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Separated at birth: Visiting Armenia as an Israeli

How can a nation that seems to share Israel’s history be friends with Iran? How can it not.

I’ve heard it said that if there is one thing Israel would enjoy, it would be to have another Hebrew-speaking country somewhere in the world to break its loneliness. The exchange of ideas and attitudes between two different societies that share a common language is a powerful catalyst for growth of all kinds.

Language isn’t the only thing people share, however, and indeed there is one nation out there that seems to share our history: It traces its roots back to Biblical times, it has known an atrocious genocide over the past century and finds itself at odds with its mainly Muslim neighbors.

The country these people inhabit, known to them as Hayastan, to us as Armenia, is only slightly larger than Israel. Like Israel, it shares borders with four other countries, and as is the case here, only two of those borders are open for travel. Besides all of that, there remains the complex relationship with a vast worldwide diaspora, and of course the love of kebab.

Republic Square in central Yerevan

Upon arrival in Armenia, I instantly noticed another, more symbolic common denominator, which may in fact be said to be shared by three nations. From the airplane’s window I could clearly see mount Ararat, its highest peak, a full 5168 meters above sea level. This mountain, a symbol of the Armenian nation, is located across the border, inside Turkish territory following the 1923 treaty of Lausanne, which established post WWI regional borders without the participation of Armenian representatives.

Since then, the ever visible Ararat, despite being the traditional landing place of Noah, from whom Armenians trace their ancestry is only barely reachable for Armenians. This snow-white manifestation of a national identity, which appears clearly over the rooftops of Yeravan, which is so frequently used in Armenian brand names, which decorates Armenian walls, book covers and gravestones – is as distant as it appears near.

Ararat's highest peek, known as "Masis," photographed upon landing in Yerevan.

The sight instantly brought to my mind the Jewish longing for Jerusalem as a symbol, one that remained ever so strong so long as it was out of reach. Only later did I think of actual Jerusalem’s lights, so visible from the environs of Amman and even from central Ramallah. Not only Israelis may identify with the Armenian fate. Palestinians, a nation spread around the world, bearing the wounds of an historical disaster, would likely find something of a mirror image here too.

Even without Ararat, Armenia is a land is full of marvels: such as the ancient Noravank monastery, perched omong rocky cliffs, the spectacular pagan temple at Garni, and Yerevan’s peculiar “Cascade” monument. All monuments mentioned above were renovated in recent decades thanks to donations from affluent Armenians living around the world.

Diaspora Armenians tend to experience a strong connection to their heritage, yet very few have ever visited the historical homeland. Take Californian rock band “System of a Down,” whose four members are of Armenian origin, which is seen here as another symbol of Armenian success (others include composer Aram Khacheturian, novelist William Saroyan and chess master Gary Kasparov). The band has never played Yerevan, and its local fans are still waiting.

In a meeting with Armenia’s prime minister, Tigran Sargsyan, at his office on Republic square in Yerevan, I brought up Israel’s “Taglit-Birthright” program, and asked him what his government does to maintain contact with the diaspora, particularly with the younger generation. Sargsyan admitted that 95 percent of ethnic Armenians have never been to Armenia, but claimed that his administration is investing heavily in changing this reality.

The author with Prime Minister Sargsyan at his office.

“We established a diaspora youth organization, as well as a foundation supporting bright Armenians in the best universities of the world,” the prime minister said. “This way, young Armenians interact with each other. The ministry of education organizes summer schools, as well as a program entitled ‘come home.’ Young Armenians come and live for a year in Armenia, we make them familiar with it.”

Do they stay? Rarely. but one could hardly expect a wave of Armenian “aliyah.” At present, the economic state of the country is difficult. The scars of Soviet times are so visible that they can hardly be described as scars. They are, indeed, the rule, out of which exceptions like the pleasant center of Yerevan are rising little by little. The median monthly income stands at about $300, and the countryside is exceedingly poor, as are many urban neighborhoods. Armenia is working hard on developing a brighter future, but the process is a slow one.

A typical street in Areni, a village in Vayots Dzor province, southern Armenia.

One factor that has greatly stalled Armenia’s development is its struggles with its neighbor Azerbaijan. A peace treaty between the two was signed in 1993, nearly twenty years ago, but bitterness remains.

On my visit, I obtained a booklet describing the desecration of Armenian religious monuments in the Azeri-controlled region of Nakhchivan, where no Armenians remain. The images included would have appeared familiar to Palestinians, so much do they recall the memory of the Nakba. One shows a wrecked village, where Armenians once lived. Another shows a church steeple from which the cross was removed and replaced with an Azeri flag. The booklet fails to mention the condition of mosques in the currently Azeri-free region of Nagorno Karabach.

The biggest historical scar, however, remains that of the Genocide committed against the Armenians during the first two decades of the 20th century by Ottoman Turkey. Israel, like all but a handful of nations, refuses to recognize the Armenian Genocide.

It is the need for maintaining a good relationship with Turkey that has prevented such recognition so far. Would Israel go ahead and show Armenia the solidarity of another wounded nation, now that this relationship is anyhow damaged? It remains to be seen. In the meantime, the little a visiting Israeli can do is to pay respect to approximately 1,500,000 at the monument and museum placed on a hill overlooking Yerevan.

The site is much like a small Yad Vashem, and while photographic evidence of the horrors is scarce, and the communication with visitors who are less versed in the history somewhat flawed, it communicates a great grief.

Eternal flame at Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide memorial, Yerevan

Having explored the similarities, one difference must be acknowledged. While Israel seems to be gearing itself for a potentially disastrous war with Iran, Armenia enjoys particularly good relationship with its southern neighbor. It is, indeed, expecting thousands of Iranian tourists to arrive this coming week to spend their annual Nowruz vacation drinking good brandy and eating forbidden pork in Yerevan. During my visit I enjoyed several pleasant chats with visiting Iranians (we preferred football to politics, for obvious reasons) and saw a great deal of commercial traffic moving down the road leading to the border in both Armenian and Iranian trucks.

When asked about Iran, Prime Minister Sargsyan emphasized Armenia’s landlocked situation. “We are relying on our neighbors, particularly on Georgia, to provide us contact with the world, and we must be sure to keep our gateways diverse. This is why maintaining a good relationship with Iran is important to us. We also remember that Iranians have been historically friendly with our nation, especially in times of need, and have sheltered Armenians during the time of the Genocide.”

An Iranian truck heading south from Yerevan

In our conversation, the Prime Minister stated sharply that Armenia “is opposed to an Israeli attack on Iran, which is sure to cause destabilization in the entire region.” This is not the warning of an estranged twin, but of a true friend and a neighbor down the block. As the plane took off over the Ararat back to the highly explosive homeland, I could only wish our countries were similar in this position as well.

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    1. Joe

      Hehehe, I love that you turned up and spoke to the Prime Minister. Good work.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Lillian

      I am an avid follower of your blog. In factm One of your writers came to one of my classes (The New School) last semster.

      Considering I am Armenian, this meant a lot to me. Thank you for another great mind stimulating and informative read!

      It would be nice if the Israel Government would recognize the genocide after all.

      Reply to Comment
    3. DTA

      Thank you for this article Yuval. One thing I got curious : “…In a meeting with Armenia’s prime minister, Tigran Sargsyan, at his office on Republic square in Yerevan, I brought up Israel’s “Taglit-Birthright” program…” Do you endorse the Taglit-Birthright programs?

      Reply to Comment
    4. Deïr Yassin

      Thank you for not forgetting the Palestiians. By the way, there is a very influent Armenian community in Palestine: the ambassador to the UK and in the higher education.

      You forgot the MOST famous Armenian ambassador: Chahnourh Aznavourian aka Charles Aznavour, the beloved singer of many generations.
      Greeting from Paris

      Reply to Comment
    5. The Taglit-Birthright program, which provide diaspora Jewish youths with a free tour of Israel, draws on a concept that is problematic to begin with, considering the scarcity of rights granted to some people whose birth actually took place in this land. The project has grown ever more problematic since right-wing multi-billionaire Sheldon Adelson became its chief benefactor. It is my understanding that Adelson requests to approve the program’s curriculum and that the values it presents have grown increasingly questionable.
      Here is a post from my blog’s pre-972 incarnation. It is entitled “Ignoranceright”, and was sparked by a conversation I had with a birthright alumnus. She was surprised to find out that Bedouins are real people, since on the tour she got the impression that they are an historical, Biblical society.
      That ideological tours cannot provide young people with the realities of this country is a no brainer. Since these are such charged and difficult realities, I cannot possibly endorse Taglit-Birthright. I do recognize, however, that this program is effective in promoting a “homeland” agenda, similar to the one Armenia seeks to promote. This is why I chose to bring it up with Prime-Minister Sargsyan.

      Reply to Comment
    6. DTA

      Yuval: Thank you for your reply. I am relieved by your response. I personally think “Birthright-Taglit” programs can only be meaningful when the Palestenian refugees can also have their rights to, at least, be able to visit their ancestorial lands. I hope you can write more often in 972, your September and Christmas journeys were awesome.

      Lillian: I am from Turkey. I hope we all can sort the ugly past and live side by side.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Tamar

      The photo of the eternal flame and terse caption encapsulate your solid post. כל הכבוד, יובל

      Reply to Comment
    8. AYLA

      DeirYassin: welcome back! And thank, Yuval: you had me at the first photo. (that’s all I’m allowed to say; I’m on a commenting fast). 🙂

      Reply to Comment
    9. Woody

      Among the best things I’ve read as of late. Kol HaKavod

      Reply to Comment
    10. God bless Armenia and Armenians. BTW, Yuval, how did you wangle a meeting with the PM?

      Reply to Comment
    11. sh

      Agree with everyone here today and yes, great to see Deir Yassin back. I’d been wondering where you were and thanks for the Aznavour.
      Yuval, that sensational first photo is the only one with no caption. I’ll risk revealing my ignorance (maybe everyone else knows) and ask you where and what this astonishing place is.
      I’ve chatted to quite a few Armenians in my time, not least in East Jerusalem. We’ve got more than genocide in common.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Krikorian

      as an Armenian I thank you for your writing and your trip.

      I however do have three questions.

      1) Why does Israel deny the Armenian Genocide?

      2) Why has Israel armed azerbaijan with billions of dollars worth of arms, when they are bent on attacking Armenia?

      3) Why has the Jewish lobby in the US gone out of it’s way over the decades to actively defeat Armenian genocide recognition?

      I would like to see more friendship develop between our two peoples, however I do not understand the reasoning behind the actions stated above

      Reply to Comment
    13. SH, I took it at Noravank, a 13th century monastery, a two hours drive south of Yerevan. The road to Noravank winds through an striking limestone canyon, and the monastery itself features some of the most interesting stonework I’ve seen. One example is the narrow staircase seen in this picture, which leads to the top floor of the double-tiered main chapel (an expression of the difficult way to piety). Another is the relief on the portico of the lesser church, it is the only artistic expression I’ve seen of the Father the Son and the holy ghost as seperate tangible entities: the Son is a crusified Jesus, the Father a bearded face, and the Holy Ghost a winged creature breathing life into the first man. This site alone is worht the trip to Armenia, big time.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Kolumn9

      There is a Birthright Armenia site, though they promote more volunteering/immersion type of programs rather than the 10 day free programs for Jewish kids to go to Israel.

      Armenia sounds amazing. Thanks for the writeup.

      As for your opinion on Birthright itself… It is a ten day free educational program with a highly ignorant audience. It would be impossible to squeeze any kind of ‘balanced’ picture into a ten day trip that is actually supposed to be fun. In addition, the whole point is to create a connection between diaspora Jews and Israel. I am relatively sure that this is the major problem you have with the program.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Tamar

      I’m with Larry on wondering how you got an audience w the PM. Also, I’m wondering what’s up w your suit and shaven face… an addition and a subtraction to your earlier posted photos and, ahem, image.”Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes” (Thoreau).

      Reply to Comment
    16. James

      Wasn’t the Armenian diaspora pro-Nazi before WW2? The biggest Armenian paper based in Boston in the 1930’s was very pro-German and regularly praised Hitler. I think it left a bitter taste in many Jewish peoples mouths given the lack of sympathy shown since they themselves had suffered genocide only recently at the time. I also believe the leader of the Hungarian arrow cross (that murdered tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews on the banks of the Danube) was of Armenian ancestry, but I could be wrong on that.

      Reply to Comment
    17. sh

      James, nice you read the internet. Then you’ll know that Hitler promised Armenians an independent state. Nice that in your book having one great-grandfather with an Armenian-sounding surname indicates a predisposition to become the leader of a murderous group of collaborator thugs. Your kind of generalization about a group is part of what I mean when I say Jews and Armenians have a lot in common besides genocides.

      Reply to Comment
    18. sh

      Yuval, thanks for the fascinating explanation about Noravank. And that spectacular photo.

      Reply to Comment
    19. To answer what many of your were wondering – We were several representatives of the Israeli media in Yerevan, invited in the hope of promoting Israeli tourism in Armenia, and received audience with PM Sargsyan for this reason. Neighboring Georgia is a favorite country with Israeli tourists, which has an effect on its economy, while Armenia at this point is greatly unknown to Israelis. PM Sargsyan admitted that tourism infrastructure in Armenia is lacking at this moment. there is, for one, a shortage of two and three-star hotels, as the soviet era left the country with either super-fancy five-star hotels and super-grim no-star ones). He was clear, however in welcoming Israeli tourists to his country. I have been commissioned to write a piece about tourism in Armenia for Israeli magazine “Laisha”.
      It is worth noting that at the present moment a great deal of the tourists that visit Armenia come from Iran. The holiday of Nowruz is coming soon, and Yerevan’s streets, bars and restaurants are sure to fill with Persian revelers (many of whom are said to travel north in pursuit of alcohol and pork, both forbidden at home). Armenia could be precious as a venue in which Israelis and Iranians meet by happenstance and break myths about each other.
      Krikorian, both difficult issues came up once and again over our visit. In my view, my country would have done better to reconsider both issues. All members of the Israeli delegation made it clear in conversations that we, as individuals, do recognize the Armenian genocide (I, for one, do not shy from using the word “Holocaust”). Indeed, former minister of Education Yossi Sarid visited Yerevan during the 90s, and tried to include a program concerning the genocide in Israeli textbooks. However, this was vetoed by the administration, for fear of creating a breach with Turkey. As for the weapons deal: We are forced to live with the fact our country is an enormous manufacturer of arms. My disdain for the arms trade is deep. I can only pray that one day, in the words of prophet Isaiah. “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

      Reply to Comment
    20. It’s very interesting to read about my homeland!

      As a an Armeninan i can say – we are friendly nation: hospitality and peacefulness are in our DNA .. maybe its becoz we know the cost of war.

      Reply to Comment
    21. This is a great piece. I’m actually of both Armenian and German Jewish decent, and a few years ago I went to Armenia and Israel. I found many of the similarities that you found. And a lot of Israelis like to travel to Armenia and Georgia too.

      I’m so glad you wrote this piece.

      Reply to Comment
    22. PS – I’ve always wanted to buy a Soviet Vulga, 1970s addition. Such radically horrible cars.

      Reply to Comment
    23. Alice

      Yuval thank you for sharing your trip to Armenia. It looks beautiful. I would love to visit someday soon as well as Israel. 🙂

      Reply to Comment
    24. P.S.

      Thank You for this post!It’s really a good description and hope we will have more tourists from your country in future.Also invite You to come back in summer as well as it’s the best season in our country!:)
      p.s.Btw,a peace treaty was signed in 1994.

      Reply to Comment
    25. Thank you for this interesting article, despite the few inaccuracies that seem to be perpetuated: e.g. No “Peace Treaty” was ever signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan, what was signed is a “cease-fire” agreement.
      You also seem to have not noticed the “swastikas” carved on the back of that beautiful church of Noravanq. If you look carefully, you will find them inside small stars. Of course swastikas are an eternity symbol, but what is intriguing to me, is that the swastika-bearing stars surround a Cross, in which “stars of David” are also carved.
      In your short visit you perhaps did not get a chance to visit the recently discovered “medieval Jewish cemetery” near Noravanq, by the Yeghegis river. http://yeghegis.syunikngo.am/
      There is an excellent 2-3 star set of small cottages/villas opened last year for rent, called the “Lucy” Tourist Center, where I have seen Jewish dances performed in the evenings. info@armlucytour.am ; Telephone: +374 281 2 40 09, +374 77 86 13 31, + 374 93 26 58 16
      Perhaps you should come again. This time, forget the PM.

      Reply to Comment
    26. Olga Qdaimati

      Mr. Terjanian:
      Thank you for the useful additional info about the monastery and the Jewish cemetery. This makes it more interesting for me to visit.
      Please tell me, is the ““Lucy” Tourist Center” near the Jewish cemetary?

      Reply to Comment
    27. Ms. Qdaimati:
      I am sorry I was not clear enough the first time.
      The “Lucy” Tourism Center cottages/villas are in fact a 5 minute drive up-stream from the Yeghegis Jewish cemetery. It is located in the village called “Hermon”, another biblical connection.
      I am glad my few lines motivate you to visit. Come and meet Armenia’s best resource: its people!

      Reply to Comment
    28. Gail Loon-Lustig

      We visited Armenia in 2007 travelling from Tel Aviv via Vienna. I had organized our trip with an agency in Yerevan whose guide fetched us from the airport and accompanied us for the next week. It was a remarkable visit in many ways; the food;history;the tofu churches, the magnificent contemporary art displayed everywhere;the friendly people. Recommend it to everyone with a nose for curiosity and a sense of romanticism.

      Reply to Comment
    29. Cynthia markarian

      I saw this post pretty late and as an Armenian 14 year old girl who born in Iran and now I’m living hear I swear every single day I dream just visiting Israel the land of Ebrahim musa and others and being in this lie Islamic country . I would love to go anywhere but not iran but my destiny was this so maybe when I turn 18 or more but I love the ascent historical iran what’s founder was Jewish . God bless

      Reply to Comment
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