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Armenia’s Jews Alarmed By Nascent Anti-Semitism

By Emil Danielyan
Armenia’s tiny Jewish community is seriously concerned about increased manifestations of anti-Semitism in the country. The problem, virtually non-existent in the past, has come to the surface over the past year with anti-Semitic propaganda methodically aired by an Armenian TV channel, threats to expel Jews repeatedly voiced by an ultranationalist group and a desecration of the Holocaust memorial in Yerevan.

To add insult to injury, the Armenian government appears reluctant to tackle the xenophobic symptoms, while assuring the local Jews that they have nothing to worry about. Its top official in charge of protecting ethnic minorities has openly declared that Judaism is inherently intolerant of other religions.

Rimma Varzhapetian, the secular leader of the Jewish community, has trouble coming to terms with that. “We have always declared everywhere that there has never been anti-Semitism in Armenia, that Armenia is a good place for Jews to live and, more importantly, that Armenia is quite a stable country in the political and social respects,” she tells RFE/RL.

But she says the nascent anti-Semitism is now too “palpable” to be ignored. “We think that there must be reaction from Armenian society,” she says. “We do react, but we are scared. Honestly, we do feel a danger.”

These concern prompted Varzhapetian and other community leaders, including Chief Rabbi Gersh Meir Burshtein, to meet with Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian on December 22. Oskanian was quoted by an online Jewish publication as promising them to “discuss the situation at the government.”

But this was effectively denied by Oskanian’s spokesman last week. “This is not the kind of issue that warrants government discussion,” Hamlet Gasparian told RFE/RL. “There is no anti-Semitism in Armenia.”

“I am surprised at the serenity of our state officials. That could have very serious consequences for Armenia,” warned Mikael Danielian of the Armenian Helsinki Association, a human rights group.

The Jewish community, estimated to number less than 1,000 members, was essentially formed during the 1960s and 1970s by scientists and other professionals that moved to Armenia mostly from Russia and Ukraine, nations with a long history of anti-Jewish prejudice and persecution. They found a more liberal and tolerant environment there, quickly integrating into Armenian society.

Most of the local Jews are now either married to an ethnic Armenian or have an Armenian parent. And like Varzhapetian, most carry Armenian last names. According to Varzhapetian, the community has barely shrunk since the Soviet collapse and the resulting economic decline that forced hundreds of thousands of Armenians to look for work abroad.

Until recently, displays of anti-Semitism in Armenian were largely confined to occasional allegations by some nationalist scholars that Jews had a hand in the 1915 genocide of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. That theory, not substantiated by historical facts, was expressed in an anti-Semitic book unveiled at a packed conference hall of the Armenian Writers’ Union in 2003. None of the members of the union publicly condemned it.

Tigran Karapetian, the demagogic owner of ALM, one of Armenia’s myriad private TV channels loyal to the government, was probably aware of that when he embarked on a campaign of Jew-bashing early last year through a phone-in talk show anchored by himself. Karapetian, who is rumored to have served a jail term for theft before making a fortune in Russia in the 1990s, for months portrayed Jews as an unsavory race that dominates the world and is bent on damaging Armenia.

Karapetian is widely dismissed by the Armenian intellectual elite as a wacky character who should not be taken seriously. However, his discourse, touching on a wide variety of subjects, is winning him a following among common and especially rural folk. The latter have come to adore him for giving just about anyone a chance to sing on a live ALM show broadcast on an almost daily basis.

The ALM broadcasts seem to have only emboldened Armen Avetisian, the virulently anti-Semitic leader of a small ultranationalist party called the Armenian Aryan Union. In a recent newspaper interview, Avetisian declared that there are as many as 50,000 “disguised” Jews in Armenia and that he will strive to ensure that they are identified and expelled from the country.

Varzhapetian says her office in Yerevan received several threatening phone calls after the first series of Karapetian attacks on Jews aired last summer. Then on September 17, the final day of the Jewish New Year celebrations, unknown vandals painted a cross and the “Satanic” number 666 on the modest Holocaust memorial in a public park in the city center. The small rectangular stone was promptly wiped clean by park guards in the morning.

Yet what really shocked and outraged the Jewish community was an interview given by Hranush Kharatian, a prominent ethnologist who heads the Armenian government’s department on religious and minority affairs, to the “Golos Armenii” newspaper a month later. “Why don’t we react to the fact that during their Friday gatherings Judaists continue to preach extreme intolerance toward all non-Judaists, going as far as to equate them to animals and propagate spitting [on non-Jews]?” she told the Russian-language paper critical of the Jews.

The community leaders, among them an Armenian army officer, described the remark as a “lie, slander and ignorance” in an open letter to President Robert Kocharian. They urged Kocharian to end his government’s “conspicuous failure to see those inciting anti-Semitism.”

The only response they received, according to Varzhapetian, was a letter from a cabinet minister saying that there is no ethnic or religious discrimination in Armenia. They apparently figured that Oskanian, a former U.S. citizen, is the only senior official who could understand the seriousness of the situation.

In an RFE/RL interview last week, Kharatian clarified that she referred to “aggressive ideology” which she said is contained in Talmud, the compilation of Jewish religious laws and interpretations of the Bible. “I see in Talmud numerous points which clearly state that non-Jews, or infidels that are not Jews, are not human beings and are animals,” she said.

Asked whether she herself witnessed such practices by the Armenian Jews, Kharatian replied: “You don’t have to attend a religious rite or ceremony. You just have to know with which literature those rites are performed.”

She therefore categorically refused to offer an apology to the Jews: “What should I apologize for? They can sue me, if I’m wrong.”

Kharatian disapproved of the ALM boss’s remarks, but said it is “very difficult to directly characterize all of that as some propaganda directed against an ethnic group.” She was also not sure that Armenia’s Criminal Code, which has a clause on “inciting inter-ethnic hatred,” can be used to prosecute Avetisian.

Meanwhile, the Armenian antagonists of the Jews have been incensed by a report on global anti-Semitism issued by the U.S. State Department on January 5. The report devoted only three short paragraphs to Armenia, much less than to most of the established European democracies where anti-Jewish sentiment has deep historical roots.

But that was enough to ignite a renewed wave of anti-Semitic comments, with “Golos Armenii” advising the Jewish community to “think about possible consequences of false claims about the mythical persecution of Jews in Armenia.” Karapetian, personally mentioned in the U.S. report, responded with a two-hour televised monologue, lambasting America and “that notorious nation.”

A follow-up talk show aired by ALM a few days later, on January 19, featured a surprise phone call from an Armenian woman living in Israel. “If you have some personal problems [with Jews], it doesn’t mean you have the right to insult a whole people,” she told Karapetian.

“Stop asking hysterical questions on air,” he replied, interrupting her. “Shut up and listen to me. You say it’s inadmissible to say ‘Jewish tricks’. But is it permissible to spit at a priest?”

Karapetian was referring to two recent incidents in Jerusalem where Jewish religious students spat at Armenian priests in a show for contempt for their Christian faith. The most recent incident was reported on January 6. In both cases, the assailants were arrested by the Israeli police and temporarily banned from entering Jerusalem’s Old City where the Armenian Apostolic Church has for centuries had strong presence.

The attacks, condemned by the Israeli government and media, have been heavily exploited by Armenian anti-Semitic circles.

“What I’m saying is, ‘Let’s live with mutual respect’,” Karapetian continued. “They must be happy that I’m saying such things. Nobody can bully us in our own country, neither with hysterical phone calls, nor with some reports.”

The next phone call to the ALM studio was much more to his liking. “The Jews are the clothes-moth of the world,” stated the male caller.

What the Armenian Jews are seeking is an appropriate response to such statements not only by the government but also the civil society that remains eerily silent on the issue.

“We are still awaiting a letter [of protest] from prominent Armenians,” says Varzhapetian. “Armenians themselves must express indignation. First of all, because there are very few of us [in Armenia]. Secondly, protecting ourselves is not quite appropriate.”

(Photo courtesy of the Armenian Helsinki Association: The Holocaust memorial in Yerevan pictured shortly being desecrated.)