Armenians In Mass. Town Slam ADL Over Alleged Genocide Denials

By Ben Harris

Jewish Review, OR
Aug 9 2007

NEW YORK (JTA)-A small, local protest against an Anti-Defamation
League program in the Boston suburbs is shining a spotlight on the
American Jewish community’s refusal to get behind a congressional
bill acknowledging the Armenian genocide.

Introduced in Congress in 2005, the bill states that the Ottoman
Empire massacred 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1923,
and calls on the president of the United States to recognize the
killings as genocide. The measure is being vigorously opposed by
Turkey, Israel’s closest ally in the Muslim world, which has enlisted
a number of high-profile Washington lobbyists-including several with
ties to Jewish groups-to press its case.

The Anti-Defamation League, along with B’nai B’rith International,
American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Institute of National Security
Affairs, say they are not taking a position on the bill. At the same
time, however, they are echoing the Turkish line that the debate over
what happened should be settled by historians, not American lawmakers;
also, earlier this year, the four groups passed along to congressional
leaders a letter from Turkish Jews opposing the resolution.

Until now, the consequences of such steps have been limited to a
few critical articles, including a polemic entitled "Fire Foxman,"
published on the Web magazine But now, anger over what some
perceive as the ADL’s pandering to Turkey, is threatening to derail
efforts by the organization to bring its highly regarded anti-bigotry
program to Watertown.

The Armenian community of Watertown, Mass.-one of the largest in the
country-is threatening to shut down the local "No Place for Hate"
program, an ADL-sponsored initiative to certify communities that
sponsor educational programs celebrating diversity.

"Here in Watertown, you can’t ignore the Armenian genocide," said
Ruth Thomasian, the sole Armenian member of Watertown’s "No Place for
Hate" planning committee, which operates independently of ADL. "You
can’t call it ‛alleged’ or ‛supposed’ or ‛research
says.’ Genocide happened."

The controversy began a month ago with a letter to the local
weekly newspaper in Watertown, a community of some 32,000 people,
of which as many as 20 percent are of Armenian descent. The letter,
which called for the committee to sever ties with the ADL, sparked a
flurry of responses; soon after, the controversy was the subject of
a front-page story in the Boston Globe.

"The Armenian community in Watertown is a very important part of the
fabric of the town," said Will Twombly, the co-chair of the planning
committee. "Needless to say, when this letter appeared in the newspaper
lots of people had concerns about the issue, and questions as well."

"This is not an issue where we take a position one way or the other,"
Foxman told JTA, referring to the longstanding feud between Turkey and
Armenians over the issue. "This is an issue that needs to be resolved
by the parties, not by us. We are neither historians nor arbiters."

Earlier this year, a delegation of Turkish Jews visiting Washington
warned Jewish leaders that a resolution could harm Turkey’s tilt
towards the West and create problems for the country’s Jews. Some
20,000 Jews live in Turkey, where a community has flourished for
hundreds of years.

Though Jewish organizational leaders would not confirm that either the
safety of Turkish Jews or the alliance with Israel factored into their
position, Turkish Jewish leaders explicitly linked Israel’s well-being
to the defeat of the resolution. In their letter to congressional
leaders, the Turkish Jews noted the importance of close ties between
Israel, the United States and Turkey, before warning that passage of
the resolution could endanger American interests.

Around the same time, Foxman spoke out explicitly against the
congressional resolution, saying it is not the job of Congress to
settle the question. Foxman also asserted that, while massacres
of Armenians undoubtedly did take place, the jury is still out on
whether those massacres qualify as genocide. Such questioning has
been rejected by Armenians as flat out wrong and described by scholars
as disingenuous.

"It’s not a matter of debate," said Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust
scholar at Emory University. "There is an overwhelming consensus
among historians that work in this area that there is no question
that this is a genocide. You can’t deny this history."

Joey Kurtzman, the author of the Jewcy article, told JTA that Jewish
organizations should be "visible and vocal in standing with the
Armenian community."

"Unless Jewish Americans are comfortable for others to remain
similarly agnostic about whether the Holocaust took place, we ought
to be every bit as furious with Foxman as are Armenian Americans,"
he said. "Foxman ought to issue a public retraction and an apology
to the Armenian community, and also to the Jewish community. Barring
that, he should be fired."

In an apparent attempt to short-circuit the controversy playing
out in Watertown, ADL’s Boston office seemed to backtrack from the
organization’s line.

"ADL has never denied what happened at the close of the First World
War," the Boston officer asserted in a letter to be published later
this week in the Boston Globe. "There were massacres of Armenians
and great suffering at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. We believe
today’s Turkish government should do more than it has done to come
to grips with the past and reconcile with Armenians."

The "No Place for Hate" committee and the ADL are currently working to
set up a meeting. It appears unlikely that sentiments conveyed in the
letter to the Boston Globe will be enough to assuage the anger that
Armenians feel over what they see as a blatant denial of their history.

"We probably would have to sever our ties if the ADL does not get
into a conversation with us and work this issue out," Thomasian said.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to have a public understanding of
the whole nine yards of this denial, why perfectly reasonable people
fall into traps like this."

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