NEW YORK (JTA) – In a dramatic reversal, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director has issued a statement describing the massacres perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenians as “tantamount to genocide.”
The ADL and its national director, Abraham Foxman, have faced mounting criticism in recent weeks for refusing to use the genocide label and for firing Andrew Tarsy, the head of the organization’s Boston office, who publicly challenged that policy.
Tarsy’s dismissal sparked a furious backlash from local community leaders – including critical statements from prominent Boston Jews, a “community statement” calling for the ADL to change its position, and the resignation of two members of the ADL’s regional board.
But in a statement issued Tuesday, the ADL said, “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.”
“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 statement said.
When asked in a Boston Globe interview last month if he believed what happened to the Armenians was genocide, Foxman was quoted as saying: “I don’t know.” Critics argued that Foxman’s remark portrayed the issue as open to debate, with some calling it genocide denial.
ADL insists the change stems from its concern for Jewish unity at a moment of great peril for communities around the world.
“I was just disheartened by how the Jewish community was being torn apart,” Foxman told JTA Tuesday as he traveled to Boston to meet with community leaders. “We were being criticized by other Jewish organizations. And out of a tremendous concern to keep that unity, because the Jewish community is under increased attack in Europe, Latin America and even in this country, the imperative is to try to find unity.”
The turnaround comes just weeks before the release of Foxman’s new book, “The Most Dangerous Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control.” Foxman, whose book attempts to debunk claims that Jewish groups stifle debate on Israel and control U.S. foreign policy, said that some advocates of these views were emboldened by the attacks on the ADL.
In recent days, ADL has faced a budding rebellion on the part of the organization’s Boston leadership, which adopted two resolutions on the issue last week, one expressing confidence in Tarsy and the other supporting legislation in Congress acknowledging the Armenian genocide.
Two prominent members of the ADL’s regional board – former chairman of the Polaroid Corp., Stewart Cohen, and Boston City Council member Mike Ross – reportedly resigned in protest over the issue.
The ADL has been under fire since the Armenian community in Watertown, Mass., one of the country’s largest, began agitating to have the town rescind its participation in “No Place for Hate,” a popular anti-bigotry program the ADL sponsors.
On Aug. 14, the Town Council unanimously voted to end its relationship with the program, and other Massachusetts communities were reported to be considering similar moves.
Watertown’s Armenian community was piqued by the ADL’s longtime refusal to support the congressional legislation, which is vigorously opposed by Turkey, Israel’s closest Muslim ally.
Despite the shift on the genocide question, Foxman says he still does not support the legislative measure, which he described in his Tuesday statement as “a counterproductive diversion” that could threaten the Turkish Jewish community and “the important multilateral position between Turkey, Israel and the United States.”
That position is exceedingly unpopular in Boston, where a large Armenian population has developed close ties with the Jewish community. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the David Project, and eight other groups signed on to a “community statement” Monday urging the ADL to reconsider its position.
“We must never forget the Armenian genocide and maintain our guard against those who deny its occurrence,” that statement said. “We stand with them and in support of the local Armenian community, who like the Jews, have suffered greatly at the hands of others.”
An early version of the statement had also called for Tarsy’s reinstatement, but that clause was later dropped. “Abe Foxman had every right in the world to fire Andy Tarsy,” said Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Boston JCRC. Tarsy “knew what he was doing.”
In response to the ADL’s reversal, the Boston JCRC released its own statement saluting the change.
Along with other major Jewish groups, the ADL has said the genocide question should be resolved by historians rather than by Congress. Their position is motivated in part by concern for Israel’s close military alliance with Turkey and for the country’s Jews, who have warned that congressional action could create problems for them.
Earlier this year, the ADL – along with the American Jewish Committee, B’nai Brith International, and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs – transmitted a letter from Turkish Jews to congressional leaders opposing the legislation.
David Harris, the executive director of the AJC, said that his group has long recognized the killings as a genocide, but has not taken a position on the congressional resolution out of concern for U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East. “We know from the experience of France that when the French Parliament tackled this issue not long ago it created a very immediate set of ramifications in French-Turkish relations,” Harris said. He questioned if, at a sensitive moment for American interests in the Middle East, it made sense to pursue the congressional route.
While Foxman has previously acknowledged that Turkish Jewry is a factor in his thinking, the letter to the Boston board provided the clearest glimpse yet of the difficulties inherent in balancing the ADL’s universal commitment to human rights and the particular needs of the Jewish community.
We recognize that “we are a Jewish agency whose mission is to work for the community while paying attention to the more universal goals we share with others,” the letter stated. “And when those two elements of our mission come into direct conflict, we do not abandon the Jewish community.”
U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who is the lead sponsor of the congressional resolution, rejected any attempt to connect the controversy to the Israeli-Turkish alliance. “There is no connection between what the U.S. Congress does on this resolution and Israel, unless ADL makes one,” Schiff said. The ADL “may end up hurting Israel by bringing Israel into the fight.”
Schiff acknowledged that Turkey might be sending such a message to Jewish organizations. But, he added, Jewish groups “should have told Turkey from the beginning, ‘We’re not involved in this fight, and if we get involved it will be on the side of recognition.’ They didn’t do that, and now I think they are suffering the repercussions.”
Harris, of AJC, dismissed concerns that congressional actions could adversely impact Turkey’s Jews or the country’s ties to Israel.
The statement from Boston Jewish organizations acknowledged that “precarious and complex political considerations” are involved, a message echoed by many other critics of the ADL. Still, the ADL nevertheless found itself increasingly isolated as the chorus of outrage swelled.
“I think what Andy Tarsy did was to express the morally correct position, speaking not only as a leader of the ADL but as a Jew whose history in the last century was formed by a Holocaust,” Steven Grossman, a former chairman of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Democratic National Committee, told JTA.
Grossman said that it was “morally repugnant and unacceptable” to the New England region and Andy Tarsy that “a national Jewish organization whose mission is tolerance and combating bigotry and bringing diverse communities together around common values would deny the genocide of another people that took place just 20 to 25 years before what happened to European Jewry.”