An Israeli-produced television documentary that contains a brief account of the 1915 massacre of over a million Armenians at the hands of the Turks has caused a diplomatic brouhaha with Turkey. There are charges that the film is being suppressed at the request of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Israel Foreign Ministry officials reportedly ruled that screening the film would cause "serious complications" with Turkey and could disrupt diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The controversy began simmering out of public view in December when the Turkish consul-general is said to have protested against Israel's intentions to produce a film about Armenians living in Jerusalem. Now it has surfaced publicly amid charges that the Foreign Ministry bowed to pressure by the Turks and imposed censorship on the government-controlled Israel Broadcasting Authority because of possible diplomatic repercussions.
Because the 12-hour American film "Holocaust" is currently being watched by more than a million viewers here, broadcast authority officials are being accused of hypocrisy for not showing the Armenian film.
The Turks have never publicly acknowledged their country's role in the massacre, which occurred over a three-month period and was vividly recounted in Franz Werfel's "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh."
Although the broadcasting authority's board said it has not made a decision to scrap the film, sources said it had been "canned" in hopes that the controversy will go away.An anchorman on the state-owned Israeli television is said to have been prohibited from mentioning the dispute on a newscast last week.
A broadcasting authority spokesman, Moshe Amirov, denied yesterday that the film has been pertinently shelved, saying that its airing had been "postponed" because of "sensitivity on two fronts - on the side of the Foreign Ministry and the news, in Turkey." He said the Turkish Jews fear a blacklash.
"If we broadcast it now, it is under pressure. The best way out of this situation, which is not an easy one, is to say, 'Okay, we will broadcast it, but not now," Amirov said. He added, "We say clearly that we are going to broadcast it sometime."
When asked why the Turks would find the film less offensive later than now, Amirov said, "we know it will be sensitive a month's time or a year's time from now. We are ready to give them [the Turks] a right to comment on it, if they think the facts are wrong."
Several persons who have viewed the film said it is dominated by a scholarly portrayal of cultural life in the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem's Old City but contains a five-minute recollection of the 1915 massacre, including some still photographs of corpses and refugees, but no inflammatory narrative.
The coproducer, Micha Shagrir, said that the segment, while short, does "dramatically reflect upon the suffering of these people." He called the Foreign Ministry's concern "stupid" but said, "This kind of thing happens all the time."
Trouble over the hour-long film began brewing quietly nine months ago when the consul-general of Turkey here reportedly complained to Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek that American author Michael J. Arlen had been invited to write the script and was staying at Israel's guest house for dignitaries, Miskenot Shanagim. Arlen is the author of "Passage to Aranat," an account of his search for his Armenian roots.
When Kollek refused to intervene, a delegation of Turkish Jews appeared before the Israel charge daffaire in Ankara and complained they would be endangered if the film were shown.
Amos Elon, an Israeli author and commentator who disclosed the diplomatic flap in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, said earlier this week, "It's not too hard to figure out who put these Turkish Jews up to it. How could they have possibly known about this film without being told by the Turks?"
Later, members of the Association of Turkish Immigrants in Israel voiced concern to an official of the Turkish desk of the Foreign Ministry, and the "reconsideration" of the film was set in motion.
Amirov said, "The Foreign Ministry sent us some letters, but they said the decision is yours. They can't interfere in our operations."
Elon, who has waged a campaign to save the film, said that at Monday's broadcast authority meeting, four of members present voted against the film and that a decision was made to simply "sit on" the project indefinitely.
"The only thing I know for certain is their intention to kill it. But they won't succeed. We'll force them to show it," Elon said. "If the Knesset had been in session, this whole thing would not have happened, because there would have been motions, introduced and debates."
The Knesset, Israel's parliament, is in recess.
The diplomatic maneuvers here may not be able to prevent the showing of the film since the English version has been shipped by a London agent to NBC for a screening. The U.S. network has not said whether it will purchase the film.