The national director of the Anti-Defamation League bowed to pressure from both the Jewish and Armenian-American communities yesterday and officially acknowledged the genocide of Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks more than 90 years ago.
In doing so, Abraham H. Foxman reversed years of ADL policy and a position he had reaffirmed as recently as Friday when he fired the ADL's New England regional director, Andrew H. Tarsy, for defying the national organization and acknowledging the genocide.
"We have never negated but have always described the painful events of 1915-1918 perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against Armenians as massacres and atrocities," Foxman said in a written statement yesterday. But upon reflection, Foxman continued, "the consequences of those actions were indeed tantamount to genocide."
In an interview with the Globe, Foxman said that for some time he has privately believed that the mass killings constituted a genocide, but thought that describing them as atrocities or massacres was enough. Yesterday, he said, he realized this description was dividing the Jewish community and the ADL changed its position.
"So if that word [genocide] brings the community together, that's fine," Foxman added.
He refused to say for just how long he had privately recognized the genocide and also declined to comment on whether Tarsy would be reinstated, given the new national position.
"That's a management decision," he said. "And when we make it, you'll know about it."
While Foxman's statement acknowledging the genocide appeased many, including some regional board members scheduled to meet this morning to discuss the rift between the regional and national offices, others, in both the Jewish and Armenian-American communities, felt Foxman's statement did not go far enough. He stopped short of saying that the national ADL would support a resolution pending in Congress to formally acknowledge the Armenian genocide, a crucial point for Armenian-Americans.
However, both Jewish and Armenian-American leaders applauded Foxman yesterday for a policy shift that they say was long overdue. Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, said he believed that the ADL's policy change and the attention the debate has attracted would boost the profile of the resolution in Congress this fall.
"I think it only helps the legislation," Hamparian said. "I think it shows that even long-standing reservations about the genocide itself are crumbling in the face of community pressure and facts. The opposition is falling apart."
The debate began locally weeks ago in Watertown, home to more than 8,000 Armenian-Americans. Some residents there became upset when they learned that the ADL, which had long refused to acknowledge the genocide, was the sponsor of the town's antibigotry program, No Place For Hate.
Last week, the Watertown Town Council voted to pull out of the program. And as other towns began considering pulling out of the program, Tarsy and the regional ADL board broke ranks with the national office.
The regional board's executive committee resolved last week to acknowledge the genocide and support the congressional resolution. Tarsy, meanwhile, told the Globe that he disagreed with the national office's position, and he was fired the next day.
At issue was not the ADL's antibigotry program itself, but rather a longtime dispute, dating back more than 90 years. From 1915 to 1923, Ottoman Turks slaughtered as many as 1.5 million Armenians in what is now modern-day Turkey. Armenians, historians, and nations including France, Canada, and Britain have recognized the killings as genocide. But the Turkish government has refused to accept the genocide label, and the national ADL has refused to use it, as well. As an organization founded in 1913 to fight anti-Semitism, the national ADL had long expressed concern that acknowledging the genocide would have a negative impact on the Jews living in Turkey, a rare Muslim ally to Israel, and on Israeli-Turkish relations.
Foxman reiterated those concerns yesterday. In his written statement, he said the congressional resolution "is a counterproductive diversion" that could put Jews at risk. Nevertheless, he said, after consulting with Nobel laureate, renowned author, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel on the issue, he ultimately decided that the ADL's relations with the Jewish community was more important than the single issue of the genocide debate.
"In this time, for us to be split apart on an issue, which, as important as it is, is not foremost on the agenda of our safety and security, I found very troubling," Foxman told the Globe yesterday, en route to Boston to meet with board members. "I therefore did what I did to bring the community together."
Steve Grossman, a former regional board member of the ADL and a recent Foxman critic, gave Foxman credit for changing his position, while Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, called Foxman's announcement "great news."
But Foxman's comments did not play as well in the Armenian community, which has sought endorsement of the congressional resolution, nor in the Turkish community.
"We're very disappointed," said Nurten Ural, president of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations in Washington, D.C. Ural said she believes the national ADL "was pressured to do something they really didn't believe in."
"If someone put a gun at your head, you're going to do what they say," Ural told the Globe. "And that's what happened, unfortunately."
Some said that Foxman's comments did not go far enough. In Watertown, Councilor Marilyn Pettito Devaney said she and others still plan on lobbying other towns to pull out of the ADL's No Place for Hate program. The goal, she said, is to have the ADL support the legislation in Congress, adding that "anything less is unacceptable."
It was a feeling shared among the leaders of the Armenian Assembly of America, the Armenian National Committee of America, and US Representative Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who introduced the Armenian genocide resolution in the House.
"I'm pleased that the ADL is now on record recognizing the facts of the Armenian genocide and that it is, in fact, a genocide," Schiff said. "I think that takes their position a step forward. But they've only cut half the distance."
Schiff, like many Armenian-Americans, said it is inconsistent to acknowledge the genocide, but then refuse to support Congress's effort to do the very same thing. James Rudolph, the regional board chairman of the New England regional ADL, said the national office's failure to take this next step may trouble some board members.
"But I hope our board members will continue to stay with us," Rudolph said.
Foxman said he was not sure what would come of this morning's board meeting or his trip to Boston.
But one goal for many local Jewish leaders was clear yesterday: They wanted Andrew Tarsy back in office as the ADL's regional director.
"What are they going to do about that?" asked Ronne Friedman, the senior rabbi at Temple Israel, Boston's largest synagogue. "Why is he a casualty of this?"