“This is a vote of conscience,” U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos pronounced, “and the committee will work its will.”
Lantos, a California Democrat and the sole Holocaust survivor in Congress, was talking Wednesday at a meeting of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which he chairs. The measure in question was a resolution recognizing the massacres carried out in 1915 and 1916 by Ottoman forces against Armenians as a genocide.
The motion passed the committee in a 27-21 vote that same day, despite last-minute warnings from President Bush and his top aides that the resolution could harm U.S. relations with Turkey. And, indeed, party discipline was not enforced, as lawmakers from both parties openly anguished, with some appearing to make up their minds only at the last minute.
In the end, the resolution drew 19 Democratic and 8 Republican votes. On the other side, 8 Democrats and 13 Republicans voted against. Two GOP members were absent.
Although the vote was fairly close and non-partisan, the tally among Jewish members on the committee — all of them Democrats — was overwhelming: 7-1 in favor. At the same time, nowhere was the anguish more palpable than in the comments of some of these Jewish lawmakers, with their Holocaust-related sensitivity to the issue of recognizing genocide and concern for maintaining strong ties with Turkey, a friendly pro-American pro-Israeli Muslim beacon in a hostile neighborhood.
Weighing additionally in the considerations of the Jewish members was an 11th hour plea from Turkey’s Jewish community, which fears a rise of anti-Semitism should the resolution pass. Plus, in recent weeks, Turkish spokesmen have noted the outspoken role of some Jews and Jewish organizations in the campaign to pass the resolution and have suggested that relations with Israel could be affected, although Israel has been supportive of Turkish calls to resolve the issue through an international commission.
“This has been tough for me,” said U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the committee’s Middle East subcommittee, when announcing his vote in favor of the resolution. “I’m a big fan and supporter of Turkey.”
Ackerman looked across at four nonagerian and centenarian survivors of the genocide who had flown in for the hearing — two from his district. His New York Democratic colleague, Eliot Engel, also contemplated the women as he announced his position: “With a heavy heart, I will vote for this resolution.”
The four women sitting quietly in the cramped committee room’s second row held the attention of crowd, with members looking to them when they announced their vote.
“No to H.Res.106,” said the pro-Turkish stickers; “End the cycle of genocide,” said those favoring the resolution. In many cases they sat one next to another, avoiding glances.
All the committee’s members confronted Turkey’s threats to downgrade its military alliance with the United States should the resolution pass the full House against the powerful Armenian American lobby and its proven ability to swing key districts in California — three of the Jewish Democrats on the committee, plus the Democratic lawmaker who sponsored the resolution, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, are from the Golden State.
Schiff, who represents a substantial Armenian community in his Los Angeles district, is not on the committee, but attended the vote as an observer.
Jews in Massachusetts, which like California is home to a substantial Armenian community, have also backed the resolution. On Monday, two days before the hearing, the Jewish community there hosted the Armenian pontiff, Karekin II, on a tour of Boston’s Holocaust memorial.
Karekin, a Turkish subject based in Istanbul, is enjoined by Turkish law from mentioning the Armenian genocide, which claimed an estimated 1.5 million lives, and he did not bring it up during his visit. However, Nancy Kaufman, the director of the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council, said the symbolism was clear.
“We at the JCRC have been on board” backing the resolution “for two years,” she said. Karekin’s visit “was a validation and recognition of that support.”
Turks were making their own case to the Jews through Holocaust recognition; the same day as the Karekin tour, Turkey’s foreign minister visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
Two major Jewish groups — the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League — have recognized the massacres as genocide, but cited concerns regarding Turkey in arguing against the resolution.
“This is a political gesture, not a moral gesture,” the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, said of the resolution.
It did not seem political for the seven Jews on the committee who voted for the measure: denials of genocide had special resonance for a caucus dedicated to preserving Holocaust remembrance.
“Genocide denial is not just the last step of a genocide, it is the first step of the next genocide,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) who, like many others on the committee cited the apocryphal story that Adolf Hitler cited the world’s neglect of the Armenians in arguing that the mass murder of Jews would also be forgotten.
Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), who was instrumental as a state legislator in introducing Holocaust education in Florida, cited what he said were the two words that must answer all genocides, “Never again.”
Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), who has grown close to the Turks in his capacity as chairman of the committee’s Europe subcommittee, was the only Jewish member of the committee to vote against the resolution. He noted Turkey’s role in routing supplies to U.S. forces in Iraq, as well as its lead peacekeeping role in Afghanistan and the Balkans. “Turkey also remains a critical partner to our ally, Israel,” Wexler said, one of the few times the Jewish state was mentioned during the hearing.
Sherman said the Turks would get over whatever slight they perceived, adding that political considerations should not always be paramount. “Who would go to the floor and say, ‘We need Ramstein air force base in Germany, let’s tear down the Holocaust memorial,'” he asked his colleagues.
“Do your duty to honor the truth,” Ackerman exhorted his colleagues.
When the clerk announced the result — upping it from 26-21 to 27-21 when U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Jewish Democrat from Arizona, rushed in to announce her yes vote — Armenians in the room burst into tears and rushed to Schiff to embrace him.
Lantos said he was never prouder to serve on the committee and announced that he would soon introduce a resolution marking the U.S.-Turkish friendship.
Ostensibly at least, that did little to assuage Turkish anger. On Thursday Turkey recalled its ambassador in Washington, Nabi Sensoy, for “consultations” and continued to warn that passage by the full House would undermine its relations with the United States.
Sensoy attended the session. After the vote, before heading back to his home country, the Turkish ambassador said it was now up to U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House speaker, to emulate her Republican predecessors who used parliamentary maneuvers to keep the resolution from reaching the floor. On Thursday, Turkey recalled Sensoy for “consultations.”
“We hope the Speaker of the House will assume the leadership that is expected of her,” Sensoy told reporters after the hearing. That’s unlikely, sources in both parties said: Pelosi was not going to stop the resolution from reaching the floor, although she would stop those who are trying to use a parliamentary device to rush legislation to the floor.
Privately, however, pro-Turkish lobbyists were exulting — the vote was much closer than expected. Estimates from within the committee on Tuesday evening predicted a 35-11 win for the resolution. The narrowing gap meant that the resolution might yet fail.
Some members had clearly changed their minds at the last moment. In one of the oddest moments of the hearing, Rep. Rubin Hinojosa (D-Texas) delivered an impassioned defense of the resolution — and concluded that he would vote no. The room fell silent, all eyes on him as he cast his own down.