WASHINGTON - The mission statement for "No Place For Hate" says that it will build "bridges of understanding," but until yesterday it appeared that the bridge had collapsed. However, Abe Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which runs the Boston-area program, yesterday tried to repair the damage.
In an effort to extricate himself from a scandal surrounding the ADL's refusal to support a bill calling on the Bush administration to recognize the 1915-17 Turkish massacre of its Armenian minority as genocide, Foxman did an abrupt about-face. After consulting with Nobel Prize-winning author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, Foxman referred to the Armenian massacre as a "genocide" for the first time.
The uproar began two weeks ago, when Watertown, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston which has an Armenian population of several thousand, decided to stop participating in "No Place For Hate" once it realized that the ADL - which claims to oppose the discrimination of "any sect or body of citizens" - did not intend to support the bill. Several other suburbs were considering following in Watertown's footsteps, and activists in other states threatened to target the ADL program as well.
The Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives enthusiastically supports the bill, proposed by California Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff. Turkey denies that it committed genocide against its Armenian minority and cautions allies and rivals alike against recognizing it. This policy has been pretty successful, with countries such as Israel and the U.S. refusing to retroactively acknowledge that the massacre was the first genocide of the 20th century, out of fear of causing a rift in diplomatic relations. In recent years, this distortion of history has been the focus of rising criticism.
The ADL was an almost incidental victim of the disappointment and anger felt by the American Armenian community. Many other large Jewish organizations have also refrained from supporting the bill or taking a stance on the Armenian genocide. They are interested in maintaining warm relations between Israel and Turkey, and between the United States and Turkey, and they don't want to make the Jewish community of Turkey vulnerable to revenge attacks.
These were also Foxman's reasons. He had said the issue did not constitute an ethical stance against an unethical one, but a situation in which one must choose the lesser evil between two unattractive options. In any case, argued Foxman, his perspective did have an ethical element: While acknowledging the genocide is merely a symbolic gesture to the Armenian community, putting ties with Turkey at risk could have far-reaching consequences, including endangering the lives of Turkish Jews.
But such explanations didn't help the ADL - partly because it is the organization most identified with the legacy of another 20th-century genocide, the Holocaust, making it seem more hypocritical than other groups. Another reason is that it was the ADL that ran the program in Watertown, the heart of the Armenian community in America.
The Boston-area Jewish community had not given the national leadership of the ADL its support. Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, said that while the local Jewish community understands the complexity of the issue, the council thinks the U.S. should recognize the genocide.
The ADL itself was split over the issue; it fired New England regional director Andrew Tarsy for telling The Boston Globe that, "I strongly disagree with the ADL's national position."
Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz also came out against the ADL's previous stance, writing an op-ed in the Globe with State Representative Rachel Kaprielian, who represents Watertown, that compared the Armenian genocide to the Holocaust.
"For any organization or official to believe that there are differing sides to the Armenian Genocide," they wrote, "is as much an outrage as it would be for Germany to say that the work of Jewish scholars, witnesses, and victim testimonies represented merely the 'Jewish side' of the Holocaust." For the past two weeks, the New England office of the ADL had become the target of fierce attacks, and some went as far as calling for Foxman's resignation.