ADL uproar in Watertown sparks debate on genocide
By Raphael Kohan
The Jewish Advocate
Thursday August 9 2007
Jewish organizations divided over Armenian congressional resolution
A controversy exposed last week surrounding Watertown’s status as an Anti-Defamation League No Place for Hate community raised serious questions about the role of Jews and Jewish groups in recognizing the Armenian genocide.
On Aug. 1, the Boston Globe reported tensions between the ADL and Watertown’s Armenian community over ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman’s remarks on whether the U.S. Congress should pass a resolution recognizing the approximately 1.5 million Armenians killed by Turks from 1915 to 1923.
A vote has not yet been scheduled for the resolution, which has met opposition from Turkish lobbyists and some Jewish organizations.
“I’m not going to be the arbiter of someone else’s history,” Foxman told the Globe. The Globe additionally reported that Foxman, whose organization holds no official position on the genocide, said Congress should not be involved in history making either.
“It’s incomprehensible to me,” said Khatchig Mouradian, editor of the Watertown-based Armenian Weekly Newspaper. “I believe that No Place for Hate is an important program, but the community here is outraged.”
Foxman did not return requests for comment.
Though seen by many scholars as a historical fact, debate over recognizing the Armenian genocide reveals a distinct split among Jewish organizations. The schism underscores a complex dynamic that touches on Turkey’s relations with Israel and the welfare of the estimated 25,000 Jews still residing there.
While many Jewish groups invoke “Never Again” to further the legacy of the Holocaust and to protest the current genocide in Darfur, the Armenian genocide – which the Turkish government does not acknowledge – uncovers a less-than-forthcoming moral stance.
And though the ADL says it holds no position on the matter, Foxman’s comments show otherwise, according to James Russell, professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University. Russell, a Jew and a self-described American Zionist, said Foxman’s statements are disingenuous for an organization that combats anti-Semitism.
“In my view this amounts to Holocaust denial,” he said. “It is a deeply immoral and ignoble stance.”
Yet there is little consensus among Jewish organizations surrounding this congressional resolution on genocide recognition.
Nancy K. Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, maintains her position that the U.S. should recognize the Armenian genocide.
“We’re well aware of the issue with Turkey but feel we can’t back away from the fact that it happened,” she said. “We feel very strongly that we have to speak out against all genocide.”
Larry Lowenthal, executive director of the American Jewish Committee Boston Chapter, expressed more conflicted views.
“It’s a very painful subject because everybody knows that the massacre of Armenians is one of the most horrific events in modern history,” said Lowenthal. “But there are strategic issues delicate to the Jewish community. We at AJC are not lobbying in any way whatsoever.”
On Feb. 5, AJC leaders were among the representatives from a handful of Jewish organizations – including the ADL – who met with Abdullah Gul, the Turkish foreign minister, in Washington D.C. The meeting centered around a written plea from Turkish Jews, asking American Jewish organizations to not lobby on behalf of the congressional resolution.
“It’s a tough situation,” said Israeli Consul General to New England Nadav Tamir. “Israel’s strategic relations with Turkey – as a moderate Islamic state – are critical, but on the other hand it is important for us as survivors of the Holocaust to be absolutely consistent with the moral issue. We really want to maintain good relations with Turkey and the Armenian Diaspora.”
For Newton resident Jack Nusan Porter, treasurer of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, there is no question whether the genocide should be recognized.
“[Foxman’s] making a fool out of himself intellectually, academically and politically. He needs to be replaced,” said Porter. “It points out his ignorance as well as the Turkish pressure – which is still very powerful in Israeli non-recognition.”
But according to Russell, the Harvard professor, it is unfair to expect Israel to take the lead in recognizing the Armenian genocide because of its precarious position in the Middle East.
“If America leads on this, Israel can follow,” said Russell. “I owe no loyalty to the Armenian community, but this is also a moral issue and I know the genocide did take place.”
In Watertown, the future of No Place for Hate hangs in the balance.
Andrew H. Tarsy, regional director of the ADL, said he plans to hold conversations with members of Watertown’s Armenian community in hopes of finding common ground.
“We don’t challenge the Armenian history,” said Tarsy. “Attacking the ADL’s program is not a solution to any of this.”
When asked to explain what many view as Foxman’s contradictory comments, Tarsy said they may have been taken out of context.
But for Lowenthal, this entire ordeal has been extremely uneasy.
“No Jew alive can possibly forget this,” he said of the Armenian genocide. “I wish we just had a categorical, moral stance on this, but for many compelling reasons we don’t. These are delicate, difficult, moral issues and I feel anguished.”