Friday, June 27, 2008

Community challenges ADL’s position on the Genocide

This was originally published in August 18, 2007 Armenian Reporter.
by Emil Sanamyan

Watertown votes to cut ties with Anti-Defamation League; others may follow

WASHINGTON – Following public outcry, the Watertown, Mass. Town council voted unanimously on August 14 to rescind its cooperation with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) citing its stance on the Armenian Genocide. Other communities around Massachusetts might follow suit in the weeks and months ahead.

The outcry came following public remarks that ADL executive director Abraham Foxman made to the Los Angeles Times last April and again to the Boston Globe last month. Mr. Foxman’s position is one which is viewed as being hypocritical. When asked, Mr. Foxman pleaded ignorance as to whether the Armenian Genocide occurred and argued against congressional consideration of a resolution that would affirm the U.S. record on the issue. It is worth noting that the ADL website lists among other reference works on the Holocaust the 1999 Encyclopedia of Genocide edited by Israel Charny, whose “major sections deal with the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, and the process, detection, denial and prevention of genocide” (as stated on the web site).

The ADL – first established in 1913 to fight anti-Semitism in America – has since expanded to oppose bigotry and extremism in general, and the denial of past crimes against humanity in particular. Since 1999 it has helped launch the “No Place for Hate” (NPFH) programs in hundreds of communities around the United States – including Watertown. NPFH activists work in cooperation with local governments and community members to promote tolerance. But in the last several weeks, the ADL’s position on the Armenian Genocide came under strong criticism in letters and commentaries in the Watertown Tab, a local newspaper, the Boston Globe, and elsewhere, including Jewish-American publications.

On August 3, the Armenian National Committee (ANC) of Eastern Massachusetts appealed with an open letter to the local NPFH leadership, arguing that its “affiliation
or acquiescence with Mr. Foxman’s unconscionable position on the Armenian Genocide seriously undermines the efforts of NPFH.” Ruth Thomasian, Founder and Executive
Director of the Watertownbased Project SAVE, which works to preserve the photographic record of the Armenian history, has been a member of the local NPFH and took part in its recent deliberations. “I have to say that the 15 members of our NPFH all got it,” Ms. Thomasian told the Armenian Reporter. “We initially proposed to clarify this issue with ADL within 90 days and to try to have them change their position [on the Armenian Genocide], which is completely inappropriate.”

But faced with public outcry, the Watertown town council acted swiftly to rescind the relationship with the ADL-co-sponsored NPFH in a vote on August 16. In response, ADL of New England issued a letter saying it was “saddened” by the decision. It said that “as a result, Watertown will lose a valued resource for your community,” the Boston Globe reported. Ms. Thomasian said, however, that the Watertown NPFH will reconstitute itself under a different name, unaffiliated with ADL, and will continue to promote tolerance. She said she hoped funding would continue to come for the effort from Blue Cross / Blue Shield of Massachusetts, as it has up to this time.

Housed in nearby Brookline, Mass., the Facing History and Ourselves project has worked to advance the study of genocide at schools around the world. Earlier this summer, it helped train 33 educators “to teach their students the history of the Armenian Genocide and the lessons it has for today” in schools around U.S. and Canada, according to its July 12 press release. Asked for comment, its press officer Erica Stern expressed hope that the Watertown decision would “not detract from the significant good work that needs to be done, particularly in education.”

Meantime, the Boston Globe reported that Massachusetts State Representative, Rachel Kaprielian and Watertown Councilor, Marilyn Petitto Devaney pledged to spread the message to other towns around the state, to mobilize opposition against the ADL’s position. Elizabeth Chouldjian, communications director at the Washington-based ANC of America, welcomed the Watertown decision. “It is hypocritical for an organization that fights bigotry to deny a genocide,” Ms. Chouldjian told the Reporter. She said that while the ADL was long suspected of opposing congressional resolutions, Mr. Foxman’s comments to newspapers, that position has become public, sparking outrage. “Armenian-American activists around the country are following this issue closely, and we will see what develops in other communities,” Ms. Chouldjian said when asked if she expected the campaign to expand.

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