The ADL Caves

            Boston’s small but feisty Armenian lobby scored its biggest “victory” yet earlier this week, when it finally cornered Anti-Defamation League President Abe Foxman into describing the slaughter of Armenians during and after World War One as “tantamount to genocide" (see press release). I put “victory” in quotation marks because, in my view, neither side emerges from this controversy looking like a real winner.

            I’ve written in the past about the strong-armed, censorship-prone tactics used by Watertown’s Armenians to advance their cause, and on the importance of leaving questions of history to scholars, not interest groups. You can check out my op/eds on this topic, both in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly and The Boston Globe

  I’m equally dismayed at the ADL’s poor handling of this fiasco. I wrote earlier that the ADL finds itself in a hole largely of its own digging (see “Genocide and its Partisans: What the ADL Did Wrong”). And if you think that the ADL’s flip-flop on the G-word is going to make this flap disappear, think again. The ADL’s poorly conceived and essentially dishonest explanation of its reversal has opened the door for yet more attacks.

Of course, the ADL won’t admit that it caved to the Armenian lobby. So in a textbook PR move, the organization tries to claim that reversing its stance was its own idea all along (“We have always described the painful events of 1915-1918 perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenians as massacres and atrocities”).

Rather than succumb to any notion that their Armenian counterparts were right, Foxman and company write that “on reflection, we have come to share the view of Henry Morgenthau, Sr. that the events [constitute] genocide.” It’s no accident that ADL cited Morgenthau, a Jew, instead of any of the large number of contemporary historians who have criticized the ADL’s stance. This is clearly a cynical attempt by the ADL to remind us all that the man credited with blowing the whistle on the so-called genocide was Jewish. If I were Armenian, I would be a bit peeved by these lame attempts at spin. (As a Jew, I’m a bit embarrassed by it all, even though I keep telling myself that it’s not my doing.) And, don’t expect the Turks to be happy with this Morgenthau reference either. As one of my colleagues pointed out, this will only pour salt in the wounds of the already defensive Turks, seeing as Morgenthau, in those same very same dispatches, frequently used colorful racist language to describe “those unspeakable Turks.” Chalk this up as one more example of how dishonesty brings nothing but trouble.

I’m also curious to see how the ADL plans to maintain its tenuous new position that there was a genocide, but that the issue should not be voted on by the Congress nor litigated in the courts. The ADL’s legal staff must realize that it doesn’t work that way. A nation can’t acknowledge the genocide but then try to avoid all the baggage that comes with it. And judging from press accounts so far, it’s clear that the Armenians won’t relent and meet halfway on this issue. The mudslinging has just begun, I fear.

And no one, it seems, is fighting for the proposition that historians, rather than politicians and interest groups, should pronounce on historical truths. Decisions on when the term “genocide” applies should be made on the basis of documentation, reliable evidence, and clear legal standards and definitions. This does not imply that what happened to the Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks was, or was not, a genuine genocide in terms of modern-day definitions. It’s simply a plea for keeping government and pressure groups out of the business of pronouncing truth and labeling opposing points of view as the equivalent of blasphemy.

While you’re reading up on this brouhaha, check out Jeff Jacoby’s column from yesterday’s Boston Globe, in which he writes that “the Armenian genocide is an incontestable fact of history. Shame on anyone who refuses to say so.” This is exactly the sort of rhetoric that sends chills down my spine. If Jacoby wants to push his view that there was a genocide, more power to him. What irks me is the attack on those who disagree with him, who are now becoming known as “genocide deniers,” a category of “haters.” Not only is this viewpoint poisonous to the notion of open and unfettered discourse, but it is also plainly inaccurate, since it ignores the work of credible scholars who have formed more nuanced responses to the Armenian question. How can a civilized discussion of such an important historical event, resulting in so many deaths, be conducted if one side is always demonized in this fashion?

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