09/08 North Shore Sunday: Massacre or genocide? ADL controversy renews war over words

Massacre or genocide? ADL controversy renews war over words

By Barbara Taormina/North Shore Sunday
GateHouse News Service
Sat Sep 08, 2007, 12:28 PM EDT

Last May, when Andrew Tarsy gave the commencement speech at Governor’s Academy in Byfield, he offered up some of that inspirational advice you hear a lot at high school graduations.

Tarsy, the director of the New England chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, gave the graduates several suggestions, including the well-worn tip that it’s always best to follow your principles. He did mention that it’s tough to be true to your beliefs, but it was a graduation ceremony and odds are no predictions about possible adversity were enough to dampen a day generally filled with parties, congratulations and great gifts.

But if the graduates of Governor’s Academy were keeping up with the news over the summer, they saw Tarsy live up to his own advice. On Aug. 17, Tarsy was fired after he broke ranks with the national ADL leadership and acknowledged that the systematic killing and deportation of a million and a half Armenians living in Turkey in 1915 was, in fact, genocide.

Despite the personal accounts of the death marches, the horrific photos of murder victims and refugees and the thousands of newspaper clips and documents that recount the tragic episode, the ADL has long been involved in a carefully nuanced dance on the issue. They have consistently called for reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia over what they have referred to as “the massacres.”

But, because the league did not want to jeopardize the political alliances between Turkey, a moderate Muslim nation, and Israel, it backed away from the word “genocide.” And it did a complete duck and cover when it came to a Congressional resolution that would have the United States formally recognize the Armenian genocide.

But last month, the ADL was forced to confront the issue when Tarsy told Abraham Foxman, the national director of the league, that the ADL’s position was “morally indefensible.” Tarsy then went on to publicly acknowledge the Armenian genocide — a move that ended up costing him his job.

The ADL leadership offered the excuse that it doesn’t tolerate its employees making public statements that defy the League’s position. But when the ADL came face to face with the hue and cry from Armenian groups, Jewish supporters and other human rights organizations who supported Tarsy, they blinked. By late last week, Tarsy was back at his desk issuing public statements and trying to heal fresh wounds.

“I am proud that the ADL has made a very significant change confronting a moral issue and acknowledging the Armenian genocide for what it was,” says Tarsy. “The Anti-Defamation League has important work to do on such vital concerns as anti-Semitism, hate crimes, civil rights, immigration reform and interfaith relations, and I look forward to helping ADL make the world a better place.”

Meanwhile, Foxman was issuing his own apologetic statements and trying to control the damage.

“We have never negated but have always described the painful events of 1915-1918 perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenians as massacres and atrocities,” says Foxman in one of several prepared statements. “On reflection, we have come to share the view of Henry Morgenthau, Sr. that the consequences of those actions were indeed tantamount to genocide. If the word genocide had existed then, they would have called it genocide.”

The question now is whether the phrase “tantamount to genocide” is enough to quell the controversy. Many seem to feel it’s not. And for Armenian Americans who have been waiting for 92 years for recognition of their history and for some public acknowledgement and support, the ADL flare-up may, in fact, be the breeze that finally blew open the door.

A history of sidestepping

Controversy surrounding the ADL position on the Armenian genocide isn’t new. Beverly resident Judy Klein, a former editor of the Salem-based Jewish Journal, remembers several years ago when the ADL took out a full-page ad in the New York Times commending Turkey for 75 years of democracy and for the country’s record on upholding human rights. In the editorial from its April 13, 2001 edition, the Journal slammed both the ADL and Foxman for the ad.

“… Turkey also did everything in its power to annihilate an entire people and, unlike Germany, has never offered an apology, expressed remorse, or even admitted wrongdoing,” reads the piece. “In fact, while ADL and other Jewish groups decry Holocaust deniers, Turkey continues to be unyielding in its denial of the Armenian Genocide.”

The Journal went on to say the ADL’s potion was hypocrisy, an “ethnocentric myopia,” that’s bad for the image of Jews in the world and bad for Jewish kids who see their supposed role models using double standards for right and wrong.
Even today, that ad still makes Klein, who is now the communications director of Governor’s Academy, bristle.

“We as Jews have an obligation to recognize other acts of inhumanity like the ones we have suffered,” she says.

And Klein has a particular interest in promoting that solidarity between the Jewish and Armenian communities. She is married to John Soursourian, whose grandmother is a survivor of the Armenian genocide. Soursourian’s grandfather was killed by the Turks — Klein says he was probably marked for death because he was a photographer capable of visually documenting what was happening in Turkey in 1915.

Soursourian’s grandmother survived a death march, and like other Armenians, escaped to Syria and eventually made her way to the United States.

“Our kids are half Jewish and half Armenian and this is certainly something we feel strongly about as a family,” says Klein, who, like many, believes more needs to be done to tell the Armenian story. She has spoken with history teachers at several area high schools and insisted that when students study 20th century events and the Holocaust that they also discuss the Armenian genocide.

“I’m still disappointed that history teachers don’t know more about it,” she says. “I am hoping what Andy has done will force educators to recognize the importance of this. We are grateful to him.

Armenian reaction

Klein isn’t the only local person who’s grateful to Tarsy for taking a stand. Many Armenian organizations, newspapers and leaders have expressed thanks to Tarsy, including Peabody artist and filmmaker Apo Torosyan, who for years has been telling the story of the Armenian genocide through his painting and films.

“I feel it’s like when they dumped the tea in the harbor,” says Torosyan of the ADL controversy. “It was a tip of the iceberg that started a revolution. It’s a miracle that scholars and the Jewish lobby have come to the rescue of the Armenians. I feel grateful for a gift like that.”

Torosyan, who grew up in Turkey, graduated from Istanbul’s Academy of Fine Art in 1968. That same year, he emigrated to the United States where he built a successful visual design company. In 1986, he sold the business so he could devote his time exclusively to his own art, which for decades now has been focused on the Armenian genocide.

During the ’70s Torosyan began working on a series of paintings and constructed collages that used bread as a central theme, a universal symbol of life. But as his “Bread Series” developed, so too did its political meaning. What began as a symbol or object of life for all people became more personal.

“The bread, which is the staff of life, was taken away from my ancestors,” Torosyan writes. “It represents victims of oppression. They died in starvation, including my grandparents. I immortalize the bread within my concepts. It is an organic metaphor. It is the cycle of life.”

The same type of progression can be seen in Torosyan’s films. In 2003, he produced “Discovering my Father’s Village” which offers a personal account of the destruction that took place during the genocide. In a second film, “Witnesses,” Torosyan interviews two Armenian women who survived and lets them tell their stories.

But in the new 40-minute film “Voices,” which premiered last April, Torosyan went even further. The film features interviews with four survivors of the political regime in Turkey during the early years of the 20th century.

As children and young teens, they saw their homes being sacked and burned. They watched as people in their villages were rounded up and killed. And they had family members who were herded on death marches where many died of starvation.

Torosyan has always stressed that he is an artist and not a politician and that the goal of his work is to open up an honest conversation about the past. But it’s been difficult.

For decades, the only time people seemed interested in the genocide is in late April when Armenian communities throughout the United States hold commemorative services to remember the one and half million victims who were killed. The ADL controversy, as ugly as it’s been, has at least focused some attention on the past.

“To see this recognition and exposure of the story which is unbelievable but true is tremendous,” says Torosyan.

End of story?

While both Armenians and Jews are pleased that Tarsy has been reinstated, and thankful that the truth is being acknowledged, they are not blindly optimistic about the next step — the Congressional resolution that officially recognizes the genocide.
So far, 15 countries have acknowledged the suffering that took place in Turkey. France and Switzerland have gone one better and called for criminal charges against those who deny it was genocide.

But the United States has refused to take that stand and the ADL, even with its conciliatory statements, continues to warn against such a move.

“A Congressional resolution on such matters is a counterproductive diversion and will not foster reconciliation between Turks and Armenians and may put at risk the Turkish Jewish community and the important multilateral relationship between Turkey, Israel and the United States,” says Foxman in one of his statements.

Although the ADL controversy may have given those pushing for a U.S. resolution some momentum, Torosyan remains skeptical. He’s a realist and the odds of the U.S. taking the high road when political interests are at stake aren’t good.

Turkey’s official position on the genocide is that it was essentially the government cracking down on a group of militant Armenian revolutionaries. They blame the widespread death and destruction — which in their version of events wasn’t so widespread — on the chaos of World War I. That’s their story and they’re sticking to it.

And because of Turkey’s strategic location, its healthy economy, its appetite for military hardware and its political position as a Muslim ally of western democracies, Congress has, so far been unwilling to pass the resolution.

“Money often wins and the U.S. isn’t going to bend to a tiny country the size of Rhode Island,” says Torosyan. “But I do hope there will be some type of international law that will force recognition of the Armenian genocide.”

But for now, Torosyan is thankful that people are at least talking about what happened 92 years ago.

“We should share our history, even with all its pain,” he says.

E-mail Barbara Taormina at btaormin@cnc.com.

Source: http://www.townonline.com/northshoresunday/homepage/x1875626792