By Jay Lindsay, Associated Press
The Jewish group Anti-Defamation League on Tuesday reversed itself and called a World War I-era massacre of Armenians a genocide, a change that comes days after the ADL fired a regional director for taking the same stance.
ADL director Abraham Foxman's statement that the killings of Armenians by Muslim Turks "were indeed tantamount to genocide" came after weeks of controversy in which critics questioned whether an organization dedicated to remembering Holocaust victims could remain credible without acknowledging the Armenian killings as genocide.
The New York-based organization had called the deaths of up 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of Muslim Turks between 1915 and 1923 an atrocity, but stopped short of saying it was genocide - a planned extermination of the Christian Armenian minority.
Last week, the town of Watertown, home to a large Armenian population, withdrew from the ADL's "No Place for Hate" anti-bigotry program because of the organization's refusal to call the massacres genocide. The ADL also fired New England regional director Andrew Tarsy after he said he agreed the killings were genocide. The towns of Acton and Newton were among those considering whether to break ties with the ADL, and several Jewish organizations, led by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, signed a letter urging the ADL to acknowledge the killings as genocide.
In a statement Tuesday, Foxman said he consulted with historians and his friend, Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel, after the controversy began and became convinced genocide had occurred. In an interview, Foxman said the letter from the Jewish groups revealed divisions Jews cannot afford to have at a time of increased threats to them around the world.
"This is not a time for us to be squabbling about historical fact or non-fact," he said. "That's what really shocked me into saying, you know what, I've got to find a way to bring us together."
But Foxman said his group would not support a pending Congressional resolution that calls the massacre a genocide, saying it was "a counterproductive diversion and will not foster reconciliation between Turks and Armenians." Foxman would not comment on whether Tarsy would be rehired.
Nurten Ural, president of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, said she was disappointed by the ADL's decision. Turks and Armenians both suffered during the war, and calling it genocide by the Turks is like being accused of a crime you did not commit, she said.
Ural said many historians do not believe a genocide occurred, and said if the Congressional resolution passes it would damage relations with Turkey, which is valued in the West as a friend of Israel in the hostile Middle East and a bulwark against radical Islam. "This is not a political issue, this is an historical issue, it should be left to the historians," Ural said. "The U.S. needs Turkey, Turkey needs the U.S. in many, many ways. It would be really bad for both countries."
The controversy began in July after Newton resident David Boyajian wrote a local Watertown paper about the ADL's stance and urged the community's No Place for Hate program to sever ties with the ADL. During a meeting on the subject in Watertown last week, Tarsy was booed by the overflow crowd. Later in the week, he changed his stance and said he strongly disagreed with the national organization.
James Russell, professor of Armenian studies at Harvard University, said evidence of the Armenian genocide is overwhelming, including eyewitness accounts and copious documentation. He said the word "genocide" was invented in the 1940s by an attorney trying to come up with a legal term to describe what had happened to the Armenians.
"The word was invented to describe what had happened to the Armenians in the first place," he said. "If there's any ambiguity there, then the Declaration of Independence might as well be considered a British royalist document."
State Rep. Rachel Kaprielian, an Armenian and Watertown resident, said she was "relieved and heartened and glad" about the ADL's decision. But asked if Watertown would re-establish its connection to the ADL, Kaprielian said, "The dust has to settle on this."
Kaprielian criticized the ADL for failing to support the Congressional resolution, which she said just repeats what the ADL acknowledged Tuesday. She said the group was letting geopolitical concerns take precedence over its core commitment to human rights.
Foxman said the ADL does not just fight for equal rights, but also works to protect the Jewish community. Members of the Jewish minority in Turkey flew to the U.S. to ask the ADL to remain neutral on the genocide question, and Foxman had honored the request. But he said with the Armenian issue "tearing the community apart" he had to take a stand in the interest of unity.
"It's the balancing of moral points of view," he said. "It's not one above the other, but sometimes you have to make a decision."