Under Pressure, ADL Admits: Turks’ Armenian Massacre Was Genocide

By Shmuel Rosner

Aug 21 2007

WASHINGTON – The mission statement for "No Place For Hate" says
that it will build "bridges of understanding," but until yesterday
it appeared that the bridge had collapsed. However, Abe Foxman,
the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which runs the
Boston-area program, yesterday tried to repair the damage.

In an effort to extricate himself from a scandal surrounding the
ADL’s refusal to support a bill calling on the Bush administration
to recognize the 1915-17 Turkish massacre of its Armenian minority
as genocide, Foxman did an abrupt about-face. After consulting with
Nobel Prize-winning author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, Foxman
referred to the Armenian massacre as a "genocide" for the first time.

The uproar began two weeks ago, when Watertown, Massachusetts, a
suburb of Boston which has an Armenian population of several thousand,
decided to stop participating in "No Place For Hate" once it realized
that the ADL – which claims to oppose the discrimination of "any sect
or body of citizens" – did not intend to support the bill. Several
other suburbs were considering following in Watertown’s footsteps, and
activists in other states threatened to target the ADL program as well.

The Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives
enthusiastically supports the bill, proposed by California Democrat
Rep. Adam Schiff. Turkey denies that it committed genocide against
its Armenian minority and cautions allies and rivals alike against
recognizing it. This policy has been pretty successful, with countries
such as Israel and the U.S. refusing to retroactively acknowledge
that the massacre was the first genocide of the 20th century, out
of fear of causing a rift in diplomatic relations. In recent years,
this distortion of history has been the focus of rising criticism.

The ADL was an almost incidental victim of the disappointment and
anger felt by the American Armenian community. Many other large
Jewish organizations have also refrained from supporting the bill
or taking a stance on the Armenian genocide. They are interested in
maintaining warm relations between Israel and Turkey, and between
the United States and Turkey, and they don’t want to make the Jewish
community of Turkey vulnerable to revenge attacks.

These were also Foxman’s reasons. He had said the issue did not
constitute an ethical stance against an unethical one, but a situation
in which one must choose the lesser evil between two unattractive
options. In any case, argued Foxman, his perspective did have an
ethical element: While acknowledging the genocide is merely a symbolic
gesture to the Armenian community, putting ties with Turkey at risk
could have far-reaching consequences, including endangering the lives
of Turkish Jews.

But such explanations didn’t help the ADL – partly because it is the
organization most identified with the legacy of another 20th-century
genocide, the Holocaust, making it seem more hypocritical than other
groups. Another reason is that it was the ADL that ran the program
in Watertown, the heart of the Armenian community in America.

The Boston-area Jewish community had not given the national leadership
of the ADL its support. Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the
Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, said that while
the local Jewish community understands the complexity of the issue,
the council thinks the U.S. should recognize the genocide.

The ADL itself was split over the issue; it fired New England regional
director Andrew Tarsy for telling The Boston Globe that, "I strongly
disagree with the ADL’s national position."

Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz also came out against
the ADL’s previous stance, writing an op-ed in the Globe with State
Representative Rachel Kaprielian, who represents Watertown, that
compared the Armenian genocide to the Holocaust.

"For any organization or official to believe that there are differing
sides to the Armenian Genocide," they wrote, "is as much an outrage
as it would be for Germany to say that the work of Jewish scholars,
witnesses, and victim testimonies represented merely the ‘Jewish side’
of the Holocaust." For the past two weeks, the New England office
of the ADL had become the target of fierce attacks, and some went as
far as calling for Foxman’s resignation.