It was my mistake.
I didn’t have to walk to Bunche Hall after work on a Wednesday night to attend a meeting where I knew my fellow students would attempt to whitewash the Armenian genocide. But, being the fool that I am, I decided to witness first-hand what I had heard so many others talk about.
That was a stupid idea.
The organization hosting the event was the Olive Tree Initiative: Turkey-Armenia, a group that ostensibly wishes to create a dialogue between Armenian and Turkish students. But “dialogue,” at least for the Olive Tree Initiative, means something akin to “normalization,” a word I use here with the most negative of connotations.
I sat and watched the two co-presidents of the organization, one of whom is herself Armenian, give a brief presentation on the history of Armenia, Turkey and the latter’s predecessor state, the Ottoman Empire.
The talk was full of historical inaccuracies and omissions, especially when the topic of the Armenian genocide came up. The presenters took pains to skirt around the fact that what occurred was indeed genocide, a fact that nearly every reputable member of the global academic community accepts.
Witnessing this awkward presentation was like watching someone tiptoe through a minefield. The presenters somehow avoided mentioning that an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were raped and murdered on the direct orders of the Young Turks regime.
What I heard instead was that there were “two sides” to the Armenian genocide. The presenters said that some think that many civilians, Turks and Armenians, died in the fog of World War I while others claim the event was part a carefully orchestrated campaign of extermination. They presented these two points of view as equal, all under the guise of neutrality.
In their attempt to remain unbiased, they failed to mention that there is near consensus in the academe that what occurred was genocide. The Olive Tree Initiative’s image of neutrality is, evidently, one of willful ignorance and academic laziness.
Naturally, I decided to say something, citing specific dates, events and legislation to make the case so many before me have already made. In return, I got more of the same old “consider both sides” bullshit that so often flows from the mouths of genocide deniers. Such rhetorical tricks are old hat and well-known to many Armenians like myself.
At one point, I turned toward a Turkish student who expressed her doubts and asked her point blank: “Do you think the Ottoman Empire committed genocide against the Armenians?” She responded by telling me she had taken courses in Armenian Studies. After my interlocutor accused me of being too “aggressive,” I repeated the question.
Still, no answer.
Another student then shifted in her seat to defend her, telling me that “denial is not the same as not accepting.” The student who refused to answer my question, outraged that I would suggest she is an Armenian genocide denier – which she is – then stormed out of the room, turning her head just before the door closed behind her to tell me I had made her feel uncomfortable.
The co-presidents echoed this sentiment. Apparently I had made the student “uncomfortable.” Oddly enough, no one considered that, perhaps, hearing an organization and its members attempt to revise the well-documented history of the near elimination of an entire group of people that looked like me and spoke the same language as me solely because of their identity would make me feel just a bit uncomfortable.
To avoid hurt feelings, the Olive Tree Initiative entertains baseless historical revisionism by implying that facts are up for debate, thus officially sanctioning Armenian genocide denial and allowing it to fester on the campuses where the organization operates.
According to its website, the Olive Tree Initiative works with “high academic standards and has a holistic educational philosophy.” What a sham.