The Armenian Genocide Debate: What's at Stake

By Wendy Kaminer      

        ADL president Abe Foxman has long exhibited intolerance for speech and debate that he considers hateful (or bad for the Jews,) so there’s some justice in his vilification by members of the Armenian community for failing to label as genocide the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians by the Turks in the early 1900s.  Foxman came close, calling the slaughter “tantamount to genocide” after protests from Armenians persuaded officials in Watertown and Belmont to drop out of an ADL anti-bias program, No Place for Hate. (Harvey has chronicled this controversy in earlier posts, “The ADL Caves” and “Genocide and its Partisans.”) But that concession has not satisfied protesters who demand that the ADL unequivocally condemn the slaughter as “genocide” and support a pending Congressional resolution to do the same.  Now the city of Newton has joined in boycotting the ADL anti-bias program. (Needham may follow suit.) Newton Mayor David Cohen called his decision to withdraw from the program “a matter of conscience.”

        I’d call it political blackmail, designed to force the ADL into supporting the genocide resolution before Congress.  How else to make sense of the decision to drop a popular anti-bias program because the ADL president merely denounced the slaughter of Armenians as “tantamount to genocide?”  The ADL does not deny that the slaughter occurred or seek to justify its occurrence.  Yet it has suddenly become an untouchable organization, with which no moral community can, in good conscience, cooperate.  Why?

        What’s in a name?  There is much more at stake here than the halo of victimhood within reach of Armenians who can self-identify as the descendents of an official genocide (and the inherited guilt that is likely to be attributed to Turks born decades after it occurred.)  There’s the prospect of reparations:  The Armenian National Committee of America stresses that if the U.N 1948 Genocide Convention is applied to the slaughter, Armenians can look forward to  “the return to the Armenian people and the Armenian Church of monasteries, churches, and other assets of historic and cultural significance, as well as the granting of a measure of compensation to the descendents of the victims of genocide.  In this connection, the restitution and compensation schemes elaborated for the victims of the Holocaust provide a useful precedent.” 

        It would be facile to suggest that to understand this debate we should simply follow the money – as if grants of money and property in compensation for a grievous wrong have no emotional or moral resonance.  But we should also not ignore the effect of reparations policies on our battles over historical truth and the tendency of people to feel victimized by terror campaigns conducted a century ago.  The actual victims of genocides or illegal internments, among other evils, have compelling rights to reparations; their children may have rights as well.  But successive generations have increasingly tenuous claims to be compensated directly for wrongs they did not experience.  Obviously, as time passes, the consequences of the original crime, however horrific, become terribly attenuated for people who experience it only vicariously.

        Why should we encourage people to feel so horribly victimized by evils visited upon ancestors who died before they were born?  Why should we treat the descendents of the original victimizers as accessories after the facts, as if genocide were original sin?  I’m not disputing the importance of calling a genocide a genocide, regardless of when it occurred.  But I delegate to historians the determination of what constitutes genocide, and I leave to history both its perpetrators and victims.

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