Carter's Holocaust Commission Should Inspire Biden on Armenian Genocide | Opinion

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee lead 37 colleagues in calling on President Joe Biden to officially recognize the Armenian genocide. Following this call, I believe Biden's statement of recognition would be stronger and meaningful if it were to follow a few practical steps that align with the 2019 congressional bill, but also mirror decisions taken in 1978 by former President Jimmy Carter regarding the legacy of U.S. Holocaust remembrance.

Specifically, the 2019 Congress bill that recognized the Armenian genocide stated, "it is the policy of the United States—to commemorate the Armenian Genocide through official recognition and remembrance." Along these lines, President Biden could commission a group of experts to recommend holding official commemoration days, build a federal memorial or museum and set up educational programs. Practically speaking, building a U.S. Armenian genocide museum or a federal memorial will take advantage of an already deteriorating situation between the U.S. and Turkey and allow the U.S. to do the right thing, as explained in the 2019 Congress bill.

Beyond practical steps, Biden's possible recognition would also be a normative step. It delivers an important twofold message: First, it will use "soft power" as a means to challenge Turkey's denial narrative on an official level; second, it would finally offer some relief to generations of Armenians after many years of false representation of their history.

Biden's actions should not be seen as arbitrary. It could indeed mark the transition from the pragmatic stance of the Trump, Obama and Bush administrations to one that is focused on shaping the preferences of other countries on this matter after many years of hesitation.

That's not all. There is another important source of legitimacy. From a historical perspective, President Jimmy Carter's 1978 Presidential Commission on the Holocaust should be Biden's inspiration for the Armenian genocide. Carter requested the commission submit a report addressing the "establishment and maintenance of an appropriate memorial to those who perished in the Holocaust."

The collective shift in Holocaust memory occurred in the late 1970s. There was significant growth in public manifestations of engagement with the Holocaust in the United States at the time, including Holocaust curricula in high schools, Holocaust seminars at universities, events held by American Jewish organisations about Holocaust memory, academic conferences and publications. The most significant shift in American Holocaust consciousness occurred following the broadcast of the NBC miniseries Holocaust in 1978-1979.

Armenian genocide
The eternal flame burns at the Armenian genocide memorial on April 24, 2015, in Yerevan, Armenia. Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

This boost played a significant role in Carter's vision of establishing the commission. The commission's main task was to suggest Holocaust days of remembrance, shaping the education and memory of the Holocaust in the American public sphere. The Carter administration's strategy was to use the Holocaust as a universal lesson for genocide prevention. Committee members included Holocaust survivors like Elie Wiesel and Benjamin Meed, American senators and Jewish Congress members such as Stephen Solarz, Jewish American journalists such as Hyman Bookbinder and academic specialists on the Holocaust like Raul Hilberg, each of whom contributed their own expertise and insights to the initial planning of the U.S. Holocaust memorial.

The Commission on the Holocaust recommended special days of remembrance for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, a dedicated education program and the establishment of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) as a national memorial.

Biden can use this legacy of the Democratic Party of the late 1970s and the federal experience of U.S. Holocaust remembrance to allocate similar federal resources to commemorate the Armenian genocide in 2021, a genocide that also affected the lives of Assyrians and Greeks under Ottoman rule. Biden has a unique opportunity to ensure that his actions will convey a message that the U.S., as a country of immigrants, offered a home and equal opportunity not only to Jews but also to Armenians and others, all post-genocidal communities.

On April 24, Biden has the normative, legislative and historical legacy of the USHMM as the foundation and inspiration to make the decision to build a U.S. Armenian genocide memorial. As the Armenian genocide bill clearly stated, the U.S. Congress would like to allocate federal resources to building a U.S. memorial to commemorate the 1915 genocide, as they did with the Holocaust in 1978.

It's a major step forward. Biden could write an important chapter in American history.

Dr. Eldad Ben Aharon is a Minerva Fellow and associate researcher at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) and a lecturer at Leiden University. He is writing a book on Israeli–Turkish relations in the last decade of the Cold War as seen through the prism of the Armenian genocide and U.S. Holocaust remembrance. His Twitter is @EldadBenAharon.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.