Monday, August 20, 2007

The Armenian Genocide and “No Place for Hate”

The 20th century has often been described as a particularly bloody period of world history. R.J. Rummel of the University of Hawaii estimates that around 250 million people were killed in acts of democide, the murder of innocent people by governments. This figure does not include military combatants, but does include the sum of all mass murders, whether meeting the definition of genocide or not.

The Armenian Genocide was the opening act of this century of murder. During the first world war, between 1915-1917, somewhere between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians, a Christian minority in the Muslim Ottoman Empire, were killed by the “Young Turks” regime then in power. Many of these deaths occurred on forced death marches across the eastern part of Turkey into the Syrian desert. Death squads attacked the hundreds of thousands of defenseless deportees all along the route, leaving a bloody trail of dead. The small numbers who arrived in their desert destination died from starvation and thirst in large numbers.

What had a decade before been an ethnic group of 2 million people within modern day Turkey, and with a 2000+ year history in the region, was gone. Most were murdered, the remainder part of a diaspora population now found in numerous countries around the world.

Just as with the Holocaust, there are those who deny the genocide. Unlike the Holocaust, these deniers include the nation who perpetrated it, and a few well credentialed and generally respected historians. Armenians have fought for decades for the proper recognition of the fate which befell them. Almost a century removed from the event, this recognition is spreading. Today, 21 countries have passed resolutions declaring the mass murder to be a genocide. In the United States, 40 of the 50 states, including Massachusetts, have so declared. And today, a bill in the United States House seeks to have the United States give its recognition.

The obstacle to speaking truth on this matter involves “Realpolitik”. President Bush fears retribution by Turkey, viewed as the only secular, somewhat democratic Muslim nation in the region. Similar concerns motivate the ADL and its Executive Director Abe Foxman. The ADL is one of the sponsoring agencies behind the important and successful “No Place for Hate” program. The ADL, founded as an organization to combat anti-semitism, fears that Turkish Jews would be targeted for retribution and that Turkey’s alliance with Israel would be threatened in the event the ADL supported US recognition of the genocide.

The ADL’s position prompted the town of Watertown to withdraw from the “No Place for Hate” program. Over 8000 residents of Watertown are of Armenian ethnicity and town leaders felt obligated to protest the ADL’s views on this issue.

What about “No Place for Hate” in Milton? This organization has been an invaluable resource for a diverse and rapidly changing community. It has contributed significantly to fostering an atmosphere of openness, tolerance and inclusion. It is inevitable however, as this issue gains traction with the firing of the regional ADL leader and the resignations of regional board members, that Milton and other chapters of “No Place for Hate” will have to face this issue. They should face this issue.

The action in Watertown is understandable. But I don’t think withdrawing from an organization which has done so much good because of a single, albeit significant, error in judgment is the right thing to do. The ADL’s position is barely defensible. An organization founded to combat hatred and the violence that can emanate from it cannot fence sit an issue of genocide, and the rationales provided by Abe Foxman have been embarrassing. For an organization like the ADL, principle must trump practical politics.

I urge the Milton No Place for Hate organization to work from the inside to change the ADL’s position. Pressure must be placed on the national organization to rethink its views. There are 58 Massachusetts communities participating in the program. A petition signed by all chapters forwarded to Foxman and individual board members, and released to the press, would be a good start. An organized campaign of support for the genocide recognition bill in Washington directed to our government representatives would also help. I suspect similar efforts will start elsewhere.

The ADL’s intransigence on this matter threatens the credibility and moral capital of an important organization. Working for change has the added benefit of serving as an example of the very beliefs which underpin both organizations.