When Suffolk University Law School announced this spring that Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman would deliver its commencement address and receive an honorary degree, it became enmeshed in a controversy that has roiled the Boston area for the past seven years.
Because ADL had long denied the Armenian Genocide and, more critically, actively lobbied on behalf of the perpetrator, Turkey, against its recognition by Congress, 14 Massachusetts communities and the Massachusetts Municipal Association withdrew from ADL's "No Place for Hate" program in 2007-2008.
Under pressure from myriad sources, including Suffolk students, faculty, and alumni, the National Lawyers Guild, the Armenian community, and others, Foxman finally acknowledged the Armenian Genocide in his remarks. It was an encouraging development given that ADL's only formal statement on the genocide is worded in such a way as to actually circumvent the intent required for a finding of genocide by the UN Genocide Convention.
That statement, issued in 2007, said that the "consequences" of the Turkish massacres of Armenians were "tantamount" to genocide, implying it was not a planned extermination. This statement was widely censured, but calls for an unambiguous confirmation were rebuffed by ADL.
The issue re-emerged last fall when a Massachusetts judgeship candidate was rejected, in part, for his ADL membership. At that time and since, ADL leadership has claimed it clearly acknowledged the genocide in August 2008, via a statement that was issued in response to appeals for Blue Cross Blue Shield to drop its corporate sponsorship of "No Place for Hate. ''
That statement says only that ADL had "referred to those massacres and atrocities as genocide." Note the past tense. Since the only previous ADL communication on the Armenian Genocide was its objectionable 2007 release, it is false for ADL to suggest that this pronouncement represented a new position. It is deeply troubling so many have been misled by this allegation.
The significance of Foxman's verbal acknowledgement at Suffolk, however, is that it can be viewed as an important first step toward a true organizational change in position, a step that could serve as the impetus for ADL to, at long last, post on its website a formal statement unequivocally recognizing the Armenian Genocide.
ADL should also publicly support the resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide currently before Congress, in order to atone for helping to defeat previous resolutions. It is unacceptable that a group presenting itself as a human/civil rights organization should continue to oppose affirmation of this or any other genocide.
One might wonder why a group whose stated purpose is "to secure justice and fair treatment to all" would advocate for Turkey, a major human rights violator. Foxman has been remarkably candid about ADL's motives. In a spring 2007 interview with the Los Angeles Times, he defended ADL's lobbying by stating, "Our focus is Israel. If helping Turkey helps Israel, then that's what we're in the business of doing." He added, "Was it genocide? It was wartime. Things get messy."
Many in the Jewish community were appalled by this cynical policy and publicly challenged ADL, understanding that genocide denial is the highest form of hate speech and the final stage of genocide. In 2008, the Coalition to Recognize the Armenian Genocide was established to foster communication between the Jewish and Armenian communities and to advocate for official affirmation of the genocide by the United States government. Lectures on the Armenian Genocide have been incorporated into services in Boston-area temples, and the coalition's online petition calling on Congress to recognize the Armenian Genocide has gathered over 21,000 signatures to date.
Suffolk Law School attempted to justify its honoring Foxman by arguing that his "body of work is well deserving of recognition." Because he has a decades-long history of denying the Armenian Genocide and opposing acknowledgement of this crime against humanity, it should matter little what else he has done. As French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy declared, "Deniers are not merely expressing an opinion; they are perpetrating a crime." Would Suffolk bestow such accolades upon a Holocaust denier?
Each time ADL has addressed the Armenian Genocide, it has been in response to pressure, both external and internal. Those who for the past seven years have demanded that ADL stand on the right side of history can view with satisfaction Foxman's public utterance of the phrase "Armenian Genocide." Words matter.
Much more, however, needs to be done. The Armenian community and its supporters await an official written statement from the Anti-Defamation League that decisively affirms the Armenian Genocide and that endorses formal US recognition in time for the genocide's 100th anniversary in April 2015.
Only then should ADL be readmitted to our communities or regarded as a model for tolerance. ADL has made a beginning by publicly acknowledging that the Turkish massacres of the Armenian people constituted genocide; perhaps the time has finally arrived for a bold new policy. Let all those who wish to uphold universal human rights help move this process forward.
Laura Boghosian is a member of the Coalition to Recognize the Armenian Genocide.