The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author’s views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.
Last December, during a meeting of Princeton’s Armenian Society, I received shocking news: I discovered that I have a distant cousin on campus. A Turkish student, who has chosen to remain anonymous, revealed to me that our shared ancestry, uncovered by a genetics test and a shared cousin, can be traced back to Malatya, Turkey, where my great-grandfather and his extensive family once lived. My great-grandfather, Stepan, his younger sister, Hripsime, and his two other lost siblings were the only four of 86 to survive an attempt at mass genocide. My deceased relatives were among the 1.5 million Armenians who fell victim to the Ottoman sanction orders of forced deportations and genocide.
More than 100 years later, the denial of the Armenian genocide continues. Princeton’s Department of Near Eastern Studies (NES) has some faculty that do not explicitly acknowledge the genocide. Princeton needs to choose a better path.
As a descendant of Armenian Genocide survivors, I carry the weight of generational trauma. It’s been 108 years since my ancestors witnessed and endured the brutal rape and mutilation of their families, were stripped of all their possessions, and forced to march hundreds of miles through the scorching Syrian Desert. Even today, genocide is an ever-present reality in my life, made more evident by the discovery of a long-lost cousin of mine on campus. To me, this reunion is a constant reminder that just over a century ago, there was an attempt to wipe my people off the face of the earth.
And today, the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War has awakened the same fear Armenians faced a century ago. Some call the ongoing Azerbaijani blockade of the Armenian enclave, where 120,000 people remain without essential living supplies, another attempt at mass ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Despite the overwhelming evidence by world-renowned researchers and scholars like the Turkish scholars Taner Akçam and Raphael Lemkin (who coined the word “genocide” in 1944, citing the Armenian case as a primary example), Turkey continues to deny the atrocities that were sanctioned under the Young Turks. Yet, as of 2023, governments and parliaments of 34 countries — including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Russia, and the United States — have formally recognized the Armenian Genocide.
As students, we may not have the power to change the policies of foreign governments, but we can ensure that denialist rhetoric does not infiltrate Princeton’s campus and curriculum. And unfortunately, as an Armenian student at Princeton, I do not feel comfortable taking classes in the Near Eastern Department, knowing that some faculty continue to reject the idea that the mass deportations of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 were a centrally planned and executed genocide. It baffles me that faculty members at one of the world’s leading universities deny the validity of a traumatic historical event that eradicated almost my entire family and millions of Armenians in the early 20th century.
Princeton’s Near Eastern Department is notorious among Armenians. In 1996, a New York Times article exposed links between large payments of the Turkish Government and the appointment of Professor Emeritus Heath Lowry, a genocide denialist, as the Chair of Princeton’s Near Eastern Department. Professor Emeritus Bernard Lewis, another notable historian of Turkey and Middle Eastern Studies, and a peer of Lowry at Princeton’s Near Eastern Department, refused to call the atrocities a genocide — he said there was a lack of evidence in the Ottoman archives. Lewis was also censured by a civil proceeding in the French Court for “failing in his duty of objectivity and prudence” in regard to an interview he gave to Le Monde, where he denied all evidence that the Ottomans’ slaughter of the Armenians constituted genocide.
However, most scholars across the country such as Richard G. Hovhannisian and Israel Charny, rely on the ample supply of primary sources documenting the atrocities, such as Ambassador Henry Morgenthau’s diary entries, eyewitnesses and personal testimonies, U.S. and French Archives, and German Foreign Office correspondence as their among many other sources as their primary sources of evidence. Akçam published the groundbreaking book “Killing Orders,” analyzing Talaat Pasha, Minister of Interior and later Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, and Ottoman officer Naim Efendi’s correspondence outlining the killing orders issued by Talaat. His sources draw upon archival material from Krikor Gergerian’s collection of Ottoman government documents.
Despite decades of research and analysis on this issue and several countries’ recognition, including the United States, current faculty, such as Michael Reynolds in Princeton’s NES Department, contest evidence proving the large-scale deportations and massacres were a genocide decreed by CUP leaders. Even Šükrü Hanioğlu, another scholar and Chair of Princeton’s NES Department, who has not explicitly recognized the extent of the horror has avoided the use of the word “genocide.” Hanioğlu has called the deportations of the Armenians “the most tragic event of the war,” and in another instance, in his book published in 2011, he described America’s anti-Turkish stance as “sympathy for the sufferings of the Ottoman Armenians” (90). While calling the events “tragic” and a “suffering,” Hanioğlu has not labeled the events as a systematic genocide.
As a leading academic institution, Princeton is responsible for fostering an environment of intellectual honesty and scholarly rigor. This means acknowledging the historical facts, and recognizing what the International Association of Genocide Scholars and Center for International Truth and Justice have cited and recognized as genocide. Denying the Armenian Genocide undermines the integrity of the academic community and is a disservice to the victims and their descendants.
By formally recognizing the Armenian Genocide, Princeton can set an example for other institutions and individuals. It can demonstrate its commitment to academic freedom and intellectual honesty, and show solidarity with the Armenian community and other past (Jews, Cambodian, Kurds, Rawandans, Bosnia/Kosovo) and present-day (Rohingya, Uyghurs, Ukraine, Darfur) victims of mass ethnic cleansing and genocide.
As an Armenian student at Princeton, I ask that the NES Department takes concrete steps to address this issue. This includes offering courses that accurately reflect the historical reality of the Armenian Genocide, ensuring that faculty members do not minimize the atrocity, and inviting scholars specializing in Armenian studies to teach at Princeton.
Recognizing the Armenian Genocide is not just a moral imperative but also an intellectual one, we can only learn from history and build a better future by acknowledging the truth. As a community, we must work towards creating an environment that values truth and justice, and we must ensure that the horrors of the past are never repeated and that denial of such an atrocity does not set a precedent for the enabling of other genocides. I strongly urge the NES Department and Princeton University to take action and create a safe environment where intellectual honesty — rather than denialist conspiracy — is upheld.
Katya Hovnanian-Alexanian is a sophomore from Yerevan, Armenia, and Red Bank, N.J. She can be reached at email@example.com.