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  • The Banality of Indifference: Zionism and the Armenian Genocide
  • Robert Melson
The Banality of Indifference: Zionism and the Armenian Genocide, by Yair Auron. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2000. 405 pp. $39.95.

Yair Auron’s work sheds new and important light both on the Armenian Genocide and on the reactions and attitudes of the Zionist movement and the Jewish community in Palestine (Yishuv) during the First World War and its aftermath. Auron, a senior lecturer at the Open University of Israel and the Kibbutzim College of Education, was trained at the Hebrew University and the Sorbonne, where he received his doctorate. He is the author in Hebrew of Sensitivity to World Suffering: Genocide in the Twentieth Century and Jewish-Israeli Identity.

The facticity of the Armenian Genocide has been denied by recent Turkish governments and by some historians who are sympathetic to its views. Nearly every thing we know about the Armenian Genocide rests on American, British, German, Austrian, Russian, and Vatican documents. Unfortunately, most Ottoman documents, with rare exceptions, have not been made available to researchers. What Auron has done, therefore, is single-handedly to discover and bring to light new and important sources on the events, namely documents from the Yishuv and the Zionist archives. His is a pioneering work in revealing new sources of documentation and new venues for research on a traumatic and crucial period of recent history.

But his study seeks to move beyond documentation to interpretation: he is especially interested in the role of the Yishuv as a bystander to the events, and here he raises important political and moral questions: To what extent did the Zionist movement and the early Jewish pioneers respond to the plight of the Armenians? Did they try to warn the world about the disaster? Did they try to rescue fleeing refugees? Or did they turn their back on the plight of the Armenians, as so many did when twenty-five years later Jews were fleeing for their lives? His answers are complex, showing that individual Jews and some organizations like the Nili group did care and did try to reach [End Page 124] out to the doomed, while other Jews and Jewish organizations remained silent and inactive.

Significant figures in the Yishuv, especially those in Nili, were well aware of the Armenian Genocide. “Nili” (an acronym of a passage in First Samuel 15:29, “The Glory of Israel will not lie”) was the first Jewish intelligence network in Palestine. It comprised 40 members, most of whom were descendants of first Aliya pioneers, those who had come between 1881 and 1906. Nili archives demonstrate that the group was well aware of the Armenian Genocide and tried to get the British to intervene. Some, like Sarah Aaronsohn, one of the leaders of Nili, had witnessed the results of the genocide at first hand and feared that the nascent Jewish community in Palestine would suffer the same fate as the Armenians. In no small part Nili turned itself into a pro- British spy-ring and alerted the British to the Armenian Genocide in order to forestall the destruction of the Yishuv.

On the other hand, there were leaders of Hashomer (the Guardian) like David Ben- Gurion and Itzhak Ben-Zvi, the future Prime-Minister and President of Israel, who had sided with the Ottomans at the start of the war. In their view, the future of the Yishuv lay in a federated Ottoman Empire that would emerge following hostilities. Hence they supported the Ottoman side and hoped that the Yishuv would be rewarded for its loyalty. Auron suggests that Ben-Gurion’s and Ben-Tzvi’s silence concerning the Armenian Genocide may be explained by the constraints of their office as leaders of Hashomer and by their loyalty to the Ottoman side. Later, after the Balfour Declaration, which placed the British squarely on the side of the Yishuv and a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Ben-Gurion and Ben-Tzvi supported the British and the Entente against the Germans and the Turks, but by then most of the Armenian Genocide had run its course and, presumably, they had little to add.

The tragedy of the Armenians during the...

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