NEW YORK (JTA) – The Anti-Defamation League’s reversal last week of its position on the Armenian genocide has set off a flurry of diplomatic activity in Turkey and Israel.
Officials in Ankara and Jerusalem, in coordination with American Jewish leaders, were working this week to contain the fallout from the ADL’s statement, which recognized the World War I massacres of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as “tantamount to genocide.”
The ADL was forced to reverse its longstanding position – shared by other major American Jewish organizations – of neutrality on the genocide question amid growing dissension within its own ranks.
Jewish leaders warned that recognizing the genocide, as Congress is now considering, could undermine American strategic interests in the Middle East and Turkey’s robust military and economic partnership with Israel. Also deemed at risk was the security of Turkish Jewry, which sent a letter earlier this year opposing a congressional resolution on the matter.
Nabi Sensoy, Turkey’s ambassador in Washington, told JTA that his government was strongly opposed to any congressional action, but that the Turkish Jewish community had nothing to fear in any case. Sensoy was less sure that Turkey’s relations with Israel and the United States would survive a resolution unscathed.
“I cannot really dismiss that if this resolution does pass that there will be certain impacts on certain relationships,” Sensoy said. “There is no doubt about it.”
Of those raising the specter of reprisals against Turkish Jewry, Sensoy said, “I’m very disturbed to hear this kind of remark coming from anywhere. They seem to be forgetting the history of Turks and Jews, which goes back at least 500 years. We’ve always had the best of relations between Turks and Jews and the Turkish Jewish community is part and parcel, and an integral part, of the Turkish community.”
What began more than a month ago as a small local protest against an ADL-sponsored program in the Boston suburbs has escalated into an international crisis with a nation deemed central to American interests and Israeli security.
Turkey is Israel’s closest – and arguably its only – regional ally and is central to American policy in the Middle East.
Mindful of Turkey’s importance, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations began a series of discussions on the matter last week. Malcolm Hoenlein, the group’s executive vice chairman, told JTA that the conference had not yet decided how or whether to respond.
“As wiser heads have prevailed, people are looking for us to play a role in trying to control and calm down the situation so there are no ramifications and repercussions that have nothing to do with the substance” of the issue, Hoenlein said.
Though Jewish groups have toed a careful line on the genocide question for years, the issue exploded last month after the town council of Watertown, Mass., home to one of the country’s largest Armenian communities, voted to sever ties with an ADL anti-bigotry program in protest of the organization’s refusal to acknowledge the genocide.
After the vote, the ADL’s regional director in Boston, Andrew Tarsy, switched gears and condemned his organization’s position. Tarsy was promptly fired by Foxman.
The Boston ADL leadership rebelled and with pressure mounting, Foxman reversed himself last week, acknowledging that the “consequences” of Ottoman massacres of Armenians were “tantamount to genocide.” Tarsy was reinstated Monday as Boston director.
An outraged Turkey communicated its dismay to Israeli and Jewish leaders, with some Turkish officials suggesting that Israel had to “deliver” American Jewish groups on this issue.
Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador, reportedly said that his country believed its strategic relationship with Israel also involved the whole Jewish world.
The Turkish people “cannot make that differentiation” between Israel and American Jewish organizations, Nan told The Jerusalem Post.
“On some issues there is no such thing as ‘Israel cannot deliver‚’” he continued, adding that this was one of those issues.
According to an unofficial translation, the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying use of the genocide label is “historically and legally baseless” and accusing the ADL of trying to “rewrite the history” of the period.
“We consider the statement of the ADL as an injustice to the unique character of the Holocaust, as well as to the memories of its victims,” the statement said. “We expect it to be rectified.”
On Sunday, the ADL released a second statement reiterating its support for a joint Turkish-Armenian commission to investigate the matter – a move Turkey supports – and its opposition to a resolution in Congress. Foxman also wrote to Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “to express regret for any pain we have caused to you and the Turkish people in these past few days.”
In Turkey, those steps were seen as backtracking. Erdogan said the ADL had rectified its “mistake,” according to the Turkish Daily News. Sensoy said he felt the ADL had reversed itself again and that its current position reflected a more “balanced situation.”
“We are expecting the American Jewish organizations to be neutral about this,” Sensoy said. “Although we’re aware of the fact that this is a very sensitive issue for the Israeli people and the Jewish community, what we have to seek is the truth.”