I am prompted to write on this issue after being awakened to it by a stirring talk I recently heard by Rabbi Ronne Friedman at Boston's Temple Israel.
Back in May, I wrote a post congratulating the Anti-Defamation League on their World of Difference program. This is a thoughtful and well-intentioned program to teach schoolchildren ways of avoiding prejudice.
Recently, the ADL has been involved in a major controversy about the genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in the early part of the last century. There is a good description of the dispute on Blue Mass Group.
I fear that ADL has lost its way on this issue, refusing to support a Congressional resolution that calls the massacre what it was, genocide. Now they try to rationalize their failure. See these words of their local civil rights counsel:
The Jewish community in Turkey has clearly expressed to us and other major American Jewish organizations its concerns about the impact of Congressional action on them, and we cannot ignore those concerns. We are also keenly aware that Turkey is a key strategic ally and friend of the United States and a staunch friend of Israel, and that in the struggle between Islamic extremists and moderate Islam, Turkey is the most critical country in the world.
Compare that to the pledge students are asked to take at the end of the ADL's World of Difference Program:
I pledge from this day onward to do my best to be aware of my own biases against people who are different from me. I will ask questions about cultures, religions, and races and other individual differences that I don't understand. I will interrupt prejudice and speak out against those who initiate it. I will reach out to support those who are targets of harassment. I will identify specific ways that my peers, my school, and my community can promote greater respect for people and create a prejudice-fee zone. I firmly believe that one person can make a world of difference and that no person can be an "innocent bystander" when it comes to opposing hate.
I know this pledge is not exactly on the point of the current dispute, but its message is close enough. The pledge does not say that I will stand up against prejudice only when it is politically convenient to do so or only when it is risk-free to do so. Or that I will shy away from controversy for fear of offending an important constituency.
Rabbi Friedman reminded me that Adolf Hitler used the genocide of the Armenians as part of his rationale for destroying other groups. Here's the quote he read.
Our strength consists in our speed and in our brutality. Genghis Khan led millions of women and children to slaughter — with premeditation and a happy heart. History sees in him solely the founder of a state. It's a matter of indifference to me what a weak western European civilization will say about me.
I have issued the command — and I'll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by a firing squad — that our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness — for the present only in the East — with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?
In simple language "annihilation" of a particular ethnic, religious, or social group is "genocide." Hitler knew exactly what he was saying.
Nothing can bring back those who died. The government that was in power at the time is long gone, too. But the surviving people of Armenian descent -- along with every other group that could possibly be the target of genocide -- deserve the support of the ADL in validating what really happened in 1915.
If the national office of the ADL remains recalcitrant on this issue, the New England Region should break ranks and make an alternate position clear.
(By the way, here's the text of the disputed Congressional resolution: Calling upon the President to ensure that the foreign policy of the United States reflects appropriate understanding and sensitivity concerning issues related to human rights, ethnic cleansing, and genocide documented in the United States record relating to the Armenian Genocide, and for other purposes.)
Addendum. Breaking news on August 17: The New England chapter did indeed break ranks. Bravo to them!