What can we learn?

Hands together painted like planet earth

Featured Blogger: Daniel Wu, a 2016 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards Gold Medalist and a 2016 Gedenk Award for Tolerance recipient. Daniel is a junior at Timber Creek High School in Orlando, Florida. He’s an avid debater, participating in that grand school-sponsored activity of dressing up to verbally assault colleagues. His interests are multifaceted, but include critical race theory, gender relations, and societal constructions of health.

What can we learn?

The Gedenk Mission is a very straightforward one – to improve Holocaust awareness, and tolerance – so that the Holocaust remains firmly in the past, instead of the future. The issue is that, for every single mind we enlighten, there are scores more that remain ignorant of the many hidden Holocausts peppered amongst the annals of history.

In the Ottoman Empire, Armenian activists and Armenian leaders disappeared. Armenian Men were massacred. Armenian women and Armenian children lined up and marched into the Syrian Desert; even as whips, chains, and Ottoman rape wore heavily on their minds, the ruthless desert took its inevitable toll on their bodies. Their crimes weren’t capital; they weren’t felonies or even misdemeanors – They were simply Christian. They existed. And then, they didn’t.

An estimated 1.5 million Armenians died.

Historians have dubbed this the first genocide of the 20th century. They called it the greatest state-sanctioned death to taint the earth, unparalleled in both its scope and magnitude. Those historians, of course, wrote before WWII.

And yet, not only are relatively few people aware of the Armenian Genocide, those who are, notably, world leaders, refuse to acknowledge its import. Turkey, as the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, naturally wants to divest itself from that little earmark in its history books; in fact, its complicated analyses of the event have resulted in token acknowledgement and qualified denial – of course, all in the spirit of “true” historical accuracy. Here’s the Turkish position, you can decide for yourself.

Even those recognizing the atrocity have done so sluggishly and half-heartedly. Something has to be wrong when the Kardashians beat the Pope to the punch. Senator Obama on the campaign trail once said, “The Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence.” However, upon becoming cognizant of Turkish reticence and even outright hostility over the boorish term “genocide”, President Obama discretely shifted to phrases such as “mass killings.” He’s just being pragmatic. Armenians are powerless, spread out in diaspora communities around the world, while Turkey is a vital ally in the hothouse of the Middle East.

The terror of today, the fear of mass conflict to come, has caused us to forgive, and more importantly, forget, the mass conflicts of the past.

The message we are told isn’t that we should tolerate, rather, we are told to beware. Tolerate not the shattered histories of our Armenian brethren, but rather beware the violent posturing of ISIS. Forget the atrocities of the past, for the perils of the future are much more terrifying.

What can we learn? The lesson isn’t really “Don’t commit genocide!” although that’s a worthwhile one to know. Could it be, “Watch out for tyrants and dictators”? Not really.

Surely, the deeper lesson can only be obtained by looking at deeper causes. Hitler didn’t cause the Holocaust – rampant anti-Semitism did. Pol Pot didn’t murder millions – extremist Cambodian nationalism did. Rwandan Hutus, fueled by social class hatred, and a storied past of violence, removed 70% of the Tutsi population.

Certain concepts – anti-Semitism and tolerance, nationalism and cosmopolitanism, hatred and cordiality – are fundamentally opposed. The lesson that events like the Armenian Genocide teach is a simple one, and one we should be learning every day of our lives: Be a better person. Realize that all members of the world are human beings, and the tensions that antagonize us, the borders that divide us, would melt away.

The root of Turkish denialism, the roots of worldwide denialism, are the same sentiments that oppose international tolerance. The wool over our youths’ eyes is the thickest and most dangerous, for the children of today are the policymakers of tomorrow. Let us bring these hidden Holocausts to light, lest the world force another into the present.


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