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Armenians push forward with ADL fight

Jill Smilow, chair of Lexington's No Place for Hate committee and member of ADL's New England regional board of directors, speaks before Lexington's Board of Selectmen, October 15, 2007.  (Penny Schwartz)

Jill Smilow, chair of Lexington’s No Place for Hate committee and member of ADL’s New England regional board of directors, speaks before Lexington’s Board of Selectmen, October 15, 2007. (Penny Schwartz)

LEXINGTON, Mass. (JTA) – Nearly two months after the Anti-Defamation League reversed itself by acknowledging the World War I-era massacres of Armenians as “tantamount to genocide,” activists in the Boston area are pushing ahead with their campaign against the organization.

On Monday night, at the urging of Armenian American activists and some Jewish allies, two Massachusetts towns – Lexington and Arlington – voted to sever ties with the ADL’s highly touted No Place for Hate anti-bigotry program.

Three other towns – Watertown, Newton and Belmont – already had decided to end their ties with the ADL, and several more municipalities are considering similar steps.

The campaign against the ADL was launched this summer after the organization refused to use the term “genocide” to describe the 1915-18 massacres out of deference to Turkey, an American and Israeli ally.

Though the ADL backtracked from that position, declaring in August that “the consequences” of the killings “were indeed tantamount to genocide,” Armenian activists continue to accuse the Jewish organization of genocide denial.

Some critics claim the ADL hedged its words, while others say the organization’s statement was insincere. In addition, they cite the organization’s continuing opposition to a congressional measure recognizing the killings as genocide.

An ADL spokeswoman dismissed the charge that the formulation was a hedge, noting that “tantamount” means “equivalent to.”

The morning after the Lexington and Arlington votes, ADL New England director Andrew Tarsy lamented their choice.

“It’s a shame given how much ADL has invested in these relationships and in working with these communities,” he said.

The votes, Tarsy added, were “a rush to decision, despite the fact that at this point, the ADL has done the right thing by acknowledging the Armenian genocide for what it was.”

Momentum continues to build against the ADL in New England even as the push for a congressional resolution appears to be losing steam.

Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, has vowed to bring the resolution to the floor for a full vote, but lawmakers apparently are getting cold feet. Nearly a dozen legislators that had supported the measure reversed themselves this week, according to The New York Times, with several citing the potential damage it could cause to relations with Turkey, a key U.S. ally.

Along with several other major Jewish groups, the ADL also opposes the resolution because of its potential repercussions for Turkish relations with Israel and the security of the Turkish Jewish community.

This week, as Turkey stepped up warnings of a rupture in U.S.-Turkish relations and threatened to launch military incursions into northern Iraq against Kurdish fighters, the measure was criticized by President Bush, his secretaries of state and defense, Republican congressional leaders, conservative pundits and a growing number of Democratic lawmakers.

None of those considerations appeared to sway Armenian activists or their supporters in Massachusetts.

In the end, the Lexington Board of Selectman seemed less motivated by the substance of the debate than a desire to avoid future controversies.

“I think the Armenian genocide is a very real issue, but it’s a symptom of a larger problem, which is that national politics tends to take over local politics,” said Hank Manz, the selectman whose motion to rescind the town’s partnership with the ADL was approved unanimously on Monday without debate among lawmakers.

Manz disagreed with the proposal from some residents to delay the vote until after the ADL’s national meeting in November, when it is due to reconsider its position on the resolution.

Officials in Watertown started the ball rolling in August when the town voted to end its participation in No Place for Hate. Immediately after the Watertown Town Council vote, Tarsy broke ranks with his employer on the Armenia issue and was fired.

In the face of mounting pressure from Boston-area ADL leaders, National Director Abraham Foxman issued the statement reversing the organization’s longstanding refusal to describe as genocide the killings of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians and, several weeks later, reinstated Tarsy as New England director.

“On reflection, we have come to share the view of Henry Morgenthau Sr. that the consequences of those actions were indeed tantamount to genocide,” the new ADL statement said. “If the word genocide had existed then, they would have called it genocide.”

The Armenian National Committee issued a press release welcoming the ADL’s decision to reverse its policy, though it expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of support for the legislation. U.S. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), whose district includes Lexington, also welcomed the ADL reversal and told JTA in an e-mail he hoped the removal of the No Place for Hate program would be temporary.

Many hoped that the ADL’s reversal in August would put the issue to rest. But opposition to the ADL gained steam, with activists launching the Web site NoPlaceforDenial.com and continuing to press the issue in other towns in Massachusetts, home to a large population of Armenian-Americans. The group is demanding not only unambiguous recognition by the ADL, but also support for the legislation.

“Most of us assumed that when Abe Foxman gave in, and Tarsy came back, the world would go back to what it was before, everybody would move on,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Waltham.

Instead, four other communities in the Boston area followed Watertown’s lead from the approximately 60 statewide that participate in the ADL program. Several others are considering similar measures, while some have held off pending the outcome of the ADL’s convention next month.

In Lexington, as in other communities that have debated the issue, both sides featured supporters whose lives have been deeply affected by the Armenian tragedy or the Holocaust.

Elderly Jewish Holocaust survivor Julian Bussgang explained to the selectmen that he became aware of the Armenian genocide as a young child in Poland. He urged caution, however, asking the town board to give the ADL more time to sort things out.

Jill Smilow, chair of Lexington’s No Place for Hate Committee and a member of the ADL regional board of directors, was tearful following the board’s vote.

“I am disappointed with the decision,” she told JTA, adding that Lexington will be hurt by not having the ability to connect to other communities through the program.

“Hate does not stop at one’s borders,” Smilow said.

The same evening as the Lexington vote, the town of Arlington also rescinded its affiliation with the ADL program, accepting the recommendation of its local No Place for Hate steering committee, according to a spokesperson in the town office.

One unconfirmed report mentioned an elderly Armenian man who traveled at night by public bus to speak. His survival story left some in the audience in tears, according to Sevag Arzoumanian, an Armenian-American physicist in Cambridge who is a leader of the No Place for Denial campaign.

Speaking before the Lexington selectmen, Laura Boghosian, a longtime resident of Armenian descent, dismissed Foxman’s statement, calling it “disingenuous.” She and others also criticized statements by Foxman endorsing Turkey’s call for a joint commission to study the massacre.

Arzoumanian said that “it’s as if this is an issue between Armenians and Turks and not about truth.”

“They’re asking us to sit down with the equivalent of David Irving to work something out as if history is a bazaar,” he said, referring to the Holocaust denier.

Arzoumanian defended his group’s targeting of the ADL, saying its trademark program is in “our communities, our schools, talking about hate speech, diversity and equality.”

Jewish leaders, including ones who previously criticized the ADL, say the campaign is misguided.

Two such communal figures – Newton resident Steve Grossman, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and a former chair of the Democratic National Committee chair, and Nancy Kaufman, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston – said the local ADL leadership deserves credit for courageously standing up to the national body, but instead is suffering the consequences of the campaign against the organization.

Grossman said he hoped the local committees would see the ADL’s position as a work in progress and not sever the relationship with an exemplary program. He voiced disappoint in the decision by Newton Mayor David Cohen to sever ties with the ADL.

Cohen, who would not comment for this story, wrote an impassioned letter to Foxman in August urging the ADL leader to recognize the Armenian genocide and reinstate Tarsy. But on Sept. 18, after both steps had been taken, Cohen backed the recommendation of his city’s human rights committee and withdrew from the No Place for Hate program, calling for a review following the ADL convention in November.

The problem with that approach, Grossman said, is that “once you sever ties, the curriculum and training is pulled and it’s harder to get it back.”

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