Can we understand “Never Again”…

Not many days go past without the media covering the increasing tension between Israel and Iran. From a safe distance within the UK it is difficult, sometimes, to see through the rhetoric and posturing from the 2 countries as to which is in the right. Both can be stereotyped in negative ways, and one’s perspective can be significantly biased by the media presentation. In the West, the natural bias is for us to be generally supportive of Israel and to be against Iran, given the antipathy that Iran has had towards non-Muslim countries. However we are ambivalent towards Israel, as the occupation of Palestinian lands is seen by many to be illegal, and the actions of an arrogant government, coupled with a fundamentalist Zionist section in the community. Many people have difficulty agreeing with this as a political strategy and will have some sympathy with the Palestinian people. Israel has a reputation of being militarily volatile and seems to be quick to take violent action with the rest of the world looking on with some unease.

Iran has few friends outside of its immediate geographical neighbourhood and we have demonised the whole country due, mainly, to the speeches, if not the actions, of President Ahmadinejad. How and why countries are acting in a particular way is never the subject of much discussion, however through that we can learn, avoid misunderstanding and perhaps maintain peace.

This week whilst watching one of the mainstream TV news programmes I heard a very interesting commentary on the Israel-Iran situation, with a focus on the Israeli angle. The discussion was centred around how much evidence Israel should need about the development of nuclear weapons in Iran, before they attacked them, given that Iran has made public statements about wishing to eradicate Israel “from the map”. The commentator came out with a key statement:

“You cannot understand Israel’s position if you do not understand the concept of ‘Never Again’. The idea of the Iranians bombing Israel is theoretical. But for the Jewish people everywhere it is much deeper, and much more real because throughout history there have been several attempts to wipe them off the face of the planet, and so when Iran says that and it looks like they are going to get a nuclear weapon, then it’s not theoretical for them, it’s very real. If you don’t understand that, then you don’t understand why they would need less proof than a relatively sceptical British public”

I was struck by this brief speech, and re-wound it several times to listen to it again. It is easy to judge everyone by one’s own standards and standpoints wherever they are in the world and whenever in history. Very few people outside of the Jewish community would understand the concept of “Never Again” apart from other nations that have suffered genocides. It is clearly very reasonable to be “nervous” with countries, and politics that have previously proved very antagonistic towards one, and to behave in ways which others may not understand. How the rest of us react is the sign of maturity.

In an interview I had with Bishop Vahan Hovhanessian, the Primate of the Armenian Church in the UK, he drew out a similar point with respect to the Armenian nation, in comparison with the English. Fortunately the English identity has not been threatened during history, if anything it is the opposite, whereas the Armenians have been subject to many draconian restrictions, and atrocities. From being forbidden to pray or speak the language, or be overtly Armenian, through to the mass deportations, massacres and genocide at the hands of the Turks, one cannot conceive of the impact that such a legacy has on a nation. This consequence will drive the way that individuals, politicians, and countries will behave and respond to given circumstances. There is no obvious rationale that would suggest that the Armenians will ever feel comfortable with being squeezed between Azerbaijan and Turkey. Whether it be the genocide in 1915 or the expulsions and killings by the Azeris in the late 1980’s, they will continue to be wary of these two countries, and will endeavour to defend itself in ways that may seem unreasonable to some.

During the recent demonstrations in Turkey on the anniversary of the killings at Khojaly in Nagorno-Karabakh, there were a number of anti-Armenian chants and placards that were of a racist nature. Whilst the Turkish government tried to suggest that this was a minority and, not considered the norm, it should not be a surprise if the Armenians chose not to accept that, given the events of less than a century ago.

Despite visiting Auschwitz in Poland, Sarajevo in Bosnia, the Genocide museum in Yerevan, and Nagorno-Karabakh, and read about and listened to many people’s stories about war atrocities and genocide, I know I can never truly understand the concept of “Never again”. Intellectually, I can empathise, and rationalise it but I, like billions of others, can never truly understand, but we can respond to that famous quote from Edmund Burke from the 18th Century “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do Nothing”.

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Categories: Armenian Genocide

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