Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The ‘Exact Translation’: How ‘Medz Yeghern’ Means Genocide

Yes, until World War II, the Medz Yeghern of 1915 was unprecedented not only in the history of our people, but in the entirety of humankind. An entire people, an entire nation coming from the depths of millennia was killed, was dying.
We condemn genocide [genotsid] or zhoghovrtasbanutiun with all our heart and soul.
There is and there cannot be either juridical justification or any motion of prescription for genocide.
Genocide, be it the horrifying slaughter of Armenians in Der or in the banks of the Euphrates in 1915, or the torturing death by massacre of the other peoples during World War II in Majdanek and Büchenwald, must always be condemned without reservations, and its perpetrators must be condemned by all of humankind.
Nagush Harutiunian (1965)1

The president of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic proclaimed these words at the official commemoration of the genocide on April 24, 1965 in Yerevan. Harutiunian did not hesitate to pair “genocide” (he used the Russian loanword genotsid and the Armenian translation zhoghovrtasbanutiun, literally “democide”; tseghasbanutiun was not yet commonly used in Eastern Armenian) and “Medz Yeghern.”
Almost 50 years later, the official use of Medz Yeghern and genocide as synonyms would show ideological continuity regardless of time and political situation. Serge Sarkisian, the president of the Republic of Armenia, in a speech given in Marseilles in December 2011, said: “We were strong enough to survive the Medz Yeghern [Great Calamity], and we are just as strong now to demand justice.” After routinely inserting the translation “Great Calamity,” Armenian American commentator Harut Sassounian did not make any further comment on its use and reported that Sarkisian had employed “Armenian Genocide” six times in other parts of his speech.2
The organized annihilation of 1915 was an unprecedented eruption of pure evil that encompassed not only the wholesale killing of people, but also the devastation of their culture and civilization, the dispossession of their property and ancestral territory, and the dehumanization and traumatization of the survivors and their descendants. That evil component ensured the use of Medz Yeghern (“Great [Evil] Crime”) as the name for a crime of such catastrophic and unprecedented proportions, superseding the more pedestrian Medz Vojir (“Great Crime”). An editorial published in 2005, on the 90th anniversary of the genocide, in “Hai Sird,” the official periodical of the Armenian Relief Society (ARS), even asked “whether the word ‘genocide,’ coined decades later, can begin to describe what we, Armenians, call Metz Yeghern, ‘The Great Crime.’”3 The legitimacy of the word was not questioned; rather, its insufficiency to describe the dimensions of the event.

Deconstructing Obama’s April 24 statements
The phony polemics around Medz Yeghern have been exacerbated by a remarkable ignorance of its profound historical meaning and a willful adoption of the Turkish-fueled “Great Calamity” hoax. This has led to an inability to accurately interpret the relation of President Barack Obama’s “Meds Yeghern” of April 2009 (and subsequent years) to presidential candidate Barack Obama’s promise on Jan. 19, 2008—“as President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.”4 Consequently, the powers that be have chosen “to send a message to the president and all politicians that if you make a promise to the people, you have to keep your promise,” as Sassounian stated in May 2010.5 On the eve of the 2010 congressional elections, a privately paid “political ad” even appeared in the Armenian-American press with the following title: “President Medz Yeghern is a liar. Liars must be punished. On November 2, give him a Republican Congress.”6 Around a month before the 2012 presidential elections, Sassounian reportedly issued the following warning: “Pres. Obama has about 30 days to make good on his pledge to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Otherwise, Armenian-Americans will not vote for him for a second term.”7
We have chosen a rather different path: to read together the five presidential statements between 2009 and 2013. The analysis showed a constant repetition of several key phrases and/or ideas:
1)                  “Meds Yeghern,” non-translated (eleven times)
2)                  “I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915…” (five times)
3)                  “…And my view has not changed” (five times)
4)                   1.5 million Armenians (five times)
5)                  Massacred or marched to their death (five times)
6)                  “In the final days of the Ottoman Empire” (five times)
7)                  One of the “worst” (four times) or “great” (one time) atrocities of the 20th century;
8)                  “Full, frank, and just acknowledgment of the facts” (five times)
9)                  Armenian contribution “to the world” (two times), “to our nation” (one time), “to our society, our culture, and our communities” (one time)

Reconstructing Obama’s April 24 statements
Here is the reconstruction of the key phrases deconstructed above, namely, the essentials of what Obama has said for the past four years: “I have consistently stated [and I repeat] my own view of that history: the Meds Yeghern was one of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century [that caused] 1.5 million victims massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire. [I want] the achievement of a full, frank, and just acknowledgement of the facts [and I recognize] the Armenian contribution to the world.”
This paragraph repeats the facts of history that are opposed to Turkish denial—that there were 1.5 million victims of massacre or deadly deportation in the Ottoman Empire, one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. Turkish counterfactual history was exemplified by one of its most notorious spokespersons, Yusuf Halaçoğlu, the former president of the Turkish Historical Society and a current member of parliament, back in 2005: 1) “Most Armenians who died, died of disease, whereas most Muslims who died were killed by Armenian gangs”; 2) “Those who keep talking about the nonsense of 1.5 million dead are politicizing this issue. Can you imagine where one would bury 1.5 million people? If you put 300 in the same grave, that would make 5,000 mass graves.”8
The rationale of the reconstructed paragraph lies in the “view of that history” that Senator Barack Obama had stated in his June 28, 2006 letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (“The occurrence of the Armenian genocide is not an ‘allegation,’ a ‘personal opinion,’ or a ‘point of view.’ Supported by an overwhelming amount of historical evidence, it is a widely documented fact”),9 re-stated as a presidential candidate on Jan. 19, 2008 (“…my firmly held conviction that 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. The facts are undeniable”),10 and reaffirmed four times in a row that it had not changed.
“A cursory review of Turkish foreign policy would clearly indicate the prominent role that machtpolitik [power politics] assumes in Ankara’s relations with the Western governments,” political scientist and historian Simon Payaslian said more than a decade ago. “Nor would the policies of Britain, France, Germany, or the United States toward Turkey be considered determined by principles of moralpolitik [moral politics]. … For Armenians, it is an unfortunate machtpolitik reality—but a reality nonetheless—that little has changed in Western policy during the past 80 years, and not much is likely to change in the foreseeable future.”11 Obama was confronted with the impossibility and inability of breaking decades-old American foreign policy as mandated since the time of Harry Truman: “The future of Turkey, as an independent and economically sound state, is clearly no less important to the freedom-loving peoples of the world than the future of Greece. . . . [Turkey’s] integrity is essential to the preservation of order in the Middle East.”12 Daniel Larison, a blogger for “The American Conservative,” noted in the wake of the statement that the word genocide “we know is lacking not for any good historical reason but obviously because of sheer politicking and interest group lobbying.”13 Recalling Otto Bismarck’s dictum that politics is the art of the possible, the U.S. president chose to make reference to his past statements as an implicit recognition of the genocide and to address a call for acknowledgement of facts to the side that does not recognize them.

A unique paragraph
Obama’s 2009 statement also contained a unique paragraph: “Nothing can bring back those who were lost in the Meds Yeghern. But the contributions that Armenians have made over the last 94 years stand as a testament to the talent, dynamism, and resilience of the Armenian people, and as the ultimate rebuke to those who tried to destroy them.” Its legal intent was correctly assessed by the Council of the Bar Association of the Republic of Armenia in early 2010; while stating that it is “time to call things by their proper names,” it did recognize that “Obama the lawyer…has already clearly acknowledged the events of the Armenian Genocide”:
“President Obama used the historical Armenian term ‘Meds Yeghern,’ which is synonymous to ‘genocide,’ a more contemporary term. The term ‘Meds Yeghern’ was used by President Obama twice, and was clearly described as an attempt to destroy the Armenian people. It is obvious that the ‘Meds Yeghern’ term was referred to by President Obama in exactly the same meaning, as we, Armenians, refer to it. The terms ‘Meds Yeghern,’ ‘Hayots Tseghaspanutiun,’ and ‘Armenian Genocide’ have been always absolutely identical. From the legal point of view, President Obama has described a genocide, because an attempt to destroy a people is, by definition, a genocide.
Even though Obama the politician did not use the term genocide, Obama the lawyer, the graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School, has already clearly acknowledged the events of the Armenian Genocide. On behalf of the Bar Association of the Republic of Armenia, we would like to express our gratitude to President Obama for his historic statement.
Taking into account the significance of international recognition of genocide in preventing the crime of genocide in the future, we believe that it is the time to call things by their proper names and to condemn the Medz Yeghern defining it as genocide in unequivocal terms.”14
The underlined phrase did not appear again in the next presidential statements. We are inclined to believe that it was not sheer coincidence.

The Canadian precedent of ‘Medz Yeghern’
Ironically, Armenian-Americans have never bothered to look across the border and notice that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper had already recognized the genocide with the name Medz Yeghern on April 19, 2006: “I would like to extend my sincere greetings to all of those marking this somber anniversary of the Medz Yeghern. Ninety-one years ago the Armenian people experienced terrible suffering and loss of life. In recent years the Senate of Canada adopted a motion acknowledging this period as ‘the first genocide of the 20th century,’ while the House of Commons adopted a motion that ‘acknowledges the Armenian genocide of 1915 and condemns this act as a crime against humanity.’ My party and I supported those resolutions and continue to recognize them today.”15
He repeated his statement almost literally in 2011.16 However, we did not find any protest against Harper’s use of Medz Yeghern (without translation) and his reluctance to call it “genocide” as a label of his own. His quote of parliamentary resolutions and his statement of support to them seem to have satisfied or silenced potential complainants.
In his efforts to circumvent the explicit use of the word “genocide,” Obama has referred interested parties to his “view of that history” and used Medz Yeghern nine times to name the genocide, in the same way that Prime Minister Harper referred interested parties to parliamentary resolutions and used Medz Yeghern twice to name the genocide.
The outcome was different: Harper’s use of Medz Yeghern was given the Freedom Award of the Armenian National Committee-Western Region in 2007.17 Obama’s use of Medz Yeghern to name the genocide has been relentlessly bashed during the past four years, even though Sassounian wrote in his 2009 open letter to Obama: Armenians actually gain nothing by having one more U.S. president reiterate what has been said before. As you know, presidential statements, just as congressional resolutions, have no legal consequence.”18
Interestingly, Turkish columnist Murat Yetkin wrote in April 2012: “And American President Barack Obama’s ‘Meds yeghern’ statement yesterday made neither Armenians nor Turks happy; the term is synonymous with genocide in Armenian, but does not have any meaning in international law.”19
Yetkin’s argument is convoluted, as genocide denial is prone to be. Although it is undeniable that, as law scholar Thomas Buergenthal has written, “the Holocaust and its aftermath transformed genocide from a nameless crime to a crime whose very name evokes the horrors not only of the Holocaust, but also of the Armenian Genocide, of Rwanda, of the Former Yugoslavia and of the countless other terrible tragedies which have victimized mankind before and after the Holocaust,”20 a denier could say, by the same token, that the words Shoah and Holocaust do not have any meaning in international law (they do not appear either in the Convention for the Prevention of Genocide or in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court). In any case, the legal meaning of Medz Yeghern vis-à-vis genocide in international law seems to be irrelevant, even for those who adamantly demand the use of the latter.

Towards another understanding
A few people have, however, understood Obama’s statements, including the use of Medz Yeghern, in a different way. For instance, Daniel Larison highlighted the legal content of Medz Yeghern and linked it to genocide: “Contrary to the Turkish Coalition’s awful statement, Obama did not ‘defer’ to historians (by which they mean embrace whitewashing of the record), but he made quite clear that he regarded it as one of the great atrocities of the last century and used an Armenian phrase, Meds Yeghern, to describe it, that conveys the message that these were criminal acts. Not unfortunate incidents or unavoidable wartime excesses, as the hacks and paid-off spokesmen would have it, but crimes and atrocities. That implies willful mass murder directed against an entire people, which in the end is quite close to what people understand when someone refers to genocide. In my modern Eastern Armenian dictionary, yeghern means ‘slaughter, carnage, genocide,’ or a ‘crime’’ or ‘evil deed,’ and the word yeghern has been and can be used in the context of referring to the genocide.”21
French Armenian historian Claude Mutafian, who criticized the U.S. president’s plea for Turkey’s membership in the European Union, was brutally frank in 2009: “This is what Obama has said. He has openly accused the Ottoman Empire of committing a ‘great crime,’ one of the most barbarous actions of the century (sic), which has caused a million and a half victims (re-sic). I say: hats off! Whereas these traitors of the government of Armenia have scandalously soaped the board by giving him, with this criminal ‘road map,’ a pretext to say the strict minimum as his predecessors, nevertheless he had the courage to say everything. I repeat: hats off! The Turkish authorities have not been fooled anyway; they have immediately cried foul, because they have made a much better analysis than the innumerable do-gooders of the diaspora bent over the word ‘genocide’ while the president of the United States has said the same thing. Against so stupid reactions, Obama will end by concluding, in all fairness, that if Armenians are so primitive, then they do not deserve to be thought of. Is this what we want to achieve?”22
On May 7, 2010, reader Antranik Jarchafjian criticized the newspaper Asbarez’s title “Obama Refuses to Recognize the Armenia Genocide” in a letter to the editor: “We should not let our anger get in the way of having the necessary agility to draw the maximum benefit from this and other presidential statements. Unfortunately, Asbarez not only failed in this regard but also set the tone for other media outlets by providing an Armenian source to frame the statement as refusal to recognize the genocide. While Asbarez can go on and egg the president to its heart’s content, the misguided characterization does the recognition campaign no favors. Instead of taking the president’s statement as an actual recognition of the genocide and force the deniers to prove that it isn’t, Asbarez undermine[s] the effort and aids the deniers by turning the statement on it[s] head and announcing that the president ‘refuses to recognize the Armenian Genocide.’”
The editorial response was that “the president’s continued use of the word ‘Medz Yeghern’ as a means to dodge his promise…damages the Armenian Cause,” citing Suat Kiniklioğlu’s utterances about Medz Yeghern and “positive language” as an example.23 It omitted to mention that Kiniklioğlu had been well served by the misuse of Medz Yeghern as “Great Calamity” in the Turkish apology campaign of 2008 and the uncritical repetition of “Great Calamity” in the Armenian press, Asbarez included.
Even Turkish punditry certified that the U.S. president had used the Armenian phrase for genocide. In an open letter addressed to Obama in April 2010, the former Turkish ambassador to the United States and veteran denialist, M. Ŝükrü Elekdağ, recognized that the U.S. president had used the word “genocide” in 2009: “Unfortunately, the subsequent statement that you made on April 24th regarding the events of 1915 in Eastern Anatolia seriously disappointed the Turkish people and cast a shadow on the positive impression formed during your visit for the following reason: Although your statement omitted the highly charged word ‘genocide,’ you twice employed the expression ‘metz yeghern‘ which is the exact translation of ‘genocide’ in the Armenian language.”24 A few days later, Bülent Kenes, the editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman newspaper, and its columnist Fatma Dişli Zıbak wrote that Medz Yeghern is “the proper rendering of genocide in the Armenian language,” even though they repeated that it meant Büyük Felâket, translated as “Great Tragedy.”25
In early 2012, Seth J. Frantzman, op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, acknowledged and underscored the unique significance of Medz Yeghern: “For many years Armenians referred to the genocide as ‘the great crime’ in Armenian, the ‘Meds Yeghern’ (Mec Yeğeŗn). When the Jews suffered genocide, the Armenians didn’t feel a need to apply their term to the Holocaust. The Meds Yeghern remains an Armenian word for the evil that was done to their nation.”26

Language myths
In April 2011, Sassounian had complained that “Armenian substitute words such as ‘Meds Yeghern’ are simply meant to fool some gullible Armenian-Americans. This is a cheap trick that is beneath the dignity of the presidency!”27 Interestingly, it appears that it did not fool Armenians like Michael Mensoian, a contributor to the Armenian Weekly (“For nearly a century our survivors of the Meds Yeghern (Great Catastrophe) have suffered the psychological and emotional trauma of the first genocide of the modern era”),28 or non-Armenians like Brandy Hilboldt Allport, a reviewer of Chris Bohjalian’s novel, The Sandcastle Girls (“Bohjalian deftly widens a telescopic lens to encompass the ‘Meds Yeghern,’ or ‘Great Calamity’ of the Armenian genocide . . . .”), who nevertheless seem to have been misled by the “Great Calamity” mistranslation of the same Armenian word that Sassounian used around a dozen times between 2005 and 2012.29
The Knights and Daughters of Vartan, sponsors of the genocide commemoration in Times Square, and the co-sponsoring and participating 15 major Armenian organizations of all political leanings from the New York area were not fooled either: The commemoration has been publicly announced since 2010 as the Anniversary Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide (Medz Yeghern).”
The same Armenian-American commentator wrote the following in his 2009 open letter to Obama: “You may want to know that ‘Meds Yeghern’ does not mean genocide; it means ‘Great Calamity.’ ‘Genocide’ in Armenian is ‘Tseghasbanoutyoun,’ which is a much more precise term than ‘Meds Yeghern,’ in case you decide to use it in the future.”30 However, this language lesson displayed two myths:
a)                  Myth: Medz Yeghern means “Great Calamity.”
Fact: Medz Yeghern literally means “Great Crime,” as per the definition of yeghern in most Armenian-English dictionaries of the 20th century.
b)                  Myth: Tseghasbanutiun is the proper Armenian name of the events.
Fact: Tseghasbanutiun is the Armenian translation of genocide, the juridical definition of a crime against humanity, whose most common Armenian proper name is Medz Yeghern. Equally defined crimes against humanity are called, for instance, Shoah (Jewish Genocide), Porrajmos (Roma Genocide), Sayfo (Assyrian Genocide), or Holodomor (Ukrainian Genocide).

Back to square one
The three words genocide, yeghern, and tseghasbanutiun can and are used as synonyms. For instance, on April 20, 2010, the Armenian Ministry of Diaspora and the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute organized an international conference on “Cultural Genocide” or Mshagutayin Yeghern (“Cultural Yeghern”). The director of the Museum-Institute, Hayk Demoyan, read a paper in Armenian entitled, “The Cultural Tseghasbanutiun, Challenge of the 21st Century.”31
And now, with four years of delay, we come close to square one. On Feb. 5, 2013, during a stop in his electoral campaigning in the district of Malatia-Sebastia of the city of Yerevan, Serge Sarkisian answered a question about the forthcoming centennial of the Armenian Genocide and the echoes of the United States, and reaffirmed what any literate Armenian has known for a long time, according to Panarmenian.Net: “We have not used the word tseghasbanutiun for 40 or 50 years, we have used the word yeghern. We used to say, ‘Let’s go to the yeghern complex,’ not ‘the tseghasbanutiun complex.’ Those two words are the same for us.”32
As C. K. Garabed had written in June 2010 in these same pages with reference to Obama, “to [have] applaud[ed] the president for using our word for the Armenian Genocide” would have ended like the tale of the emperor’s new clothes: “Can you imagine the fits the Turks would have, and the quandary the president’s advisors would be in? If it really turned out that they had cautioned him about using the term genocide, could they now declare that it was not what he really meant?”33

[1] Nagush Harutiunian, “Batsman khosk” (Opening Remarks), Patma-Banasirakan Handes, 2, 1965, p. 38.
2 The Armenian Weekly, December 16, 2011.
3 “Editorial,” Hai Sird, October 2005, p. 2 (emphasis added).
4 See
5 The Armenian Weekly, May 3, 2010.
6 USA Armenian Life, November 15, 2010.
7 Haykaram Nahapetyan, “Obama vs Romney: Armenian American Community Pressures Candidates to Recognize 1915 Genocide by Ottoman Turkey,” PolicyMic, September 29, 2012 (
8 Quoted in Ayse Gul Altinay, “In Search of Silenced Grandparents: Ottoman Armenian Survivors and Their (Muslim) Grandchildren,” in Hans-Lukas Kieser, Elmar Plozza (eds.), Der Völkermord an den Armeniern, die Türkei und Europa / The Armenian Genocide, Turkey, and Europe, Zurich: Chronos, 2006, p. 124.
9 See (emphasis added).
10 See (emphasis added).
[1]1 Simon Payaslian, “After Recognition,” Armenian Forum, 3, 2001, p. 41-42, 46.
12 Lamont Colucci, The National Security Doctrines of the American Presidency: How they Shape Our Present and Future, vol. 2, Santa Barbara, Ca.: Praeger, 2012, p. 528.
[1]2 The American Conservative, April 26, 2009 (italics in original).
13 See
[1]4 See
[1]5 Asbarez, April 28, 2011.
[1]6 Asbarez, October 5, 2007.
[1]7 Huffington Post, April 28, 2009 (emphasis added).
[1]8 Hurriyet Daily News, April 25, 2012 (emphasis added).
[1]9 Thomas Buergenthal, “International Law and the Holocaust,” Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Annual Lecture, October 28, 2003, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, p. 15. (
20 The American Conservative, April 26, 2009 (italics in original).
21 Claude Mutafian, “Obama et le mot génocide,” Europe et Orient, 8, 2009 (
22 Asbarez, May 7, 2010.
23 Hurriyet Daily News, April 20, 2010 (emphasis added).
24 Today’s Zaman, April 26 and April 27, 2010.
25 Sun-Sentinel, January 31, 2012.
26 The Armenian Weekly, April 28, 2011.
27 The Armenian Weekly, April 25, 2012.
28 Florida Times-Union, July 22, 2012.
29 The Huffington Post, April 28, 2009.
30 Azg, April 21, 2010.
31 See
32 See
33 The Armenian Weekly, June 3, 2010.

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