Dr. Donef: there are not many scholars who focus on the Assyrian Genocide

In the next instalment of Seyfo Center’s series of interviews with scholars of the Assyrian Genocide, Joseph Haweil spoke with Sydney’s Racho Donef. Dr. Donef was born in Istanbul and migrated to Australia in the 1980s. He first studied languages and sociology and after completing a Masters degree in sociology, studied for a Diploma in Social Sciences at the University of Stockholm.
Upon returning to Australia, he embarked upon a doctoral thesis focussing on Greeks, Assyrians, Armenians and Kurds, conducting research both in Australia and Sweden for the thesis. As part of his research Dr. Donef also interviewed survivors of the Armenian Genocide. Dr. Donef was awarded a PhD by Macquarie University in 1999 after completing his doctoral thesis entitled Identities in the Multicultural State: Four Immigrant Populations from Turkey in Australia and Sweden: Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians and Kurds.

Dr. Donef has worked both in the Federal and New South Wales State Public Services for many years. He has also been tutoring in subjects related to Middle Eastern religions, politics and the Turkish language at the Workers’ Education Association in Sydney.

When did you initially learn of the Assyrian Genocide and what sparked your interest in writing about it?

I was giving an interview to the Assyrian program in a local radio station in the Sydney suburb of Fairfield, in the late nineties. I was talking about my thesis. For the first time during the program I learned about the Assyrian genocide and a caller told me about Dr. Gabriele Yonan’s book Forgotten Genocide. The book was just translated to Turkish. I tried to look for the book the next day and an Assyrian friend from Sweden found it and sent it to me. This was my first source on the Assyrian genocide.

Do you consider the genocides of the Assyrians, Armenians and Greeks to be one genocide? If yes, how best can these three communities work together towards recognition?

Yes I do. I think there are some tendencies in some sections of the Armenian and Greek community to concentrate only on the calamities their communities were subjected to. However, this is not helpful. The Young Turks wanted to eliminate what they regarded as foreign elements off their utopia. Though, primarily it was the Christian elements which were singled out for destruction. We should not forget that the small community of Yezidis, who it must be added, helped both Armenians and Assyrians to escape the holocaust, were also a target. Given that there was a concerted effort on the part of the Ittihat ve Terraki (Union and Progress) party to exterminate Christians and Yezidis, there should be a concerted, collaborative effort to raise awareness of the Genocide but also to pressure the Turkish government to acce pt responsibility for the crime that the Young Turks perpetrated. I think various research centres and organisations should unite under one banner on this issue. A research centre or a lobby group can be set up with membership from all the ethnic groups affected. I guess what I am advocating is an international co-ordinating entity.

Have you experienced Turkish denialism during your academic career? If so, how?

Well, a few years ago I was invited to London by the Firodel Institute to launch a book I had translated, Ahmet Refik, Two Commitees, Two Massacres, and give a lecture on the issue of genocide. The meeting was hijacked by a group of denialists, including staff from the Turkish consulate. As they were organised and had statements and quotations prepared before hand, it was difficult to have a meaningful discourse on the issue. They came to sabotage the meeting. In their mind they were successful. All that they succeed was to strengthen my resolve.

Do you feel that knowledge of the experiences of Assyrians during the genocide is lacking amongst genocide scholars? How can Assyrians raise awareness amongst this particular group?

I don’t have sufficient experience and knowledge of those academic circles to respond to that. I assume that there is not enough knowledge about the Assyrian experiences during the Genocide. The more Assyrian Genocide scholars attend conferences the more awareness will spread. The trouble is there are not many scholars who focus on the Assyrian Genocide.

Some Assyrians have questioned the importance of erecting monuments and other memorials to the genocide as opposed to other means of advocacy. How do you respond to the sentiments of individuals holding these opinions?

I am of two minds on this issue. Societies erect monuments to remind themselves of the past. We need these physical markers. Unfortunately, as we have seen in Fairfield, with the monument erected there, it is also easy to vandalise such markers. I don’t think erecting monuments will necessary prevent other means of advocacy. In any case, erecting monuments is not necessarily an activity which will consume all the energy Assyrians can master to remind the world of the genocide. I do think however that research into the Assyrian genocide, support for publication on the issue, organisation of conferences and lobbying politicians for the recognition of the Genocide is more important.

Should greater awareness of the genocide outside the Assyrian, Armenian and Greek communities be more a priority than official recognition of the genocide by Turkey?

The priority should be the official recognition of the Genocide by Turkey. This is a clear objective the success of which can be measured. Awareness of the genocide should be an ever continuing exercise but one which has no standards by which we can evaluate to inform ourselves of its accomplishment.

By Joseph Haweil