The Jerusalem Report
October 15, 2007


by Eve Price

The tables have been turned on the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League, a nearly century-old organization known for wagging its finger at those accused of anti-Semitism, which is itself now facing charges of slighting another ethnic minority.

Armenian-Americans in the Boston area are battling the influential New York-headquartered Jewish group over its reluctance to support a proposed Congressional resolution that would recognize the World War I-era expulsion and massacre of more than 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey as genocide.

The Armenians have been pressing for the legislation for decades, in the hope of forcing Turkey to reverse its adamant refusal to acknowledge that any genocide of Armenians took place from 1915-1917. Now that they finally have a shot at winning its approval, in a vote expected in Congress this fall, the ADL, a powerful organization on whose support they have long relied, has stunned and insulted the Armenians by publicly objecting to the initiative, labeling it "counterproductive" and asserting that the Armenians should discuss the issue with Turkey instead.

"Would they convene a conference to debate the Holocaust?" asked Anthony Barsamian, public relations chairman for the Armenian Assembly of America, in a comment on the ADL's position, which he interpreted as tantamount to asserting that the fact of the massacre should be up for discussion. "We in the Holocaust and genocide community need to be firm against any denial," Barsamian told The Jerusalem Report.

The ADL seems trapped between its roles as an arbiter of Jewish community relations within the United States, and a representative of a pro-Israel lobby facing considerable pressure from both Jerusalem and Turkey to thwart the legislation. Turkey is a strategic ally of Israel, in an otherwise hostile Middle East.

ADL national director Abraham Foxman has indicated the organization would be hard put to reverse its stand on the resolution. He told the Jewish Daily Forward in New York that the Armenians were confronting a problem of the past, while Jews, and particularly their state, continue to live under shakier circumstances. "No Armenian lives are under threat today or in danger," Foxman maintained. "Israel is under threat and in danger, and a relationship between Israel and Turkey is vital and critical, so yeah, I have to weigh [that]."

The dispute between the ADL and the Armenians has so far played out mainly in the greater Boston area, which is home to some 100,000 Armenians, largely descendants of the Turkish massacre's survivors. (There are about 1.5 million ethnic Armenians living in the U.S.) Three Boston-area town councils, Newton, Belmont and Watertown, have responded to the ADL's position by dropping the ADL's flagship school campaign called "No Place for Hate," a tool used to monitor bigotry toward Jews and other minority groups. Additional towns, including Lexington and Needham, have threatened to join the boycott.

The Congressional motion introduced last January by a Jewish congressman, Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, home to one of the largest U.S. Armenian communities, calls to "ensure that the foreign policy of the United States reflects appropriate understanding and sensitivity" to evidence of crimes that include "the Armenian genocide." The resolution would have little direct influence over American policy toward Turkey, but the Bush administration has also opposed it as a potential embarrassment to its key NATO ally in the Middle East, whose help it often needs in times of crisis.

President George Bush expressed opposition to the Armenian resolution after Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayypid Erdogan telephoned him to complain about the measure coming up for a vote in a Congressional committee. Bush feels the legislation would be "harmful" to U.S. ties with Turkey, a White House spokesman said.

The controversy with the Armenians has driven a deep wedge between the ADL and other Jewish groups, many of whose leaders rushed to the side of the Armenians. The ADL's New England director, Andrew Tarsy, was fired for condemning Foxman's stand as a "morally indefensible position" that amounted to fighting Holocaust denial while passing on denying the genocide of another group. Tarsy has since been reinstated as part of the national ADL's efforts to gather more Jewish support for its position, as well as heal the rift with the Armenians.

Amid the objections of Jewish leaders in Boston to the ADL's stand, many seem equally disturbed by the possible repercussions a boycott could have for the group's anti-bigotry program. Many of these leaders are concerned that the ADL's position could boomerang against the Jewish community at some point. "I totally understand, as an American Jew, that nothing would be worse than someone saying the Holocaust didn't happen," said Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, an advocate of recognizing the genocide against Armenians, in remarks published in the Boston Globe.

Turkey raised its voice when Foxman, in an unsuccessful bid to reconcile with the Armenians, issued a statement in August acknowledging for the first time that the ADL indeed viewed the killings of Armenians in Turkey some 90 years ago as a crime "tantamount to genocide." But the ADL's statement also antagonized the Armenian community by making clear that the organization continued to object to the proposed resolution, saying efforts to have the U.S. Congress decide the Turkish-Armenian dispute would be "counterproductive."

Ankara has long denied that Turkey slaughtered Armenians, acknowledging only that many were deported during the World War I era and saying that those who were expelled were security threats to their country. Turkey's president called Israeli President Shimon Peres to complain about Foxman's statement, and Israel's Ambassador to Ankara, Pinhas Avivi, also took heat from the Turkish Foreign Ministry. Avivi responded that Israel was "not taking sides" in the dispute.

Turkey also appealed directly to the ADL, as well as to more than a dozen other pro-Israel groups, in a meeting between representatives of these groups and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan at the United Nations in late September. Erdogan told the groups he expected their continued support, the Turkish newspaper Zaman reported. Foxman assured the Turkish minister he would not back down on the ADL's objections to the proposed resolution, the newspaper said.

Barsamian, the Armenian-American spokesman, said there would be a temporary "cooling-off period" pending the ADL's next decision on the issue at a meeting scheduled for November. He accused Foxman of "placating the Turks" and "putting practicality above morality." But, Barsamian added, "eventually, I think, morality has to win out."

Source: http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1192380593338&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull