08/16 Boston Globe: Pressure mounting on ADL program

Pressure mounting on ADL program
Armenian groups expand initiative
By Keith O'Brien, Globe Staff August 16, 2007

Less than 24 hours after Watertown pulled out of a popular antibigotry program, national Armenian leaders prepared yesterday to target the No Place For Hate program elsewhere unless the program's sponsor, the Anti-Defamation League, is willing to acknowledge the Armenian genocide.

Some residents of nearby Arlington have already begun mobilizing to end their town's involvement in the No Place For Hate program, launched there just two months ago. Two politicians -- state Representative Rachel Kaprielian, a Watertown Democrat, and Watertown Councilor Marilyn Petitto Devaney -- vowed to lobby local communities that have the program and send a message that other towns, not just Watertown, oppose the ADL's position.

"The Armenian community is completely up in arms about it," said Hilda Silverman, an Arlington resident who hopes to put the issue before town officials soon. "There's just massive mobilization, and the ADL's position is indefensible, I think. What can they say? They can change. They can say it's a genocide. Otherwise, it's all gobbledygook."

The controversy over No Place For Hate, a national program that had encountered no controversy until now, centers on what critics say is the ADL's refusal to acknowledge the genocide. While saying that mass killings took place in the last century, the ADL's leadership has said it has no position on pending federal legislation to recognize the Armenian genocide.

From 1915 to 1923, Ottoman Turks massacred as many as 1.5 million Armenians in what is now modern-day Turkey. Armenians, historians, and some European nations recognized the killings as genocide. The Turkish government has refused to accept the genocide label, and the ADL's national director, Abraham H. Foxman, has also infuriated Armenian-Americans for refusing to call it a genocide.

When asked in a Globe interview last month if he believed what happened to the Armenians was genocide, Foxman replied, "I don't know." Critics have seized on the remark as suggesting the issue is open to debate, and some have called it genocide denial.

ADL regional and national leaders, including Foxman, did not return calls yesterday seeking comment on Watertown's decision to end the No Place For Hate program and whether it would affect the program elsewhere. But in a brief, written statement, Foxman said, "We believe that the No Place For Hate program will continue and stand on its merits."

Regional ADL leadership made public a letter drafted yesterday to Watertown's council president, Clyde L. Younger.

"We are deeply saddened by the council's action last night adopting a proclamation calling for the town to withdraw from the Anti-Defamation League's No Place For Hate program," the ADL's New England regional director, Andrew H. Tarsy, and regional board chairman, James Rudolph, said in the letter. "As a result, Watertown will lose a valued resource for your community in promoting diversity and cultural harmony."

The ADL initially formed in 1913 to fight anti-Semitism. But over the years it has become a prominent human rights group that has spoken out on issues from ethnic cleansing in the Balkans to genocide in Darfur, and in 1999 it launched the No Place For Hate program.

Under the program, communities organize diversity days and other events focused on challenging bigotry, and after a year they receive placards to be posted in public, declaring the community as "No Place For Hate."

Armenian and political leaders agree that the program is positive. But Armenian-Americans in Chicago and Los Angeles cheered the decision in Watertown, where more than 8,000 people of Armenian descent live. The Town Council voted 8 to 0 Tuesday night to rescind Watertown's participation in the program.

Ara Khachatourian -- editor of the Asbarez Daily, a 99-year-old Armenian newspaper based in Glendale, Calif. -- said the Watertown story would lead his newspaper today.

"Genocide denial, whether it happens in Watertown, Massachusetts, or Beijing, China, is something that resonates with every Armenian, regardless of where they live," Khachatourian said.

Meanwhile, some are organizing in the hope that others will follow Watertown's example. In the days ahead, Kaprielian said she plans to ask Beacon Hill politicians to talk with their towns about following Watertown. Devaney said she plans to talk to leaders in Newton and Waltham and will contact the other 64 Massachusetts communities that currently participate in the program to explain why Watertown dropped out. And the Armenian National Committee is calling for the ADL to alter its position.

If the ADL would recognize the Armenian genocide, Kaligian said, the problem would be solved. But if that does not happen, Karine Birazian, the Armenian National Committee's Eastern region executive director, said the group hopes to target the program in other cities and towns.

"I think the fact that the town of Watertown was able to . . . make this change will actually have a ripple effect within other communities," Birazian said.

But she conceded that it will not be an easy sell politically, especially in communities lacking large Armenian-American populations. It is an issue that Arlington residents who oppose the program may soon encounter.

"We are cognizant of world issues and are willing to work with any group," said Arlington Police Lieutenant Ken Hughes, who leads the town's No Place For Hate steering committee. But even knowing Watertown's issues, Hughes said he still supports the program. "What this program attempts to do is foster better relations with all people," he said. "Although people may differ on issues, this gives us the chance to work together."

In Watertown, however, the time for working together seems to have passed. Even before the council meeting had ended Tuesday night, Town Manager Michael Driscoll had spoken to the town's superintendent of public works, Gerald Mee, about taking down the No Place For Hate sign in front of Town Hall.

A night shift worker was dispatched to do the job, and by the time the meeting ended the sign was gone.

Globe correspondents Christina Pazzanese and Melissa Beecher contributed to this report. O'Brien can be reached at kobrien@ globe.com; Pazzanese at cpazzanese@globe.com; Beecher at mbeecher@globe.com.