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Voting ‘present’: Ilhan Omar’s disheartening response to the problem of genocide 

Rep. Ilhan Omar
REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert
Rep. Ilhan Omar
The Armenian genocide is an indisputable historical fact. The evidence that Ottoman officials set about on a systematic plan to annihilate its Armenian population is undeniable.

So too is the genocide of Native peoples in the United States, brought on by policies that varied from extermination to forced assimilation. The evidence of this points to “intent to destroy, in whole or in part” (U.N. Genocide Convention definition) the Native American populations in the United States.

On Tuesday, Congress voted to affirm its record on the Armenian genocide with formal recognition. Despite several congressional nonbinding resolutions, the House had never formally recognized the Armenian genocide. Until Tuesday. However, instead of addressing this historical injustice, Rep. Omar chose to vote “present,” essentially abstaining from the vote. She would later release a statement, in part stating: 

“A true acknowledgment of historical crimes against humanity must include both the heinous genocides of the 20th century, along with earlier mass slaughters like the transatlantic slave trade and the Native American genocide, which took the lives hundreds of millions of indigenous people in this country.”

The reality, though, is that recognition of one genocide does not diminish another. Drawing awareness of the Armenian genocide does not discount the historical and continued suffering experienced by Native or African peoples as a result of European colonialism. To that end, the recognition of one genocide has never been predicated on the continued denial of others. When the City Councils of Minneapolis and St. Paul declared that the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War paved the road to genocide, it didn’t mean that either city ignored other episodes of mass violence as a result.

Recognizing genocides does not lead to further ignorance of other genocides, as the representative suggests. The opposite is true. Recognition of genocide is an essential step in raising awareness of other episodes of mass violence.

Joe Eggers
Joe Eggers
Understanding painful aspects of history help build connections with other difficult parts of history and foster a greater awareness and empathy with the victims. Memory scholars Alejandro Baer and Natan Sznaider aptly describe this phenomenon, pointing to the fact that understanding episodes of genocide creates a “global memory constellation rather than a zero-sum game in which remembrance of history erases others from view.”

In fact, the concept of genocide was built on this very idea. Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin was shocked by the lack of legal recourse for the violence perpetrated against the Armenians when he coined the term genocide as a legal mechanism for understanding and prosecuting the crimes of the Holocaust. An understanding of episodes of genocide is fundamental to understanding others, and it is disheartening to see Omar ignore these interconnections.

Congressional recognition of the Armenian genocide comes at a particularly tense time in relations with Turkey and is seemingly caught up in contemporary turmoil. It is no small irony that the recognition of the Armenian genocides comes as the global community worries of another potential genocide in that region, that of the Kurdish people in Northern Syria. Nevertheless, recognition of the Armenian genocide was overdue and the continued absence of American recognition of the genocide allowed for the Turkish state rhetoric to grow into a century of denial. 

It is time for Congress to acknowledge the genocide of Native peoples, too. Omar is right on that point. Her recognition of the Armenian Genocide would have been a step in that direction.

Joe Eggers is the research and outreach coordinator for the Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/31/2019 - 11:44 pm.

    This is a good piece.

    I already got sick of Omar after about her 5th or 6th kinda, sorta anti-semitic/awkward statement, so I’m probably not unbiased at this point. And I realize that Omar faces a constant storm of hateful nonsense from the right.

    But her actions here are pretty gross. At some point I think people will start to figure out that she really isn’t a good representative.

  2. Submitted by Raj Maddali on 11/01/2019 - 06:10 am.

    Your organization is just as political as Ms Omar is in not voting for the Resolution. Today in the Strib, Mr Baer and Steve Hunegs of the JCRC wrote an article condemning Ms Omar. Sure on its own i agree with it.

    However, you and your organization are fully aware, but don’t ask nor write why the Armenian Genocide is being recognized today. Why not ten years ago ? Why not fifty years ago” Why didn’t your organization bring it up all these years ? This recognition is not some great ray of morality that came over Congress, rather a political stunt to get back at Turkey and Mr Erdogan.

    Pointing to Mr Hunegs of the JCRC, he and his organization openly side step Israeli treatment of Palestinians. If your organization is so much for Human Rights why not expand the Center to “Center for Holocaust, Genocode and Apartheid Studies”.

    Answer that Mr Eggers. Are you telling me that your organization is so, so, so deep in Genocide studies that it cannot confront Apartheid. Or rather is it a political calculation to avoid being forced to confront inconvenient topics for some of your staff and benefactors ?

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/01/2019 - 09:41 am.

      Some representatives have been pushing for this resolution for years. What is political about this now is not their continued push, but the withdrawal of the opposition to this by all but the most unprincipled members of congress. Proponents aren’t worried about upsetting Erdogan. Its that prior opponents of this are no longer worried about upsetting him.

      As far as the goals of these organizations, I assume they have chosen to focus on the very worst things (Holocaust and Genocide) and not every injustice in the world. Nothing the Israeli government has ever done comes close to what happened in Turkey, or what is happening now in Syria and Yemen.

      • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 11/02/2019 - 05:48 pm.

        The same set of politicians refused to vote for it until their lobbyist buddies told them to. And now those politicians are being held up as principled members of Congress.

        If the same University Institute is studying the same topic for a decade or so without expanding its ambit into modern day issues of Human Rights then their entire mission is suspect and compromised.

        Even if their “research” is Genocide, then why did not they confront the role of organizations like AIPAC, local organizations and politicians who took their support and money while emasculating Armenian Genocide resolutions ?

        Hasn’t the institute compromised it academic integrity ?

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 11/01/2019 - 09:46 am.

      Yes, it should have been done earlier, but it wasn’t. And yes some of that was people not wanting to upset Turkey. However, if someone were to refuse to vote on a bill condemning Native American genocide because it didn’t include Turkey, would that make much sense? Now that you have the votes, vote for it. It’s not about Ms. Omar’s wants. I agree with Mr. Terry, I like her on some levels, but think she is not using her role to its fullest.

  3. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 11/01/2019 - 10:40 am.

    Look at the 11 Nay votes: as noted above, all Republicans wanting to not offend Erdogan and really not concerned with events of 100 years ago to the extent that it worsens relations with Turkey.

    Omar’s vote simply reflects that a bunch of Muslims killed a bunch of Christians and she elected to go on the record as really not concerned with events of 100 years ago to the extent that it worsens relations with ???

    “Squad” members Cortez, Talib and Pressley do their homework, prepare for their congressional work in a manner that enables them to confront their critics with solid arguments, not getting distracted by peripheral issues.

    Peripheral issues are a specialty of Ms. Omar.

    A significant need for solid candidate for the 2020 CD5 D primary to oppose Omar and the millions her campaign has bank rolled thanks to Trump’s incessant ranting about her.

  4. Submitted by Jim Marshal on 11/01/2019 - 12:37 pm.

    Good for Omar in not taking an active part in this act of nonsense that has nothing to do with representing her district and everything to do with angering a Turkish despot using some long ago genocide as moral cover.

    • Submitted by Robert Deranian on 11/01/2019 - 09:39 pm.

      Just so you know… that long ago genocide was the cause of making my grandfather an orphan… his mother, father, younger brother, and younger sister… not to mention all kinds of family… killed just like that with no kind of idea of how they suffered or died. Yes… I’m an Armenian American (2nd generation born and raised in California, and I like most of the over 1 million Armenian Americans have stories like this where most of the family was killed. If that is not enough reason to make the Armenian Genocide relevant then consider what’s happening to the Kurdish people right now at this very moment. Watching these people being forced into the deserts of Syria is like what happened to the Armenians 100 years ago. It’s human suffering plain and simple.

      • Submitted by Jim Marshal on 11/02/2019 - 08:28 am.

        I never said that the Armenian genocide was irrelevant. What I meant to say was that this congressional affirmation is a political stunt meant solely to aggravate Turkey. If members of congress were actually honest about their concern over genocide; they would place much of the blame on themselves. They are the ones who have been voting for massive military budgets for decades and abdicating their key role in reigning in the executives power to wage war. Much of their allocated military spending has been used to weaponize and destabilize the middle east causing untold suffering for millions of middle easterners including the Kurds.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/02/2019 - 12:12 pm.

    Eggers’s proceeds from a false premise of his own design. The claim that recognition of one genocide promotes ignorance of some other is Eggers’s claim, not Omar’s.

    Omar is simply advocating for a more inclusive congressional form of recognition, and she has a point. Why NOT recognize the other genocides Omar cites? The selective recognition of historical events can certainly distort historical consciousness. Those dealing with various forms of historical trauma can attest to that fact.

    The comparison of a US congressional resolution regarding international events and a local city council resolution dealing something that actually happened at the foot of Fort Snelling is disingenuous. Is anyone asking the St. Paul City council to issue a resolution regarding the Armenian genocide? Would such a request in St. Paul even make sense?

    If you read Omar’s statement it’s clear that she’s not denying the Armenian genocide, nor did she vote against that recognition, she’s simply saying she supports a broader approach to historical recognition of historical events like this. To the extent that Omar or anyone might observe that selective recognition can marginalize other events, that is a perfectly legitimate observation.

    Instead of attacking or criticizing Omar it might be more constructive to recognize her point and put those other genocides on the table and in the que for recognition, after all, those ARE genocides worth recognizing are they not? And isn’t Omar just representing her constituents, many of whom are American Indians and descendants of slavery? Isn’t THAT what a representative is supposed to do?

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