The local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League broke ranks with its national leadership yesterday amid growing outrage by area Jewish leaders over the ADL's refusal to acknowledge the World War I-era mass killings of Armenians as genocide.
In an emergency meeting yesterday afternoon, the regional ADL board adopted resolutions calling on the national organization, which has refused to recognize the Armenian genocide, to change its policy, according to a source familiar with the proposal.
Also, Andrew H. Tarsy, the ADL's New England regional director who had defended the ADL's position as recently as Tuesday, reversed course, saying the ADL should acknowledge the genocide.
"I strongly disagree with ADL's national position," Tarsy said in an interview with the Globe, declining to explain his change of stance. "It's my strong hope that we'll be able to move forward in a relationship with the Armenian community and the community in general."
The developments were the latest turn in a national debate that began weeks ago in Watertown, home to more than 8,000 Armenian-Americans.
Some residents were upset to learn that the ADL was the sponsor of the town's antibigotry program "No Place For Hate." Many began calling for Watertown to pull out because the ADL refused to acknowledge the genocide.
On Tuesday, the Watertown Town Council voted unanimously to rescind its relationship with No Place For Hate. And by yesterday, residents in Newton, Belmont, Somerville, and Arlington were rethinking the program, and local Jewish leaders were renouncing the ADL's stand.
ADL leaders agree that Armenians were massacred by Ottomon Turks during World War I. The ongoing debate focuses on the Armenian stance that what happened was genocide and the ADL's refusal to acknowledge that.
A resolution pending in Congress would formally recognize the deaths as genocide. The ADL's national director, Abraham H. Foxman, has said that the human rights organization has no position on the issue. But he has also questioned whether what happened was genocide and said he believes that Congress should not be considering the matter.
The board of the regional ADL refused to release the text of the resolutions it adopted yesterday, in deference, one source said, to the national organization. The board would not comment further. James Rudolph, the regional board chairman, said he may be able to say more today, when he expects to hear back from the national office. Foxman did not return a call seeking comment.
But Tarsy's remarks made clear that the regional arm of the ADL was prepared to part ways with the national office on the issue of Armenian genocide, a move welcomed by the leader of the Armenian National Committee, based in Washington, D.C.
"It's a positive move," said Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee. "It's the New England ADL trying to bring the national ADL over to the right side of the issue."
From 1915 to 1923, Ottoman Turks massacred as many as 1.5 million Armenians in what is now modern-day Turkey. Armenians, historians, and some European nations have recognized the killings as genocide. But the Turkish government has refused to accept the genocide label. And some Middle East specialists suggest that the national ADL, a group founded in 1913 to fight anti-Semitism, may be refusing to acknowledge the Armenian genocide under pressure from Turkey, a rare Muslim ally to Israel.
"Why are they taking this position? Because they're being pressured to," said James Russell, the Mashtots professor of Armenian studies at Harvard University. "Because Israel is in a very dangerous neighborhood and Turkey, at the moment, is a friend and military ally."
Such politics, once international, became local this summer when Watertown residents realized that the ADL sponsored the town's "No Place For Hate" program, which is dedicated to challenging bigotry.
The program was positive, most agreed. Under the program, communities organize diversity days and other events focused on challenging bigotry, and after a year they receive placards to be posted, declaring the community as "No Place For Hate."
The debate quickly became about something bigger, hurting the reputation of an organization that has spoken out against Holocaust denial, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, and genocide in Darfur.
"I'm a longtime supporter of the ADL, and I think the work the organization has done has often been stellar," said Rabbi Ronne Friedman, senior rabbi of Boston's largest synagogue, Temple Israel. "But I'm really saddened that Abe Foxman, the national director, has failed to affirm the historical fact of this genocide, and I really think that failure represents a moral myopia."
Friedman said he spoke about this issue during services last week and urged his congregation to reach out to Armenian-Americans and let them know that many Jews stand with them.
Jews, being victims of Adolf Hitler's genocide plan, should understand the importance of this issue, Friedman said.
"Hitler referenced the Armenian genocide as proof that the Germans could move forward with impunity in the defamation of the Polish population, men, women and children," Friedman said. "So the idea that we'd fail to recognize historical fact and fail to ensure that the Armenian-American community is affirmed and supported in its quest for justice and truth -- I think that's terribly unfortunate."
Officials in other "No Place For Hate" Massachusetts towns were rethinking their involvement in the program. In Newton, officials were drafting a letter demanding that the ADL change its position.
"We're incredulous," Marianne Ferguson, chairwoman of Newton's Human Rights Commission, said of Foxman's refusal to characterize the Armenian massacre as genocide. "To try and come to understand how they came to this conclusion . . . it's mind-boggling."
Ralph Ranalli of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Keith O'Brien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.