(Evan R. Goldstein)
Abraham Foxman has become a menace to his own legacy. That is a shame because it is a good and decent legacy. Over the course of a career spanning 42 years at the Anti-Defamation League, Foxman has been an ardent champion of civil rights, a tireless defender of the separation between church and state against those who insist on tearing it down, and a consistent watchdog of the fever swamps of extremism, into which he has shined the bright lights of opprobrium on bigots of all stripes. These achievements should all be applauded.
And yet Foxman has also shown himself to be both morally obtuse and ethically challenged. One of the more egregious instances of such impropriety occurred in 2001, when a congressional probe revealed that Foxman had helped orchestrate fugitive commodities trader Marc Rich's controversial pardon from then president Bill Clinton. Rich had fled the country in shame to avoid federal charges that he had cheated the government out of $48 million and had traded with the enemy. The timing of Foxman's personal appeal to Clinton on Rich's behalf was no coincidence. A few months prior to that, the ADL had received a $100,000 pledge from Rich. In short, Foxman had prostituted the ADL's credibility for a deep-pocketed - and exceedingly shady - donor.
All of which takes me back nearly nine decades to Ottoman Turkey, where over one million Armenians perished in a horrific spasm of organized slaughter. This historical episode has become a political flashpoint in Washington, D.C., where all kinds of influence peddlers have been engaged in a fierce struggle over whether Congress should officially codify the Armenian massacre as genocide. The Turkish government has spent millions of dollars and twisted countless arms in an effort to trounce this resolution. More troubling, it has been able to enlist the support of the ADL - along with other Jewish organizations - in its campaign of denial.
Let us be clear from the outset: This debate is not about the veracity of scholarship or the merits of comparative historical interpretations. Academic authorities agree on this matter, and the evidence that the campaign against the Armenians constituted the first genocide of the 20th century is overwhelming and incontrovertible. Instead, the debate is about politics, in particular the important multilateral relationship between Israel, the United States and Turkey - one of the world's few Muslim-majority countries that is also a democracy. As the ADL put it in a recent statement: "Turkey is a key strategic ally and friend of the United States and a staunch friend of Israel, and in the struggle between Islamic extremists and moderate Islam, Turkey is the most critical country in the world."
Foxman has particularly distinguished himself by indulging in spineless acts of rhetorical ambiguity, declaring that "this is not an issue where we take a position one way or the other. This is an issue that needs to be resolved by the parties, not by us. We are neither historians nor arbiters." This from a man who rightfully claims that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial amounts to an attempt to destroy Jewish identity! This from the leader of an organization that has rightfully called on the world not to avert its eyes from the genocide underway in Sudan's Darfur region! (One wonders what Foxman would do if Khartoum were on friendly terms with Jerusalem.)
This bizarre and shameless display of hypocrisy gradually came under fire from Armenian civil rights groups and a small cadre of outraged Jewish journalists, in particular those congregated around the engaging - if unfortunately named - online magazine Jewcy. All this protest came to a climax last week when Andrew Tarsy, the New England regional director of the ADL, publicly broke with the national position, which he characterized as "morally indefensible." (I hasten to add that Tarsy apparently only took this drastic step after his efforts to quietly work within the organization to change the national position were stymied.)
"I have been conflicted over this issue for several weeks," Tarsy told The Boston Globe. "I regret at this point any characterization of the genocide that I made publicly other than to call it genocide. I think that kind of candor about history is absolutely fundamental." Tarsy's heroic stand has earned the young activist a great deal of admiration in the Boston-area, where the ADL has a rich legacy of combating bigotry. Not surprisingly, it earned him nothing but scorn from Foxman, who promptly fired him.
But the outrage only grew, and Foxman ultimately decided out of "concern for the unity of the Jewish community at a time of increased threats against the Jewish people, to revisit the tragedy that befell the Armenians." And upon "reflection, we have come to share the view of Henry Morgenthau Sr. that the consequences of those actions were indeed tantamount to genocide." This statement, which the ADL released on Tuesday, is stunning on account of its total lack of integrity.
First, note the disingenuous way Foxman lays the groundwork for his disgracefully belated admission of the obvious, by attributing his reversal to the risk of disunity within the Jewish community. What does the unity or disunity of the Jewish people have to do with distinguishing between historical fact and malicious fabrication?
Second, note how Foxman completely fails to grasp the fundamental significance of Morgenthau's legacy (which he was nonetheless clearly intent on co-opting). Serving as America's ambassador in Istanbul at the time of the genocide, Morgenthau alerted his superiors in Washington that the ongoing persecution of Armenians was "assuming unprecedented proportions," ultimately characterizing Turkish aggression as an "effort to exterminate a whole race." (The word "genocide" was not coined until 1944.) And although the American response to Morgenthau's cables was dreadfully feeble, his actions testify to the ethical imperative of bearing witness and acknowledging inconvenient truths. In contrast, Foxman's statement of contrition diminishes the importance of the truth.
Third, note the weasel words "consequences" and "tantamount" - why not just say it was genocide? Long notorious for running the ADL like a personal fiefdom, Foxman has always resisted calls to plan for his eventual departure. In response to a 2003 effort by regional lay leaders to force Foxman's hand on this matter, he blithely told the Forward that when "I'm ready to retire or do something else, I will notify my lay leadership." As someone who believes in the enduring value of the ADL's work on behalf of a more tolerant and pluralistic America, I hope Foxman realizes the time has come.