Inside Story: Caught between an Armenian anvil and Turkish hammer

J'lem avoids 'genocide' controversy but long-term impact of this open wound is far from negligible.

October 14, 2007 00:42
4 minute read.
Inside Story: Caught between an Armenian anvil and Turkish hammer

turkey armenians 224 88. (photo credit: AP)


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Abe Foxman must be feeling a little vindication these days - although that may be of little solace to the outspoken Anti-Defamation League national director. Last August, when the ADL's New England chapter defied the organization's long-standing policy not to formally condemn the killings of Armenians by Turkish forces during World War I as a "genocide," Foxman promptly fired regional director Andrew Tarsey. But under pressure from other local ADL leaders, Armenian activists and Massachusetts political figures, Foxman reversed his position, rehiring Tarsey and calling Turkish acts during the war "tantamount to genocide." Still, he refused to offer support for a congressional resolution making the same declaration. "I believe the issue should not be debated at the US Congress. US congressmen are not historians. Therefore, they cannot judge what happened in history," Foxman commented last month, after meeting in New York City with Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayipp Erdogan. The US Congress thought differently, with the House Foreign Affairs Committee passing a controversial resolution last week labeling the Turkish actions as genocide. The political fallout has been swift and harsh, with Turkey condemning the resolution and recalling its ambassador from Washington. With rumblings from Ankara about curtailing cooperation with American forces fighting in Iraq, and even threats of a large cross-border operation against Kurdish nationalist strongholds in northern Iraq, this situation is primarily a problem - a big one - for the US. But it's also one, albeit to a lesser degree, for Israel and the American Jewish leadership. Placing a higher priority on its valuable strategic relationship with Ankara, Jerusalem has resolutely steered clear of the "Armenian genocide" controversy, as have traditionally, for the most part, American-Jewish organizations such as the ADL. "We fully understand the importance of Israel's strategic alliance with Turkey," said one prominent US Jewish leader, "so over the years, despite the stand on the issue taken by such individuals as Elie Wiesel [who has publicly condemned the Turkish actions] we've given precedence to our concerns about the security of Israel over any feelings over the need take a moral stand on the Armenian genocide. "Foxman was right about the substance of the issue last summer," the leader added, "but he let the situation in Boston get away from him, and felt he had no choice but to backtrack and accept their position." That turnaround angered the Turks, who not only blamed the ADL for reversing its position, but also held Jerusalem in part accountable. Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan made this clear on visit to Israel last week, telling The Jerusalem Post, "All of a sudden the perception in Turkey right now is that the Jewish people - or the Jewish organizations, let's say, and the Armenian diaspora, the Armenian lobbies, are now hand-in-hand trying to defame Turkey, and trying to condemn Turkey and the Turkish people. This is the unfortunate perception right now in Turkey. So if something goes wrong in Washington, DC, it inevitably will have some influence on relations between Turkey and the US, plus the relations between Turkey and Israel, as well." Unfortunately, despite the Turkish perception, Armenian activists and their political supporters in the US were in fact not satisfied with the change in the ADL's position, especially the continued unwillingness of Foxman to support the congressional resolution. In response, three towns outside Boston - Newton, Belmont and Watertown - under pressure from those activists announced last month that they were dropping their cooperation with the ADL's "No Place For Hate" anti-bias program for local municipalities. "This was really an issue of conscience," Newton Mayor Andrew Cohen told The Boston Globe. "We certainly hope the national ADL do the right thing." He's liable to be disappointed. The ADL's National Commission, its highest policy-making body, is scheduled to meet during the first week of November to discuss the issue. According to sources in the organization, it is likely to support Foxman's position in not backing the resolution. That will probably do little, though, to mollify either the Turks or the Armenians, both of whom seem unwilling to accept any rhetorical compromise from Jewish leaders. Nor is this issue likely to go away. American-Armenian activists will continue to press for wider acceptance of the genocide designation, in large part using as their model the success of the Jewish community in raising awareness of the Holocaust. Plans are even being laid to open a Museum of the Armenian Genocide in Washington, modeled on the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Israel's strategic relationship with Turkey is probably of great enough value to both nations to not be immediately affected in any significant way by this controversy. But the long-term impact of this open wound is far from negligible. An editorial run this week in Turkey's Today's Zaman newspaper quotes Babacan as saying, "We have told them [the ADL and other Jewish groups] that we cannot explain it to the Turkish public if a road accident happens. We have told them that we cannot keep the Jewish people out of this." The editorial goes on: "Babacan is right. In the event of the adoption of the Armenian genocide resolution at the Congress, there will be a costly bill awaiting all parties." According to an unscientific readers poll in Today's Zaman over the weekend, when presented with a series of choices regarding which factor is primarily responsible for the proposed congressional resolution, 22 percent of respondents chose "Jews having legitimized the genocide claim," second only to the "efforts of the Armenian diaspora," which came in at 44%. Whatever else it accomplishes, the congressional resolution on the Armenian genocide looks set to insure the ADL will have plenty of work to do in Turkey in the months ahead.

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