Local Jewish groups rushed yesterday to sign a letter urging the Anti-Defamation League to acknowledge the massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide, increasing pressure on the ADL after it fired its New England director for endorsing the emotionally charged position.
Nancy K. Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, e-mailed a letter yesterday to some 40 prominent Jewish leaders in Massachusetts, asking them to support the ousted director and to recognize the genocide against Armenians.
"We must never forget the Armenian genocide and maintain our guard against those who deny its occurrence," the letter said.
Within hours of sending the letter, Kaufman said that 11 groups had signed and that more were expected to do so shortly.
"I have never gotten such unanimous support for any position by the JCRC as I have in the last few days on this one," Kaufman said. "It doesn't matter where people are on the political spectrum -- left, right, middle -- people are really standing behind this because it strikes at the core of what it means to be a Jew and never again means never again."
Signers of the letter include the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Russian Community Association of Massachusetts, the Hillel Council of New England, the Bureau of Jewish Education, and the David Project Center for Jewish Leadership.
Kaufman said her group, which represents 41 Jewish organizations, unanimously approved a resolution in 2005 calling the massacre an act of genocide. "We just felt we needed to be on record," Kaufman said. "We needed to be in solidarity and in support of the Armenian community locally."
The rift opened last week after the Town Council in Watertown, home to 8,000 Armenian-Americans, voted unanimously to pull out of an ADL program called No Place for Hate. The town was protesting the ADL's refusal to acknowledge as genocide the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks starting in 1915 in what is today Turkey.
After the vote, the ADL's New England director, Andrew H. Tarsy, who had initially defended the ADL's position, said the massacre was genocide. Then he was fired by the national ADL.
The ADL's national director, Abraham H. Foxman, said the ADL has no official position on the genocide issue. But it does not support US legislation that would affirm the genocide label.
In an open letter, the ADL has called the bill pending in Congress "counterproductive" and said the organization, founded in 1913 to fight anti-Semitism, worried what effect it would have on Jews in Turkey.
The controversy has since drawn in Jewish leaders across the region, not all of whom are in agreement with the local ADL. Grand Rabbi Y.A. Korff, a chaplain of the City of Boston, said the local chapter made a mistake in breaking ranks with its national leaders, who he said are better suited to assess "very sensitive international and diplomatic nuances and ramifications."
"As with any organization, you can't have different chapters going their own way, and basically that undermines the national organization," Korff said in an interview from Jerusalem. "In my view, the essential issue is how does a national organization make these decisions, and who is in the best position to make these decisions."
Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, said he supports Tarsy and the local ADL. "I think that Andy and the board of the local ADL did the right thing and did what they thought was right, and in this case, the local organization is a lot closer to what needs to be done than the national is," Shrage said in an interview from Jerusalem.
Rabbi Barbara Penzner of Temple Hillel B'nai Torah in West Roxbury, said the local ADL was standing up in the tradition of its late former leader, Leonard P. Zakim, for whom the bridge over the Charles River is named. "I think the ADL national has made a huge mistake, and even if they explain that there's political and organizational issues, we as a community ought to stand for the moral high ground," Penzner said.