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Ethnic tensions flare over governor’s judicial nominee

Tears were shed and Hitler was quoted on Wednesday, as ethnic tensions erupted at the State House and threatened to derail Governor Deval Patrick’s nominee for a seat on the Superior Court.

The charged struggle centers around the leadership role that the nominee, Joseph S. Berman, has played in the Anti-Defamation League, a national organization dedicated to combating anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination.

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Berman’s nomination stirred opposition because, for years, the organization refused to label as genocide the slaughter of Armenians by Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1923, a stance that angered the Armenian community. But in 2007, the organization reversed course and called the slaughter “tantamount to genocide,” quieting the controversy until it flared again around Berman’s nomination.

A commercial litigation lawyer from Weston, Berman has been a national commissioner of the organization since 2006, and a member of its regional board and executive committee.

At Wednesday’s meeting of the Governor’s Council, the elected eight-member panel that approves judicial nominations, Councilor Marilyn M. Pettito Devaney led the opposition to Berman, saying she had the five votes needed to reject his nomination.

Devaney, a Democrat from Watertown, home to a large Armenian community, stood and denounced Berman’s affiliation with the Anti-Defamation League, as the governor looked on, chagrined.

“In 1939, Hitler, carrying out his horrific mission to exterminate the Jews, said, ‘Who remembers the Armenians?’” Devaney said, her voice trembling and eyes filling with tears. “I do. And many others do, too.”

Devaney said if she belonged to “a group who denied the Holocaust,” she would resign. Several other councilors agreed that Berman’s ties to the Anti-Defamation League are a concern, while raising their own separate objections.

Patrick, who chairs the Governor’s Council, postponed the vote on Berman’s nomination until Dec. 4, forestalling an embarrassing political defeat. The governor called Berman “more than ready to serve” on the Superior Court.

“I’m going to work hard to get the votes,” Patrick told the councilors. “I haven’t had an opportunity to do that. I’m not ready today.”

Several councilors strongly objected to the delay and urged Patrick to allow them to vote immediately on Berman’s nomination.

“We’re not going to change our minds,” Devaney said. “To prolong this serves no purpose.”

Councilor Terrence W. Kennedy agreed, saying that even though he supports Berman, a delay will not save the nomination.

“It’s a democracy, and I don’t think the vote is going to change,” he told Patrick.

Typically, the lieutenant governor would chair meetings of the council, a fractious and often rebellious panel that dates to the Colonial era. But because Timothy P. Murray resigned as lieutenant governor in May, Patrick has had to fill that role.

The fight over Berman’s nomination harkens back to the bitter controversy over the Armenian genocide that engulfed the Anti-Defamation League six years ago.

In 2007, the organization fired its New England regional director, Andrew H. Tarsy, after he broke rank with national leadership and said it should acknowledge the genocide.

The organization had expressed concern that doing so could harm Israel’s relations with Turkey, a rare Muslim ally.

Many Jewish and Armenian leaders in New England criticized Tarsy’s firing and urged the organization to recognize the genocide. After several days of outcry, the national director, Abraham H. Foxman, issued a statement in 2007 calling the massacre of Armenians “tantamount to genocide” but stopping short of labeling it an actual genocide.

Anti-Defamation League leaders said Wednesday that that phrase is not meant to obscure the historical suffering of Armenians.

“ADL policy right now is crystal clear: that we recognize the Armenian genocide,” said Robert O. Trestan, director of the New England Anti-Defamation League. “We’re on the record making that recognition more than five years ago, and we’ve moved on from the issue, and it doesn’t seem appropriate, more than five years later, to bring this up in light of a judicial nomination.”

Reached by phone on Wednesday, Berman declined to discuss the issue.

Councilors have also objected to Berman because he donated about $110,000 to Democratic candidates over the last decade, contributions that they say make it appear as though his nomination was a reward for his financial support. In addition, at least one criticized his nomination because he once represented a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay.

Jeffrey S. Robbins, the chair of the board of the New England Anti-Defamation League, was among those who testified in support of Berman at his nomination hearing last week.

“The assault on Joe Berman is particularly egregious” because Berman was one of the most vocal and effective voices within the organization urging it to acknowledge the massacre as a genocide, Robbins said.

“That’s the kind of courage and principle that should be rewarded, and not penalized,” he said.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.
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