The American University of Armenia hosted yesterday a public panel discussion on the parallels between Armenia and Israel to “critically analyse the popular discourse in Armenia claiming that Armenia should follow the model of Israel in various ways,” according to the event’s Facebook page. Many in the audience, however, argued that the discussion had seemingly been diverted from its original purpose, turning instead into a criticism of Israel and its policies.
“I’m a little confused, to be honest, because I had thought that we would be discussing the ways for small nations to be strong, to resist aggression and to not show aggression towards others. [I thought the discussion would be on] what Armenia could do to become that strong. Do we have the option of not being strong? No, there’s no such alternative. But that’s not what we’re discussing; we aren’t talking about what Armenia could learn from Israel,” one of the participants stated.
Another member of the audience complained that the discussion was mainly focused on the issues facing Palestinians.
The public dissatisfaction was mostly caused by the speeches of the two of the panellists, California-based philosophy professor Margar Melkonyan and New York-based novelist Nancy Grigoryan, who had joined the discussion via Skype from the United States. They argued that the comparison between Armenia and Israel or between Armenians and Israelis was not the only possible comparison. For instance, the panellists insisted, Armenians could also compare themselves with Palestinians when it came to being subjected to oppression, fighting back against said oppression, as well facing deportation. Moreover, they were convinced that becoming the second Israel is not only impossible for Armenia but would also be disastrous for such an impoverished country.
“First, unlike Israel, Armenia is not a a colonial-settler state. Israel is inhabited largely by recent settlers and their descendants, who enjoy privileges and freedoms unavailable to the Palestinians whose immediate ancestors were on that land before the settlers arrived. In these and in many aspects Israel closely resembles the former apartheid republic of South Africa,” Margar Melkonyan said.
He added that in Israel and South Africa, the overlap of nationality, class and power privileges one portion of the population over a subjectified and exploited pre-colonial population. “This overlap gives the dominant society and the state its special internal cohesion and stability. This accounts, at least in part, for the much celebrated ‘fighting spirit’ of the Israeli military and for the equally celebrated support for the armed forces among a broad part of the Jewish Israeli public.
“This case is very different in Armenia where Armenian plutocrats – the wealthy rulers – lorded over an Armenian population and Armenian capitalists super-exploited Armenian workers. True, Armenia is stable but it is stable only relative to other former soviet republics. Compared to Israel, Armenia is not especially stable. Friends of Israel in cities like Yerevan and Baku admire this cohesion, this stability but they ignore the fact that it is in part a result of institutionalized apartheid.”
Nancy Grigoryan, for her part, stressed that criticizing the policies of Israeli government is not anti-Semitism and that discussing the Israeli-Palestinian issue is not about taking sides or being pro-Israel or anti-Israel – it’s about pro-equality, pro-justice , pro-human rights. “[…]But as an Armenian, I also feel a real kinship with Palestinians who also have a similar history with dispossession, ethnic cleansing. […] And as a writer and as an activist, I am always interested in the marginal, the oppressed.”
Panellist Harutyun Marutyan countered to this by saying that Armenia has no problems with national minorities, so the need to ensure the provision of their rights and freedoms is not really a relevant issue that needs to be raised in our country and the Israeli-Palestinian discourse therefore cannot be applied to Armenia.
A member of the audience, in turn, countered to Marutyan’s claims by asking whether the absence of minority issues in Armenia was not derived from Azerbaijanis’ “disappearance” from the territory. Marutyan’s attempt at an answer repeated the prevailing discourse among Armenia’s society that Azerbaijanis’ exile from Armenia was justified by the violence that Armenians were being subjected to in Azerbaijan.