Last week’s news that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) had reversed course and decided to recognize the Turkish massacres of Armenians between 1915 and 1923 as a genocide is a necessary step forward for that organization.
Unfortunately, it does not go far enough in rectifying the ADL’s mystifying policy on this question. For while acknowledging that the massacres were a genocide, the ADL and its national director, Abraham Foxman, continue to refuse to support the congressional resolution (HR 106) that officially recognizes the Armenian genocide.
This points to a logical inconsistency, as well as lingering obduracy, on the part of the ADL. There is also a certain disingenuous quality to the ADL’s half-shift.
For years Foxman has repeatedly stated, when asked why his organization holds to its stance, that the issue of whether there was a genocide of Armenians should not be decided by American Jewish communal leaders but rather left to historians. And yet, he has repeatedly ignored the opinion of an overwhelming majority of historians that the Turkish massacres were a genocide. Moreover, his decision last week to acknowledge the genocide was based less on any serious and sober consultative process (precisely what he should have engaged in years ago) than on a hurried decision to avoid intense public pressure and calls for his resignation.
What precipitated this abrupt change of course was a spiraling set of developments in the Boston area several weeks ago. Controversy had been brewing for some time in Watertown, Mass., home to a large number of Armenians, over the ADL’s sponsorship of its No Place for Hate program in that town.
A groundswell of popular concern led the Watertown town council to sever its relationship with the No Place for Hate program in light of the ADL’s refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide. Throughout this controversy the ADL’s regional director, Andrew Tarsy, heeded the ADL line that Armenians did not suffer a “genocide,” — until on Aug. 16 when he broke with the organization’s declared position and decried it as “morally reprehensible.”
For this brave act of conscience Tarsy was summarily fired, prompting several members of the ADL’s New England board to resign in protest. Shortly thereafter on Aug. 21, Foxman issued a statement asserting that “the consequences of those (i.e., Turkish) actions were tantamount to genocide.” However, he continued by proclaiming that “a congressional resolution on such matters is a counterproductive diversion.”
But how, in light of the first statement, could acknowledgement of a genocidal atrocity be a “counterproductive diversion?” And why should Tarsy, whose courage and conviction set in motion the ADL’s shift, be the victim of his own organization’s bad judgment?
These questions push to the surface a set of larger and troubling concerns about American Jewish organizational life.
First, the ADL’s clumsy and insensitive handling of the Armenian question exposes the way in which shortsighted political goals can easily cloud the moral judgment of the organized Jewish community. Foxman and others who resist HR 106 fear that the resolution will antagonize the Turkish government and prompt it to rethink its military alliance with Israel and the United States.
Yes, Turkey is Israel’s best friend in the Muslim world. But apart from the improbability of that country severing its relations with either Israel or the United States, we must ask whether supporting those who falsify and distort the historical record is ever in our or their interests.
Moreover, do not Jews, of all people, have a special responsibility to raise their voices at the sight or prospect of genocide? The answer, as groups such as Jewish World Watch make patently clear, is that we can never abdicate our responsibility to act against ethnic cleansing or genocide, whether committed by friend or foe.
Second, this episode reminds us of how detached and undemocratic our Jewish communal leadership is. No referendum has ever been held in the Jewish community on the question of the Armenian genocide or, for that matter, on any other major issue of substance. And yet, Foxman and his counterparts at other national Jewish organizations routinely adopt policies and speak on behalf of the community based on their own sense of what is best for the Jews.
Often, and surely in this case, their judgment rests on what they deem to be in the best interests of the State of Israel. But who appointed or elected them to speak in our name — either on the question of what’s in Israel’s best interests or of whether to recognize the Armenian genocide? The time has come to scrutinize anew the power that these communal leaders arrogate to themselves.
Finally, this episode raises serious doubts about the leadership of Foxman at the helm of one of the country’s most venerable Jewish organizations.
There can be no question that Foxman has fought tirelessly against anti-Semitism over the course of his career. For that he is to be commended. But he has also grown imperious and detached, playing the role of defender-in-chief of the Jews with a somewhat dictatorial air.
He has brusquely pushed out colleagues in the ADL, such as Tarsy in Boston and David Lehrer in Los Angeles, talented and devoted community leaders who dared to speak their mind. He has created an organization in his own image, one that breeds obeisance rather than independence.
As the Armenian genocide debate makes so clear, what is needed from our Jewish communal leaders is a different set of qualities than those evinced by Foxman — open-mindedness, nuance, historical knowledge and fealty to core Jewish values. Enough is enough. We deserve better.
Foxman should follow the logic of his own statement and take the essential next step of supporting HR 106. Further, he should admit the error of his abrupt action and restore Tarsy to his position.
In parallel, our local Anti-Defamation League board should either announce its support for HR 106 –if not here in the heart of the Armenian diaspora, then where? — or renounce the organization’s declared mission “to secure justice and fair treatment to all.”
David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA.