By Jirair Tutunjian, Toronto, 19 November 2023
(In lieu of editorial)
Israeli settler-brigands threatening Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter and Israelis who sent racist anti-Armenian comments to The Jerusalem Post because an Armenian had supposedly tried to set fire to Yerevan’s synagogue, have apparently not heard of Ashken Hagopian or Ara Jeretzian. If these hate-filled ignoramuses drove a few miles from the Armenian Quarter to Yad Vashem, they would learn that Ashken, Ara and 21 other Armenians saved the lives of numerous Jews during WWII. They saved Jews in Ukraine, Austria, Hungary, and France. Not included among the 23 heroic Armenians are Charles Aznavour, his parents, and sister Aida who sheltered Jews in their Paris home during the Nazi occupation of Paris. In fact, Israel has issued a stamp commemorating Aznavour’s and his family’s courage and humanity. Pran Tashchjyan, one of the Armenians who saved Jews said: “Having witnessed the Armenian Genocide, we decided to save them.”
It was not the first time Armenians have shown friendship and kindness to Jews.
Jews began to settle in Armenia in the 1st Century. Then between 360 AD and 370 AD there was a massive increase in Jewish immigration to Armenia. So much so that many Armenian towns became predominantly Jewish. Armenians demonstrated hospitality to Jews despite the fact that Armenia had converted to Christianity 60 years earlier and there was widespread belief around the Mediterranean basin that Jews had killed Christ.
Jews continued to enjoy Armenian hospitality during the next millennium. Several years ago, Israeli archeologists found 40 Jewish gravestones dating from 1266 to 1497. Later, Armenian archeologists found another 64 Jewish tombstones.
Several centuries later, when Russian Empress Catherine II banished Russians who had converted to Judaism, the converts converged to Armenia because they knew Armenians were not antisemitic. By 1840, there were clearly defined Ashkenazi and Mizrahi communities in Armenia. In the late 1890s, a Russian government census reported there were 640 Jews in Armenia. In Turkish-occupied Six Armenian Villayets had a Jewish population of 3,822.
Early in the 20th century, when the Russian Empire launched one of its regular pogroms of Jews, many Jews were granted quickie “Christian” status by the Catholicos of the Armenians to protect them from the tsarist soldiers.
During the Soviet era, a large number of Russian Jews settled in Armenia looking for an atmosphere of tolerance…something that was absent in the Russian SSR and the Ukrainian SSR.
After WWII, the number of Jews in Armenia increased to 5,000. In 1959 it soared to 10,000. From 1966 to 1972 there was another wave of Soviet Jewish immigration to Armenia. The new arrived were mostly engineers, intellectuals, and military people. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine there was yet another Jewish immigration wave to Armenia. Along with 40,000 Russians who moved to Armenia there were 700 Jews. However, in the past decade, 6,000 Jews left Armenia for Israel because of Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan and Armenia’s economic challenges. Incidentally, the wife of the first post-Soviet Armenia president is Jewish.
In 2015, Rima Varzhapetyan, the president of the Jewish Community of Armenia, said: “The Jewish community of Armenia feels protected in Armenia, and the authorities respect their rights, culture, and traditions. There is no antisemitism in Armenia and we enjoy good relations with the Armenians.”
By the way, Armenian investigators have determined a foreigner who had arrived in Armenia eight hours earlier was responsible for the attempted arson of the Yerevan synagogue. He was seen videotaping the fire. That is why Azerbaijan’s media was first to show the fire. One guess who sent the arsonist-agent to Yerevan. Let me offer a hint or two. He is a hereditary dictator. He and his family have robbed billions of dollars from the oil-rich country they rule. His proboscis could be the envy of Cyrano de Bergerac and Pinocchio. Some even say, the protrusion is seven months pregnant.