09/14 Armenian Weekly: Henry Theriault's Letter to the Newton HRC

Henry Theriault’s Letter to the Newton Leadership

"The Armenian Weekly", Volume 73, No. 37, September 15, 2007

The following letter was sent to the mayor of Newton and the members of the Newton Human Rights Commission (HRC) on Sept. 10.

Dear Mayor Cohen and Human Rights Commission Members,

I write in regard to your upcoming discussion about Newton’s relationship with the Anti-Defamation League through its No Place for Hate Program. I am a resident of Brookline, not of Newton, and the decision about Newton’s relationship to the ADL is of course entirely that of the residents of Newton. At the same time, whether you maintain your ties or sever them will make a significant statement and have a genuine impact on the human rights of all Armenians and, indeed, all victims of genocide and other systematic mass violence around the world. Given this, I respectfully ask you to consider the points contained in this letter.

To begin, please allow me to introduce myself. I am associate professor of philosophy at Worcester State College, where from September of 1999 to June of 2007 I coordinated the College’s Center for the Study of Human Rights. I am a member of the Advisory Council of the International Association of Genocide Scholars and a co-editor of Genocide Studies and Prevention, one of the main peer-reviewed academic journals on genocide. My research specialization is comparative genocide study, with a focus on denial and post-genocide justice, and I have published various articles and given many academic and public papers on these issues. I have taught various relevant courses, including ones on Genocide and Human Rights, Mass Violence Against Women, and the Armenian Genocide. I write as a concerned individual and scholar.

For decades, the Anti-Defamation League has been an important force in the struggle against anti-Semitism and other forms of racial, national and religious bigotry. Yet, despite its principled stands against such attitudes and the violence they foster, for a number of years, the Anti-Defamation League’s leadership has also followed an ethically objectionable course of action, in actively denying the Armenian Genocide.

It is important to understand why engaging in genocide denial is so wrong. Genocide denial is not a legitimate dispute about history, but an intentional campaign to falsify the historical record. Its goal is not simply to exonerate the perpetrators of the crime. It is a renewed attack on the victim group. Through it, deniers identify themselves with the perpetrators of the violence to hound survivors and their progeny through time, so that they can never escape the genocide that they survived. As one of the world’s foremost scholars of genocide and denial, Israel Charny of Hebrew University, has put it, genocide denial is a renewed assault on the humanity of the victim group, a celebration of the genocide that mocks the sensibilities of the victims and reasserts the power of the perpetrators over them, including even the history written about them. It conveys the clear message that what happened was justified and demonstrates to victims the impunity of the perpetrators not only to escape responsibility for what they did but, through future agents, to commit genocide again if they so choose. In my own work, I have argued that genocide denial is a form of “hate speech,” which demeans and re-traumatizes the victim group, adding to the horrific effects of the initial genocidal violence. What is more, denial of the Armenian Genocide has clearly encouraged renewed violence against Armenians, as the recent assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in Istanbul shows. The transgression by Dink that motivated his killer—and the many others who called for and then celebrated his death—was simply that, in Turkey, he spoke the truth about the Armenian Genocide.

In the case of the Armenian Genocide, there have been decades of extensive and careful scholarly research by Armenian, Turkish and other scholars that has established beyond any reasonable doubt that beginning in 1915 the Ottoman Turkish government intentionally exterminated at least 1 million and as many as 1.5 million Armenian subjects. As in other genocides, the sick forms of violence visited upon the victims seem beyond belief. I will spare the details here. In the face of this ample evidence, however, Turkish deniers and their academic and political mercenaries in the United States and elsewhere continue to try to falsify history. Again and again, their negations of truth have been refuted decisively, leaving deniers with nothing more to do than to restate denial arguments that have already been exposed as falsifications in the hope that they will manipulate those unfamiliar with the clear, objective facts.

Shockingly, the leadership of the ADL has forced the organization to remain a committed denier of the Armenian Genocide, not merely through public dissemination of lies, but through the pointed action of lobbying against final official recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the U.S. Congress. The motives of the ADL leadership are transparent. By lobbying against recognition, they serve the perceived interests of the Turkish government. In turn, the Turkish government becomes more inclined to maintain good relations with the state of Israel. It is a simple though twisted calculus: the ADL trades Armenian denigration and suffering for a perceived geopolitical benefit for Israel. Even this would be bad enough, but the ADL functions as a crass lobbying machine in this way while hypocritically promoting itself as a principled leader in the struggle for human rights for all human beings.

The ADL leadership’s long-standing denialism has, in recent months, at last come under public scrutiny. Under intense pressure, the ADL has been forced into damage-control mode, in which it has offered a statement that what happened to Armenians was “tantamount to genocide.” Yet, the leadership still cannot come out and unambiguously state that Armenians suffered genocide. What is more significant, the ADL has continued its active participation against U.S. Congressional recognition of the Armenian Genocide, for instance through its director Abraham Foxman’s insistence that the current U.S. Congressional recognition resolution should not be passed. Foxman has also engaged in the typical denial tactic of calling for more study of the issue, as a way of obscuring the fact that decades of study have already been completed and show that the Armenian Genocide occurred.

Even if the ADL leadership decides to issue an unambiguous affirmation of the truth of the Armenian Genocide, which it is unlikely to do, the fact that it still takes public action to oppose U.S. Congressional recognition is unacceptable. If the ADL had never made denialist statements or intensively lobbied against recognition, that would be one thing, but the ADL has actively harmed Armenians (as well as all other victims of genocide) through its support of denial and role in defeating official recognition of the Armenian Genocide in past Congresses. Through its own actions, it has assumed responsibility for reversing this damage and should come out now in clear support for the Congressional recognition resolution while ceasing its lobbying activities—including behind-the-scenes lobbying—on behalf of the Turkish government.

There is much at stake with the resolution. Last year, U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Evans was actually removed from his position simply because he used the term “Armenian Genocide” rather than denialist terminology. This courageous man refused to participate in the denialism that is the de facto U.S. State Department policy. The Congressional legislation seeks to protect the State Department’s own personnel from such Orwellian restrictions. More than this, the Congressional sponsors of the resolution seek to end the State Department’s own long-term denial of the Armenian Genocide, a source of shame for all decent United States citizens.

There are those, including ADL director Foxman, who say that U.S. recognition of the Armenian Genocide will be “counter-productive” for “reconciliation” efforts. It is difficult to see how. What is counter-productive is the Turkish government’s continued spewing of denialist hate speech against Armenians. What is counter-productive is the Turkish establishment’s venomous attacks on the growing number of Turkish scholars, literary figures, journalists and regular citizens who publicly call on their country to recognize the genocide. Any support for the truth means support for Turks who stand for the truth, which would seem to be a very productive means of helping Turkish society come to grips with its past in an honest manner. What is more, it is difficult to understand how a “reconciliation” that is based on sidestepping the genocide issue could be meaningful. Do Foxman and others who hold this view believe that reconciliation requires a victim group to acquiesce in a cover-up of what they have suffered?

Unfortunately, the ADL leadership’s refusal to do the right thing even after public exposure and its insistence on trying to finesse the situation through misleading rhetoric of “semi-admission” that is still denialism make it clear that decisive action is needed if the ADL is going to change its position in a substantive manner. I want to stress that in no way do I wish to see the ADL undermined or harmed through this process. It has a crucial role to play against anti-Semitism and other prejudice. On the contrary, I believe that it is up to those of us concerned about these issues to support positive change in the ADL by pushing its leadership back into accord with the principles on which the ADL was founded. If the leadership for years has refused to re-embrace those principles of its own accord, then the towns and cities whose connection to the ADL are a basic foundation of the organization must sever their ties until the ADL does honor those principles.

There are those who would suggest that the ADL should be given more time to engage in “self-examination.” They hope that in November or even later, the ADL will eventually realize that it should correct its position. But the ADL has had years to reflect on its denial of the Armenian Genocide, and absolutely no progress was made until communities started suspending their connections to the No Place for Hate Program. More time will not only add to the suffering of Armenians, but will give the ADL leadership an increasing sense of impunity, that it can continue in its anti-Armenian prejudice without consequences.

There are those who point out that the ADL has done many positive things and ties to it should not be suspended over only one issue like this—this would undermine all the positive things it does. The ADL has done tremendously positive things. But, does this mean that it should get a free pass on a very negative thing it is doing? The Nation of Islam under Farrakhan has undoubtedly had many positive effects for African-Americans, but does that mean we should ignore the anti-Semitism of its leadership? Does the ADL get to act with bigotry against one group simply because it fights on behalf of other groups? Does an organization get to pick and choose which groups should be protected from prejudice, and which should be abandoned to it?

Of course, this assumes that the ADL can continue to be an effective force against any bigotry, even anti-Semitism, after national exposure of its hypocrisy. But by pursuing the corrupt path its leadership has chosen for it, the ADL’s moral credibility is being eroded. Will true future accusations of anti-Semitism be met with skepticism, because the word of ADL leaders can no longer be trusted? Will Jews and other targets of prejudice suffer because of Foxman and other ADL leaders’ short-sighted manipulations?

There are, finally, those who believe that the situation of Israel is so desperate that its very survival depends in part on its tie to Turkey. Setting aside the question of whether the situation is an existential crisis and examination of the genesis of the problem that might offer alternative solutions, one can ask quite simply if the relationship to Turkey that the ADL is willing to trade Armenian suffering for is worth it. What kind of relationship is this? First, how can one trust a relationship that is founded on complicity in the cover-up of genocide or a government that focuses tremendous resources on that cover-up? Shared deception in the service of mass violence is not the basis of a sound international relationship. Indeed, the hollowness of the commitment of Turkey to Israel can be seen readily in the fact that more than once the former has resorted to threats against Jewish lives in Turkey should Israel recognize the Armenian Genocide. For instance, this threat was made to try to force removal of the few papers devoted to the Armenian Genocide in the world’s first comparative genocide studies conference, which was held in Tel Aviv in 1982.

With all of this in mind, I reiterate my strong recommendation that Newton cut its ties to the ADL until the organization takes an official position unequivocally affirming the historical reality of the Armenian Genocide and publicly states its support for the current U.S. Congressional resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide.

Once more, thank you for considering my letter.


Henry C. Theriault

Source: http://www.hairenik.com/armenianweekly/com09150701.htm