Under fire, ADL calls Armenian killings genocide

In a dramatic reversal, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director issued a statement describing the massacres perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenians as “tantamount to genocide.”

The ADL and its national director, Abraham Foxman, have faced mounting criticism in recent weeks for refusing to use the genocide label and for firing Andrew Tarsy, the head of the organization’s Boston office, who publicly challenged that policy.

Tarsy’s dismissal sparked a furious backlash from local community leaders — including critical statements from prominent Boston Jews, a “community statement” calling for the ADL to change its position and the resignation of two members of the ADL’s regional board.

But in a statement issued Tuesday, Aug. 21, the ADL said, “We have never negated but have always described the painful events of 1915-18 perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenians as massacres and atrocities.

“On reflection, we have come to share the view of Henry Morgenthau, Sr. that the consequences of those actions were indeed tantamount to genocide. If the word genocide had existed then, they would have called it genocide.”

ADL insists the change stems from its concern for Jewish unity at a moment of great peril for communities around the world. The turnaround comes just weeks before the release of Foxman’s new book, “The Most Dangerous Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control,” which tries to debunk claims that Jewish groups stifle debate on Israel and control U.S. foreign policy.

In recent days, ADL has faced a budding rebellion on the part of the organization’s Boston leadership, which adopted two resolutions on the issue last week, one expressing confidence in Tarsy and the other supporting legislation in Congress acknowledging the Armenian genocide.

The ADL has been under fire since the Armenian community in Watertown, Mass., one of the country’s largest, began agitating to have the town rescind its participation in “No Place for Hate,” a popular anti-bigotry program the ADL sponsors. On Aug. 14, the Town Council unanimously voted to end its relationship with the program, and other Massachusetts communities were reported to be considering similar moves.

Watertown’s Armenian community was piqued by the ADL’s longtime refusal to support the congressional legislation, which is vigorously opposed by Turkey, Israel’s closest Muslim ally.

Despite the shift on the genocide question, Foxman says he still does not support the legislative measure, which he described in his Aug. 21 statement as “a counterproductive diversion” that could threaten the Turkish Jewish community and “the important multilateral position between Turkey, Israel and the United States.”

That position is exceedingly unpopular in Boston, where a large Armenian population has developed close ties with the Jewish community.

Along with other major Jewish groups, the ADL has said the genocide question should be resolved by historians rather than by Congress. Their position is motivated in part by concern for Israel’s close military alliance with Turkey and for the country’s Jews, who have warned that congressional action could create problems for them.

David Harris, executive director of the AJC, said that his group has long recognized the killings as genocide but has not taken a position on the congressional resolution out of concern for U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East.

While Foxman has acknowledged that Turkish Jewry is a factor in his thinking, the letter to the Boston board provided a clear glimpse of the difficulties inherent in balancing the ADL’s universal commitment to human rights and the particular needs of the Jewish community. “We are a Jewish agency whose mission is to work for the community while paying attention to the more universal goals we share with others,” the letter stated. “And when those two elements of our mission come into direct conflict, we do not abandon the Jewish community.”

Related opinion: Jews must deal with historical truths on Turks, Armenians

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.