Thursday, August 16, 2007

Stand firm and clear, ADL

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!


Anonymous said...

Hear Hear! Great post. Thanks Paul. We Armenians have struggled for a long time with this issue. It's been an uphill battle, and as soon as we feel like we've reached the summit, something happens to bring us back down. As you mentioned, the main point is the political stigma associated with this heated issue. Of course, Armenians worldwide realize that the current Turkish government was not involved at that time, all we ask for is RECOGNITION. And yet, somehow, we are denied that year after year.

Mark Turuk said...

Well said.

I need to go back and research the Armenian genocide a bit more.

I have always held the position that after WWII, we are all of us Jewish, regardless of our antecedents.

And that Never Again means living in the moment, but keeping one's eyes open to a wider view. Which is why events in places like Rwanda in the 90's are so disheartening... and enraging.

Anonymous said...

Bravo, Paul. For those who are interested, the text of the allegedly-dubious resolution is at:
What is there to oppose here???

I'm very pleased to see this morning that our local ADL chapter this morning doing the right thing. Congratulations, and thanks ADL New England Region!

I'm very saddened that anyone seems to believe that being honest about problems of the past is a threat to today and the future. In all dimensions of life it is EXACTLY the opposite, as anyone thinking about race issues in the US fully understands, and as the brilliant Chinese sage Lao-tzu wrote in Tao te Ching 2,500 years ago:

A great nation is like a great man;
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.

Anonymous said...

A former classmate of mine at Bucknell University (1973), Peter Balakian, has written a book on the Armenian genocide called "The Burning Tigris", for those who are interested. Also of interest, when I googled his name to remember the title, I ran into an "anti-Peter-Balakian" website attempting to debunk him as a person and author of this book. Clearly there are still some hot emotions on this topic, about which I otherwise know little.
But congrats to the NE chapter for standing up for their beliefs. We soft Americans need to maintain our moral backbone, on whatever issue.