08/21 Gloucester Times: Armenian genocide? ADL debate hitting home

Published: August 21, 2007 12:00 am

Armenian genocide? ADL debate hitting home

By Amanda McGregor , Staff writer
Gloucester Daily Times

Apo Torosyan said his documentaries will clear up any doubt in the Anti-Defamation League's dispute over recognizing the Armenian genocide.

Torosyan lost most of his family in the killings and has spent years chronicling survivors' stories.

"People are fighting for the truth," said Torosyan, an Armenian from Turkey who has lived in Peabody since the 1960s. "I have witnesses telling with their own mouths what happened to them and their ancestors - people shot, boys tied up together on boats and pushed into the water to drown."

Last week, the Anti-Defamation League's national leadership fired its New England director, Andrew Tarsy, because he wanted the organization to recognize the Armenian genocide. His firing prompted two regional ADL board members to resign in protest.

The controversy is resonating on the North Shore with the families of survivors and is prompting some local communities to re-evaluate their participation in the ADL's No Place for Hate Program. The organization is primarily known for combating anti-Semitism.

"They wouldn't deny it, but they wouldn't affirm it, either," said Holocaust survivor Sonia Weitz of Peabody, who founded the Holocaust Center Boston North. "I very much agree with what Andrew Tarsy did, because it's unacceptable to me - the denial of genocide that is accepted by just about any historian and most countries."

The controversy has weighed on Mary Torigian Foley of Peabody, whose four grandparents and many other relatives were killed in Turkey between 1915 and 1918.

"People were slaughtered left and right. To say it's not genocide is very, very painful," said Foley, whose brother, the late Peabody Mayor Peter Torigian, founded the city's annual Armenian genocide recognition ceremony more than 20 years ago. "My hat's off to (Andrew) Tarsy for speaking up."

Many North Shore cities and towns have signed onto the ADL's No Place for Hate designation, in which communities host regular events in conjunction with the ADL to promote human rights and religious and racial tolerance. Salem joined earlier this year, and in light of the controversy, the city will review its membership at its next meeting.

"I'm actually very surprised by the ADL's stance on this," said Salem City Councilor Lucy Corchado, who advocated joining No Place for Hate. "We need to promote being tolerant and respectful to others, and that's what (the ADL's) mission was, so I thought."

'Difference in policy'

James Rudolph of Swampscott is the ADL's New England regional board chairman, and he said he hopes that local No Place for Hate communities won't jump ship amid his office's brush with the national ADL.

"Our executive (New England) committee has voted that the ADL should acknowledge the Armenian genocide," Rudolph said. "Right now, we're in what I would call uncharted waters with respect to the relationship between the national and regional board, where we have this difference in policy."

Even North Shore residents angered by the national position don't want it to cast a shadow over the ADL's work in other arenas.

"The ADL has done some wonderful, wonderful things on human rights and against racism and bigotry," Weitz said, "and I hope the communities can see that one thing really has nothing to do with the other."

In response to the dispute, the ADL's national office issued a letter this week that said its policy has been distorted.

"The controversy occurred because of the distortion of our position on a complex issue," Chairman Glen Lewy wrote in a letter that the ADL is running in newspapers this week and posted on its Web site, www.adl.org.

The letter does not use the word genocide but goes on to read, "ADL has acknowledged and never denied the massacres of hundreds of thousands of Armenians - and by some accounts more than 1 million - at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in 1915-1918.

"We believe that the Turkish government must do more than it has to confront its history and to seek reconciliation with the Armenian people."

Historians estimate up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey, however, denies that constituted genocide, saying the death toll has been inflated and that those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.

Genocide usually refers to a systematic effort to destroy an entire national or ethnic population.

Susan Fletcher leads the Danvers Committee on Diversity, which is mulling whether Danvers will rejoin the No Place for Hate program after a several-year hiatus. She said Lewy's letter raised valid points.

"It's an issue that really isn't black and white," said Fletcher, who said the Diversity Committee will meet Thursday and likely discuss the ADL controversy. "There are valid points on both sides, and it's also important to consider the many wonderful ADL programs."

What's behind it?

The debate was sparked in Watertown, home to 8,000 Armenian Americans, where the town rejected the No Place for Hate designation.

The ADL's recent letter called Turkey "a key strategic ally and friend of the United States and a staunch friend of Israel. ... In the struggle between Islamic extremists and moderate Islam, Turkey is the most critical country in the world."

Torosyan believes money and power fuel the denial. He is also a member of the International Association of Genocide Scholars.

"This was not a civil war, but the Turkish government covers it. They know if they accept it, it will be a financial burden," he said, referring to the possibility of reparations. "But the Armenian people don't necessarily want that. They want an apology and recognition."

Foley, who lost so many of her family members, said politics should not prevail.

"They think a stand on genocide will hurt Israel, but I don't think so," Foley said, "because the ADL is not the government of the United States. It really bothers me that it's so difficult to call this a genocide; that's what it is."

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.