, other universities have combined the Holocaust and the notion of genocide. I am delighted about that. The Holocaust has its specialness, but it is also part of a terrible family called genocide, in which nobody is superior to others or needs to be separated from the others. The family of genocides represents a universal sickness of mankind from the beginning of history. It is a tragic aspect of human history, and just as we organize ourselves to fight against threats of diseases like cancer or to handle ecological problems that are threatening the existence of our planet, we must also fight the natural availability of genocide in the human repertoire: genocide arises over and over again.
As a psychotherapist and an expert on genocides, your perspective on Israel’s relationship with other mass atrocities is unique and peculiar. As the title of one of your books suggests – Fascism and Democracy in the Human Mind: A Bridge between Mind and Society –, mechanisms that are typical of the individual psychic life can be applied to the collective and social sphere. Regarding Israel’s relationship with the Armenian genocide, how do you think these two levels intertwine with each other? What are, in your view, the mechanisms at the origin of Israel’s denial of the Armenian genocide and, more in general, of Israel’s tendency to separate the Shoah from other genocides, refusing any comparison with them?
This is the result of a complex combination of two unconscious drives. On the one hand, there is the emotional, experiential basis of the survivors, who see their unbearable sufferance as unique and unprecedented, not comparable to anyone else’s. This is an entirely human mechanism, which is fully justified, and I would never argue with that. On the other hand, unfortunately, this drive dovetails with another unconscious process, which is quite dangerous and involved paradoxically in creating genocides, to begin with. Namely, the unconscious need to make oneself – oneself being here the collective self – superior to others and to make others inferior to us. There is an essential dirtiness to this concept: superior is different from excelling, winning, and being outstanding. Superiority has to do with domination, with being more than the other, with creating a context where the other is lesser than us. These are two distinct aspects, which can combine easily because they both involve an emphasis on our values. Feeling superior to others is in itself a human drive, which inhabits us since childhood: but as we grow up and become adults, we learn to overcome this drive, reaching a higher level of coexistence with others, based on equality, on honor, and reciprocal respect.
How does this higher level of coexistence come about?
We shall look at Israel from the point of view of the development of the individual. Typically, the infant has needs, desires, and imperatives. Slowly, hopefully, in the process of caring interaction with the mother, the father, the siblings, the grandparents, and other children, the infant develops a sense of meaningfulness and value of other people. This closely links with the ability to build empathy: when children see someone else getting hurt or sick, they get hurt by it, becoming concerned and alarmed. During life, slowly but surely, our circle expands to caring about friends and other beloved subjects: this is how one becomes able not only to pursue someone sexually but to connect with others emotionally, in a caring and mutual way. Slowly but surely, our world expands to an awareness that we live in a given village or city or state or country, that the members of our family – call it religion, nation, or political party – care about values in a shared way with us. If we are fortunate, this development process leads people to become aware that there are so many other human beings in this world that are just like us and need the same fundamentals of protection and development that all of us look for. A higher level of coexistence with others, then, can only be reached through the cultivation of love: love of ourselves and, consequently and more maturely, of other people, realizing that we are all children of the miracle. It is an enormous job, but a very exciting and wonderful one.
Let us bring all this at a social and collective level: what went wrong in this development process, in the case of Israel? And what are the agents of a possible change? At Gariwo, for example, we focus on the figures of the Righteous – of those who chose the good in extreme circumstances – to educate society to active citizenship and responsibility. But how about Israel? Do you think this is a task for politics and leadership, for educational institutions? How to create a different culture, one that builds on empathy and connection with the other?
Like every collective group, Israel faces the universal challenge of dealing with others. Yet, Israel has its own burden of a history of so much persecution of the Jewish people that the understandable need to re-strengthen ourselves – which is at the core of the Zionist miracle, of the re-building of Israel – has occupied so much of Jewish history. And to do that while at the same time maintaining and developing a genuinely universal attitude of caring for other people is a huge challenge. Many parts of the Jewish people have moved constructively with it. A line in the Shabbat prayer says, “you have chosen us above other people”: this has been part of the prayer for thousands of years. Many of us have changed that prayer: now we hold our glasses of wine, and we sing, “you have chosen us along with other people”. Other parts of the Jewish people, however, have not moved constructively with this challenge. And this, to take now your question about leadership, includes the Orthodox religious leadership of Israel. Even though the Jewish tradition offers some beautiful statements about caring for the stranger and taking care of other people, the Orthodox establishment has become a fiercely self-centered, antagonistic leadership that encourages degrees of disdain for other people. This is against everything that Judaism stands for. In light of this, I believe that all of the factors you mentioned are absolutely relevant to build a culture of mutual respect and empathy with others: good leaders and good educators are all central to the fulfillment of this task.
Let us now focus on the Armenian genocide specifically. Why, in your view, does Israel refuse to recognize the Armenian genocide? Recently, a lively debate took place in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: some argue that this happens because of religious and cultural reasons; others believe it all boils down to politics. What do you think?
It is a combination of several factors. The first factor is very practical and has to do with Israel’s relationship with Turkey. There are so many people in every state department or foreign ministry in the world who believe that foreign relations are based on doing what is good for your people, getting the fullest advantage that you can, and caring very little about considerations of a moral nature. It’s called realpolitik, and I don’t like it. I believe that foreign relations should be based on the practicality of self-protection, but as much as possible, and simultaneously, they should also be based on morality and decency. The second factor has to do with the cultural process we have been speaking about: so many people have insisted that the Shoah can never be compared or linked in any way to the genocides of other people. Hence, Israel’s non-recognition of the Armenian genocide starts with practicality and continues with the emotional quest for superiority by the exclusion of other people: this is a pretty powerful combination.
What about the UN? Following Rafael Lemkin’s coinage of the notion of “genocide”, the UN played a central role in turning it into an international, judicially defined crime. Yet, the UN has never taken an official position on what happened in Armenia between 1915 and 1918, nor does Armenia appear on the UN’s official description of the origin of this notion. Moreover, the spokesman of UN’s secretary-general Antònio Guterres recently said: “We have no comment, as a general rule, on events that took place before the founding of the U.N.”. What do you think?
The UN does recognize the Armenian genocide, and any statement otherwise is wrong. For many years, the UN did not recognize the Armenian genocide, along the lines that you spoke about. In 1985, however, the UN created a commission headed by Benjamin Whitaker. The Whitaker commission produced a wonderful report on genocides in general, which recognized the Armenian genocide without any reservation whatsoever. So, from the point of view of history and legality, the UN did recognize the Armenian genocide.
The Whitaker report lists the Armenian genocide in one paragraph [paragraph 24, Part I, section B], together with other genocides, stating that some of them are legalistically not genocides but can be nevertheless defined as such. Shall this be taken as a formal recognition of the Armenian genocide by the UN?
One last question: how did you personally get interested, as a psychotherapist, in the Armenian genocide and genocides in general?
I will give you two personal stories. The first story is this: many years ago when I still lived in America, I was a consultant to a psychiatric hospital for teenagers. One day, we had a study day, and two guests arrived: a Turkish psychiatrist and a Turkish psychologist, and I did not know anything about them. By complete chance, I was seated next to them at the workshop, so we spent the whole day together, sharing coffee and lunch breaks. During the afternoon coffee break, I suddenly remembered that I had just recently learned about the Armenian genocide in a very famous article that appeared in a magazine called Commentary Magazine. So I ask them about it, saying that I would have loved to know more about that. Within seconds, each of these people turned around and walked away from me. They would not speak to me again for the rest of the day. From that day on, I could not help but be interested in the denial of the Armenian genocide.
The second story I want to tell you is this: once upon a time, after receiving my doctorate and after five years of postdoctoral experience, I went through a very advanced examination process to be recognized as a “specialist”. Specialist means, for example, that when you sign an insurance form for a patient, this form is automatically recognized in all the states in America, even those in which you are not licensed. It means many other things that define you as an expert in human behavior. I passed the examination. After receiving the notice, I went to sleep, and I had a dream. The dream was about the Holocaust: I saw the Nazis killing the Jews, particularly babies. In the dream, I said to myself: they say I am an expert in human behavior, but do I understand why human beings can behave this way? And the answer was: no, I don’t, and haven’t been taught anything whatsoever in all of the training that I had, which has now qualified me as a specialist. That was a turning point for me: I knew I would be busy with this subject for the rest of my life.
This interview has also been published in The Times of Israel: https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/family-of-genocides-represents-a-universal-sickness-of-mankind/ and on the Institute on the Holocaust & Genocide in Jerusalem's official website: https://www.ihgjlm.com/2021/07...