How world politics can have an impact on a local level was nicely demonstrated on October 17 in Boston, where the Somerville Human Rights Committee held a special meeting regarding the Statement on the Armenian Genocide by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The ADL, a Jewish advocacy group against anti-Semitism and all forms of hate speech, had declared on August 21 that the “consequences” of events in Turkey between 1915 and 1918 were “tantamount to genocide.”
The carefully worded statement avoids any indication of “intent” on Turkish side, which is a crucial element to be able to legally characterize a mass killing as genocide. The ADL furthermore labeled the recent US Congressional proposal to acknowledge the Armenian genocide as “a counterproductive diversion,” while the organization’s national director, Abe Foxman, met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan to express his sorrow over what the proposal has caused for the leadership and people of Turkey.
Foxman called for a joint Turkish-Armenian effort to study the tragic events in Turkey during WWI. By doing so, he fully embraced the Turkish position, which argues that the Armenian genocide was the unfortunate consequence of the chaos of war, while more research is needed to determine the exact causes.
Not only Armenians, but also many Jewish Americans were shocked and outraged by the ADL’s statement. “Foxman talks about scholars who should study this,” one Holocaust survivor told the New York Times. “That, to me, rang exactly like Ahmadinejad saying ‘let’s have a committee to study the Holocaust.’ Give me a break.”
For the past 15 years, the ADL and other Jewish and/or pro-Israel groups have generally sided with Turkey against the recognition of the Armenian genocide. The main reason is that Israel is on good terms with Turkey and does not want to jeopardize its strategic relation, which allows among other activities for the training of Israeli F16s above Anatolia.
But what has the Somerville Human Rights Committee (HCR) to do with all this? Well, the HCR runs the ADL’s “No Place for Hate” program in local schools. Spearheaded by members of the American Armenian community, a growing number of citizens believes that the ADL has now disqualified itself as the right partner to run an anti-bigotry program. A handful of municipalities in and around Boston have already cut ties with the ADL.
Some 30 people attended the Somerville meeting and sat opposite the four committee members led by chairman “Barbara” who started by saying that this was her last day as chairman as she had a new job starting the next day. Seeing the many people, Barbara said, and the fact that the committee has a regular meeting at 7 p.m., Barbara suggested everyone speak for five minutes only
First came an elderly lady who read an emotional letter from a friend who had survived the genocide. Next came a fired-up Irish redhead who claimed she had often questioned the committee’s ties with the ADL, seeing the latter’s pro-Israel stand, and complained her letters were never answered. Third was a young Armenian who questioned the ADL’s moral right to teach “our children” when the ADL is apparently willing to politically compromise on even genocide. He quoted historian Israel Charny, as saying that denial is double killing: “First the physical deed, followed by the destruction of the remembrance of the deed.”
Many more people said similar things, but from the start it was clear that the committee members did not want to deal with the subject. As a master politician, committee member, Sarah, showed how to get a thorny issue off the debating table by simply formalizing it, by trading content for procedure.
Sarah started by saying that the issue was of course a very complicated one, and could not be decided upon in evening. Secondly, the HRC was not the one to decide, but the municipality. The HRC could only advise them. To do so, she suggested everyone to put their grievances on paper and send it by mail, so they could pursue the matter.
Unfortunately, this was no crowd pleaser as people failed to see what more should be written after all that was said and done. What’s more, it had seemed a clear-cut case for some six other municipalities who had cut ties. To calm things down, Barbara was forced to shed a light on the main reason why cutting ties with the ADL was so difficult.
The ADL, she said, was one of the few organizations that donated Somerville HRC an annual grant with which it was able to operate and, as it was nearly 7 p.m.., the HRC really should be starting its regular meeting. “But do send us your letters.”
Outside Tuffts University, where the meeting was held, people gathered to voice their frustration. “Money for justice,” one man said. The Irish redhead, still angry, related how ADL members called her a neo-Nazi for criticizing Israel. At 7:15 p.m., Sarah runs out of the building. She had to cut the meeting short to go to a reception. Her husband is waiting to pick her up.