09/25 Needham Times: Armenians walk out on Human Rights Committee

Armenians walk out on Human Rights Committee
By Steven Ryan
Tue Sep 25, 2007, 01:13 PM EDT

Needham - Dialogue between the Human Rights Committee and local Armenian-Americans apparently broke down at a meeting Thursday night, Sept 20.

Frustrated descendents of the Armenian Genocide walked out on the committee when it appeared unlikely it would recommend suspending ties with the Anti-Defamation League before the national organization discusses its stance on the genocide at its annual meeting in November.

“A month has gone by, and we’re no further along,” said Charles Sahagian of Hunting Road, before walking out. “We, the discriminated, sit here for word from the perpetrator. For shame what has transpired. [The committee] has forfeited its right to represent me on human rights issues.”

The Needham Human Rights Committee sent a letter in early September expressing the town’s intention to end participation in ADL programs — including No Place for Hate, which the organization co-sponsors with the Massachusetts Municipal Association — if the organization doesn’t unequivocally recognize the Armenian Genocide and support Congressional legislation doing the same.

The genocide, which the Turkish government denies, saw the mass deportation and murder of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during the World War I era. The ADL has yet to respond to the letter.

“We have to give other people time to respond,” said committee member Sandra Walters. “It’s a process.”

The committee agreed to follow up with the ADL to confirm receipt of the letter and to send a second letter clarifying that the November meeting would be the tipping point for when they would make a decision on whether they would sever ties.

There was also a motion before the committee, set forth by committee member Mark Smith, to instead suspend ties with the ADL until November and re-evaluate the situation then.

“The letter was the right thing to do,” Smith said. “Not hearing back, we should take the next step and not wait until November. My little No Place for Hate sweatshirt — I just can’t wear it anymore.”

The motion was voted down, with Smith and committee member Olly Harari casting dissenting votes.

“Is this a practical issue rather than a moral issue?” Harari said. “We need their programs, but they need us to be in their programs. We are a human rights committee, and we must listen to the people whose rights have been violated.”

Needham’s main involvement with No Place for Hate revolves around student-led activities at the high school during the month of March. The town also works with the ADL through the World of Difference anti-bullying program at Pollard Middle School.

Before the vote, the meeting teetered on the brink of chaos, as those in attendance interjected comments during the board’s discussion, believing eye contact and rhetorical questions from committee members were cues to respond.

“We agree with you on everything, except severing ties,” said committee Chairwoman Debbie Watters, which elicited groans from those in attendance. “We’re neighbors. This is the first time we’re dealing with something this controversial.”

Then, after offering to read the initial letter sent to the ADL for those who did not attend previous meetings, more people walked out.

“You can tell this is difficult for us,” Watters later said. “We would appreciate your respectful presence.”

After the meeting, Needham Armenian-Americans vowed not to attend the next Human Rights Committee meeting, tentatively scheduled for Oct. 10, and to appeal directly to the Board of Selectmen.

“This committee is not doing what it’s supposed to do,” said Dorothy Esperian of Great Plain Avenue.

The Massachusetts Municipal Association, the other co-sponsor of No Place for Hate, designated Needham a No Place for Hate town in 2000 through the Board of Selectmen. Selectmen could end that designation with or without input from the Human Rights Committee. Members of the board said they would not consider taking such unilateral action.

In the past two weeks, Newton and Belmont dropped out of the No Place for Hate program. Watertown, where the issue first took hold, was the first community to end ties, while Arlington, which had not yet been designated a No Place for Hate community, pulled out of the certification process.

“Are we going to be one of the last ones?” said Gary Najarian, of Lexington Avenue, before the committee voted Thursday night. “Are we going to fall in line or are we going to be leaders?”

Over the past couple of months, the ADL fired Regional Director Andrew Tarsy after he publicly acknowledged the Armenian Genocide. He was rehired on Monday, Aug. 27. In between the firing and rehiring, the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, issued a statement claiming the “consequences” of the tragic events of more than 90 years ago were “tantamount” to genocide. Armenians feel the wording circumvented acknowldegement of the genocide, and the ADL has not budged on not supporting the Congressional legislation.

Steven Ryan can be reached at sryan@cnc.com.

Source: http://www.wickedlocal.com/needham/homepage/x680954938