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Peaceful coexistence and international grievances: Understanding Jewish-Armenian relations

Despite widespread resentment towards Israel, Jews in Armenia reject claims that anti-Semitism is prevalent in the country.

The Mordechai Navi Synagogue in Yerevan is the only one in Armenia [Wikimedia Commons]

Israeli weapons played a pivotal role in Azerbaijan's defeat of Armenia in the 2020 Second Karabakh War.

Same with Baku's military takeover of Nagorno-Karabakh two months ago that triggered the exodus of the region's entire Armenian population.

And a property dispute in Jerusalem threatens to undermine Armenians' roughly 1,600-year-long presence in the Holy Land.

Against that background, a series of acts of vandalism against the country's lone synagogue led to talk - particularly in Azerbaijan - about a possible rise of anti-Semitism in Armenia.

Members of Yerevan's small Jewish community categorically reject this notion. They see the attacks as aimed at discrediting their chosen country of residence.

Synagogue attacks

One of the first attacks on the Jewish Mordechai Navi Synagogue in Yerevan took place on October 3. It did little physical damage as a Molotov cocktail hurled into the synagogue failed to ignite.

But it did prompt one of the most senior rabbis in Azerbaijan, Armenia's archrival and neighbor, to declare the country unsafe for Jews.

"I repeat my call to the Jews in Armenia: Leave, and if you need help, I'll take care of it. Leave before it's too late…" Rabbi Zamir Isayev, head of the Baku Jewish School, posted on X.

In another attack on November 15, an unknown person set fire to the doors on the first and second floors of the building.

Video of the attack, alongside a claim of responsibility for both attacks appeared on a small and newly created Telegram channel whose name suggested affiliation to the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), a now largely inactive militant group. ASALA representatives denied any involvement.

The video quickly found traction among Azerbaijani social media accounts, which proclaimed Armenia a den of anti-Semitism.

Armenia's Investigative Committee reported two days later that the culprit was a citizen of a foreign country who left Armenia immediately after the attack. It gave no further information.

Gershon Meir Burstein, Armenia's chief rabbi, told CivilNet that the attacks were acts of "provocation" rather than an expression of Armenian anti-Semitism.

Nathaniel Trubkin, a prominent member of Yerevan's Jewish community, echoed that sentiment in an interview with Eurasianet.

"The attack on the synagogue was not against Jews, but against Armenia's image of a tolerant country," he said.

Trubkin is one of several hundred Jews who moved to Armenia from Russia at the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian War. He is the art director at Mamajan, a cafe in Yerevan that has become a center of Jewish community activities. He also runs Yerevan Jewish Home, a group that helps Jews moving to the city find housing and grapple with local bureaucracy.

There is widespread resentment in Armenia against Israel, which, according to estimates cited by AP, provided 70 per cent of the weapons Azerbaijan acquired between 2016 and 2020.

And Israel's offensive on Gaza following the Hamas attacks on Israeli civilian targets on October 7 has given rise to further expressions of anti-Israeli sentiment on Armenian social media.

But Trubkin says none of that has translated into anti-Semitism: "The Armenian community distinguishes between their attitude towards the government and the people. And even if Armenians don't like Israel or Russia, we don't feel that about ourselves."

Turmoil in the Cows' Garden

Meanwhile, in Israel, the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem released a statement warningthat the Church is facing "the greatest existential threat of its 16-century history."

As one of the oldest Christian nations, Armenians have been living in Jerusalem for centuries and own a part of the Old City. This community is considered the oldest Armenian diaspora and has around 2,000 people.

The dispute began after Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manougian signed an agreement with Israeli businessman Danny Rothman's Xana Capital in 2021. The details of the agreement became public only in June of this year. As it turned out, the patriarch agreed to give XANA Capital a 98-year lease on a plot of land popularly known as the Cows' Garden (so named for its historical use for livestock grazing) to build a luxury hotel.

The situation escalated after the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, under pressure from the Armenian community, declared it was canceling the deal on October 26. On November 5, representatives of XANA Capital entered the Cows' Garden in order to lay claim to "their land." Some of the men were armed and some held barking dogs on leashes.

The Patriarchate then criticized the company for resorting to "provocation, aggression, and other harassing, incendiary tactics including destruction of property."

After the incident, local Armenians have been staging a "round-the-clock sit-in on our land," Setrag Balian, one of the leaders of the Save the Armenian Quarter movement opposing the transfer, told Eurasianet.

"This deal is illegal, as according to Patriarchate internal law deals for over 25 years have to be approved by the Holy Synod and the General Assembly of St. James Brotherhood. So the patriarch didn't have the legal authority to sign such a contract on behalf of the community," Balian said.

He praised his community for rising up against the transfer. "Now, we are all united together with the church to fight for our land that was acquired with sweat and blood," said Balian.

Armenians' and Jews' shared trauma

Back in Yerevan, Nathaniel Trubkin says he hopes Armenians and Jews can find common ground in their shared trauma. Both peoples were victims of campaigns of genocide in the 20th century, the Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I and the Jews at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.

Trubkin points to the Jewish lawyer Rafael Lemkin as a possible unifying figure. Lemkin coined the term "genocide" in the early 1940s after studying the atrocities against Armenians and Jews and worked to establish international legal mechanisms for its prevention.


(c) 2023, Eurasianet


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