Why Turks were able to exterminate Armenians, but not Jews

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Endless comparisons are made between the Armenian Genocide and the Jewish Holocaust. However, there is yet another comparison that is rarely made: the Turkish ability to carry out the Armenian Genocide and inability to eliminate the Jewish settlers from Palestine during the same period. Such a comparison has not been made because hardly anyone has studied the Turkish deportation plans of Jews during World War I in relationship to the Armenian Genocide.

Hans von Wangenheim
German Ambassador Hans vot Wangenheim helped protect the Ottoman Jews. Wikimedia

My preliminary analysis is based on information gleamed from Prof. Yair Auron’s book, “Zionism and the Armenian Genocide: The Banality of Indifference,” Vartkes Yeghiayan’s “Pro Armenia,” and other archival materials. I would like to detail the circumstances of deportations of the Jews and how they were mostly spared, while Armenians were not! More importantly, what steps did the Jewish Diaspora and settlers in Palestine take to avoid suffering Armenians’ tragic fate?

Armenians and Jews, as minorities in the Ottoman Empire, were convenient scapegoats for the whims of ruthless Turkish leaders. Interestingly, the Young Turks used the same arguments for deporting both Armenians and Jews. The Turks had accused Armenians for cooperating with the advancing Russian Army, while similarly blaming Jews for cooperating with British forces invading Ottoman Palestine. Furthermore, Jews were accused of planning to establish their own homeland in Palestine, just as Armenians were allegedly establishing theirs in Eastern Turkey. In yet another parallel, Jamal Pasha, one of the members of the Young Turk triumvirate, had cynically commented that he was “expelling the Jews for their own good,” just as Armenians were forcefully removed “away from the war zone” for their own safety!

In 1914, when Turkey entered World War I on the German side and against the Allied Powers (England, Russia, and France), Palestine became a theater of war. Turkish authorities imposed a war tax on the population, which fell more heavily on the Jewish settlers. Their properties and other possessions were confiscated by the Turkish military. Some Jewish settlers were used as slave labor to build roads and railways. Alex Aaronsohn, a Jewish settler in Zichron Yaacov, wrote in his diary: “an order had recently come from the Turkish authorities, bidding them surrender whatever firearms or weapons they had in their possession. A sinister command, this: we knew that similar measures had been taken before the terrible Armenian massacres, and we felt that some such fate might be in preparation for our people,” as quoted in Yeghiayan’s Pro Armenia.

In Fall 1914, the Turkish regime issued an expulsion order for all ‘enemy nationals,’ including 50,000 Russian Jews who had escaped from Czarist persecutions and settled in Palestine. After repeated intercessions by German Ambassador Hans Wangenheim and American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, these ‘enemy nationals’ were allowed to stay in Palestine, if they agreed to acquire Ottoman citizenship.

Nevertheless, on December 17, 1914, Jamal Pasha’s subordinate, Bahaeddin, governor of Jaffa, implemented the expulsion order, deporting 500 Jews who were grabbed from the streets and dragged to police headquarters, and from there forced to board ships docked in the harbor. Homes of Jewish settlers were searched for weapons. Hebrew-language signs were removed from shops and the Jewish school of Jaffa was closed down. Zionist organizations were dissolved, and on January 25, 1915, the Turkish authorities issued a declaration against “the dangerous element known as Zionism, which is struggling to create a Jewish government in the Palestinian area of the Ottoman Kingdom….”

In response to protests from Amb. Morgenthau and the German government, Constantinople reversed the deportation order and Bahaeddin was removed from his post. According to Prof. Auron, the condition of the Jewish settlers could have been much worse had it not been for “the influence of world Jewry on Turkish policy…. The American, German, and Austrian Jewish communities succeeded in restraining some of its harsher aspects. Decrees were softened; overly zealous Turkish commanders were replaced and periods of calm followed the times of distress.”

Back in 1913, Pres. Wilson had instructed Amb. Morgenthau upon his appointment: “‘Remember that anything you can do to improve the lot of your co-religionists is an act that will reflect credit upon America, and you may count on the full power of the Administration to back you up.’ Morgenthau followed this advice faithfully,” according to Isaiah Friedman’s book, “Germany, Turkey and Zionism: 1897-1918.” After arranging for the delivery of much needed funds from American Jews to Jaffa, Morgenthau wrote to Arthur Ruppen, director of the Palestine Development Association: “I have been the chosen weapon to take up the defense of my co-religionists….”

In Spring 1917, the Turkish authorities issued a second order to deport 5,000 Jews from Tel Aviv. Aaron Aaronsohn, leader of the Nili group – a small Jewish underground organization in Palestine working for British intelligence – immediately disseminated the news of the deportation to the international media. Aaronsohn secretly met with British diplomat Mark Sykes in Egypt and through him sent an urgent message to London on April 28, 1917: “Tel Aviv has been sacked. 10,000 Jews in Palestine are now without home or food. Whole of Yishuv [Jewish settlements in Palestine] is threatened with destruction. Jamal [Pasha] has publicly stated Armenian policy will now be applied to Jews.”

Upon receiving Aaronsohn’s reports from Palestine, Chaim Weizmann, a key pro-British Zionist in London, transmitted the following message to Zionist leaders in various European capitals: “Jamal Pasha openly declared that the joy of Jews at the approach of British troops would be short lived as he would them share the fate of the Armenians…. Jamal Pasha is too cunning to order cold-blooded massacres. His method is to drive the population to starvation and death by thirst, epidemics, etc….”

American Jews were outraged hearing of the deportations in Palestine. News reports were issued throughout Western countries on “Turkish intentions to exterminate the Jews in Palestine,” according to Prof. Auron. Moreover, influential Jewish businessmen in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire demanded that their governments pressure Turkish leaders to abandon their plans to deport Jews. Jamal Pasha was finally forced to rescind the expulsion order and provided food and medical assistance to Jewish refugees in Tel Aviv.

On May 9, 1917, Reuters disseminated the following news report by settler Aaron Aaronsohn: “an order was given to deport all Jews from Tel Aviv, including citizens of the Central Powers [Germany and Austria-Hungary], within 48 hours. A week before, 300 Jews were expelled from Jerusalem. Jamal Pasha declared that their fate would be that of the Armenians. The 8,000 deportees from Tel Aviv were not allowed to take any provisions with them, and after the expulsion their houses were looted by Bedouin mobs.”

Shortly thereafter, Oskar Cohen, a Jewish socialist member of the German Parliament, asked the Chancellor to press the Turkish government “to vigorously prevent the recurrence in Palestine of atrocities” against Jews similar to the ones committed against the Armenians.

On June 8, Aaronsohn wrote in his diary: “The cry we raised was effective. The Turks and the Germans were quick to realize that one cannot get away with slaughtering the Jews like the Armenians. German financing of the war might have suffered because of the Jews. Therefore they ceased the new deportations.”

Palestine, the official journal of the British Zionist movement, described the significant difference between the lobbying capabilities of Jews and Armenians: “The German government knows that the Jews do not compare to the Armenians in terms of their world power, and that the weight of the Jews in Germany is therefore different from that of the Armenians.”

Mordecai Ben-Hillel Hacohen, a prominent chronicler of Jewish history in Palestine, wrote in his diary of March 30, 1917: “the Turkish government has been stained in the eyes of the whole country because of its crime against the Armenians, and perhaps the government will reconsider its thoughts of doing thus to the Jews as well….”

Moshe Smilansky, a leader of the Jewish agricultural settlements in Palestine, after relating reports of the terrible massacres of Armenians, concluded: “The testimony of the eye witnesses aroused fear and panic in the Jewish audience. Who knows what would have been our fate were it not for Morgenthau, the American representative in Constantinople, and the fear of the world press which is ‘controlled’ by the Jews.”

Yair Auron reported in his book that Meir Dizengoff, a leader of the Jewish refugees in Palestine throughout World War I, “worked in close cooperation with the Zionist delegation in Constantinople, which was pro-German and pro-Turkish. According to Dizengoff, there were also excellent relations with the German consul in Palestine…. The consul served as a conduit for transferring funds to the Yishuv [Jewish community], on orders from the German Ambassador in Constantinople.” Dizengoff also stated that the Germans were the ones who assisted and saved the Yishuv. “The fact that Jamal Pasha became more sympathetic to the Jews was due to Germany.” Dizengoff recalled Jamal and Enver Pashas’ threats to the Jews: “Zionists beware! If you oppose us, we will do to you what we have done to the Armenians.”

In October 1917, when the Turkish authorities uncovered the Jewish Nili spy ring, a new threat loomed over the Jewish settlers in Palestine, giving yet another excuse for the Turks to oppress them. They feared that such anti-Turkish efforts would result in harsh counter-measures as practiced against Armenians. The Turkish Governor of Haifa met with Jewish leaders of the village of Zichron Yaakov on October 4, 1917, and threatened that unless they cooperated with his demands, he would do to them what he did to Armenians. He told them that he “barehandedly killed several Armenians, and his soldiers killed thousands of them.”

Chaim Margalit-Kalvarisky, the representative of the Jewish Colonization Association in Galilee, wrote the following note in his diary: “I received word from a fairly dependable source that the [Turkish] high command was very angry at the Jewish settlement, and they were consulting about the possibility of a general deportation of all the Jews of Palestine to the furthest provinces of the Empire [Eastern Anatolia].” Kalvarisky recorded Jamal Pasha’s ominous words after a heated exchange with him: “Heaven help the people whose sons are those cursed spies. We taught the Armenian people a lesson about such deeds, and we will not hesitate to take the same steps in this case.”

Having witnessed the brutality of the Turks against Armenians who were accused of insubordination and rebellion, the Jewish settlers decided to be completely submissive and not challenge the Turkish authorities. Prof. Auron observed that “there was not a single attack by a Jewish settler on a Turkish soldier.” What ultimately saved the Jews was the occupation of Palestine by the British forces, precluding further brutalities and massacres by the Turkish authorities.

At the end, 1.5 million Armenians were wiped out, whereas the Jewish settlers of Palestine suffered relatively minor losses. During the war years, the Jewish population of Palestine was reduced from 86,000 to 55,000. Despite the fact that Armenians had also their advocates in Europe and the United States, the Jewish settlers enjoyed the double protection of powerful countries on both sides of the war: the Western countries, including the United States, and Germany, Turkey’s military ally. Vahakn Dadrian, in his book, “The History of the Armenian Genocide,” relates that Hans Wangenheim, the German Ambassador to Turkey, told US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau: “I will help the Zionists… but I shall do nothing for the Armenians.”

While Germany saved the Jewish settlers of Palestine, it assisted the Young Turk regime to exterminate the Armenians.