Should Jews Support the Armenian Genocide Resolution? Pro & Con

Categories: Letters From Leadership
By Forward Editorial & US Congress vs. Rabbis Eric Yoffie and David Saperstein & Former Israeli Education Minister Yossi Sarid

Nearly two months before the passage by the U.S. House of Representatives of the Armenian Genocide Resolution became doubtful, when it had the backing of most House Democrats and enough Republicans to insure its adoption, the resolution had already divided the Jewish community.   Some Jews, and Jewish organizations, took the principled stand that Jews must be the first to recognize genocide no matter where and when it is committed.

Rabbis Eric Yoffie and David Saperstein of the Reform movement argued eloquently that “For more than 30 years, the American Jewish community has appropriately done everything within its power to bring knowledge of the Holocaust into public consciousness. We have argued that to ignore or deny the Holocaust is to rob the Jewish people of their history and to dishonor the memory of the victims. How can the very groups that have led the effort to ensure that our genocide will never be forgotten now turn their backs on the genocidal tragedies of others?”

Read “Genocide:  Take a Side”  by Rabbis Eric Yoffie and David Saperstein 

Former Israeli Education Minister Yossi Sarid likewise maintained that the failure to recognize the genocide of the Armenians represented a betrayal of moral integrity.   But what may be worse, “denying another nation’s Holocaust is no less ugly than denying ours. It is also dangerous. Today’s denial is tomorrow’s Holocaust.  What happened to us can happen again, to us and to the people of Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, Sudan, Burma.”

Read Yossi Sarid’s “Turkey and the Armenians:  Today’s denial is tomorrow’s holocaust” here

At the same time, the Forward, the leading liberal Jewish newspaper in the U.S., maintained that while there was no question that the mass killing of Armenians nearly a century ago by the Ottoman Turks represented an act of genocide, “remembering genocide is important, but not as important as saving lives today.”  Their prescient argument reflected the pragmatic shift that was to occur in the House by many Democrats some 6 weeks later.

Read the Forward editorial, “Of Genocide and Morality,” here

Some viewed the Congressional about face as an abandonment of moral principle in the face of expedience, believing that Jews and Americans (and American Jewish organizations) must speak out unconditionally against genocide.   Ameinu Executive Director Gidon D. Remba believes that this view rests on a flawed view of Jewish ethics.  In an op-ed published in the Jerusalem Post, titled “Genocide, Morality and American Jews,” (printed as “Don’t Alienate Ankara,”) he argued that morality requires of us a more complicated and challenging response:  the duty to minimize harm to human life, he maintains, takes precedence over all our other obligations.

Read Gidon D. Remba’s “Genocide, Morality and American Jews,” from the Jerusalem Post, in the original unedited version here


“As Turks Object, Genocide Motion Falters in House:  Passage Now In Doubt
Realities in Iraq Trump Need to Label Killing of Armenians”
The New York Times, Oct. 17, 2007, Page 1, Excerpt

WASHINGTON, Oct. 16:  Worried about antagonizing Turkish leaders, House members from both parties have begun to withdraw their support from a resolution backed by Democratic leadership that would condemn as genocide the mass killings of Armenians nearly a century ago…

Almost a dozen lawmakers had shifted against the measure in a 24-hour period ending Tuesday night, accelerating a sudden exodus that has cast deep doubt over the measure’s prospects. Some made clear that they were heeding warnings from the White House, which has called the measure dangerously provocative, and from the Turkish government, which has said House passage would prompt Turkey to reconsider its ties to the United States, including logistical support for the Iraq war.

Until Tuesday, the measure appeared on a path to House passage, with strong support from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It was approved last week by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. But by Tuesday evening, a group of senior House Democrats had made it known that they were planning to ask the leadership to drop plans for a vote on the measure.

…[L]awmakers attributed the erosion in support mainly to fears about a potential Turkish decision to deny American access to critical military facilities in that nation and its threat to move forces into northern Iraq.

“This vote came face to face with the reality on the ground in that region of the world,” said Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and an opponent of the resolution.

American military officials in Iraq and in Washington said Tuesday they were concerned about possible Turkish military raids into northern Iraq against the Kurdish Workers Party, an ethnic separatist movement also known as the P.K.K.

The biggest fear, several former officials said, is that Turkish forces could push past the border and head for Kirkuk. Such a move could force Iraq to respond and the United States to mediate between two allies, and decide whether to intervene. Such a crisis could also draw in Iran, which has also had growing problems with Kurdish groups crossing into its territory from Iraq.

While the resolution enjoyed more than enough support to pass earlier this year, about two dozen lawmakers have removed their names from the official list of sponsors in recent weeks as the vote grew more likely and the reservations grew more pronounced.

“I think there was genocide in Turkey in 1915 but I am gravely concerned about the timing,” said Representative Jane Harman, a California Democrat. She said she would remain a co-sponsor of the resolution but at the moment would oppose it reached the floor.

“House Speaker Now Unsure if Armenian Genocide Motion Will Reach a Vote”
The New York Times, Oct. 18, 2007, Excerpt


WASHINGTON, Oct. 17 — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that she was reconsidering her pledge to force a vote on a resolution condemning as genocide the mass killing of Armenians starting in 1915, as President Bush intensified his push to derail the legislation.

The comments by the speaker, a key supporter of the measure, added to growing evidence that modern-day pragmatism was overwhelming supporters’ demands that the House render a historical verdict on the killings of the Armenians by Ottoman Turks.

Backers of the resolution said they would push ahead despite mounting opposition and try to rally support for the declaration, which they said was essential to deter future genocide and protect America’s credibility in speaking out against brutality in places like Darfur and Myanmar.

It also was not lost on them that Mr. Bush was willing to risk upsetting China by honoring the Dalai Lama in a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda in an expression of support for democracy and human rights.

“As we take this principled moral stand in defiance of the Chinese government, we must similarly be willing to speak out on the Armenian genocide,” said a statement issued by the six chief sponsors of the House resolution. “If we as a nation are to be a moral leader around the world, we must have the courage to recognize genocide whenever and wherever it occurs.”

One of those sponsors, Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, acknowledged that the resolution had split Jewish lawmakers, with some backing the resolution and others pointing to the risk to Israel should Turkey’s role as a stabilizing force in the region be diminished. He said it would be tragic if Israel’s security became a rationale for not recognizing a case of genocide.

“There is no nexus, but Turkey would like to make one,” he said.

“I’ve got the compassion for the people, the Armenians that are fighting for their ancestors,” said Representative Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat who visited Iraq this month. “But these are real-life situations, and sometimes your heart has to give in to your head and do what makes sense for your country.”

But opponents of the resolution said that if Turkey should be lost as a partner, any effort to bring the war in Iraq to a close could be greatly complicated.

“This is not about Turkey, pro-Turkey or anti-Armenia, or vice versa,” said Representative John Tanner, Democrat of Tennessee. “From my perspective, it is about the United States being able to bring a swift — hopefully — resolution to this conflict in Iraq.”

Mr. Schiff, who had appeared close to expecting House approval of the resolution after an initial victory in the Foreign Affairs Committee last week, seemed resigned that it now might not prevail in light of the push from the administration, Turkey’s government, lobbyists retained by Turkey and worried lawmakers.

“We have the truth on our side,” Mr. Schiff said, “but the truth doesn’t always win.”


October 19, 2007, New York Times

Armenian Issue Presents a Dilemma for U.S. Jews


LEXINGTON, Mass., Oct. 17 — On the docket for the weekly selectmen’s meeting here on Monday were the location of park benches, a liquor license for Vinny T’s restaurant and, not for the first time, the killing of 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey 90 years ago.

The debate in this affluent Boston suburb, home to many Jews and Armenians, centered on a local program to increase awareness of bias. The issue was not the program itself, but its sponsor, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish advocacy group, which has taken a stand against a proposed Congressional resolution condemning the Armenians’ deaths as genocide.

“If you deny one genocide,” said Dr. Jack Nusan Porter, a child of Holocaust survivors and a genocide studies scholar who attended the meeting, “you deny all genocides.”

The Congressional resolution has created an international furor and deeply offended the Turkish government, both a key ally of Israel’s and a crucial logistics player for the American presence in Iraq. But as events in Boston suburbs in recent months have shown, it has also put American Jews in an anguished dilemma as they try to reconcile their support of Israel with their commitment to fighting genocide. In the end, the Board of Selectmen here voted unanimously to cut ties with the Anti-Defamation League, as did three other Boston suburbs this week. Three other towns had already done so, with more considering the option.

For many Jews, the issue has involved much soul-searching.

“It’s hard to talk about it because there are two things or more in conflict here,” said Rabbi David Lerner of Temple Emunah in Lexington. “Israel is in a very vulnerable position in the world, and Turkey is its only friend in the Middle East. Genocide is a burning issue for us, now and in the past. It’s something of who we are.”

The House resolution condemning the killings of Armenians as genocide is nonbinding and largely symbolic, but Turkey’s reaction has been swift and furious. It has recalled its ambassador from Washington and threatened to withdraw critical logistical support for the Iraq war.

For Patrick Mehr, a Lexington resident who spoke at the meeting Monday, the overriding priority is condemning the killings, regardless of Turkey’s response.

The next day at his home, Mr. Mehr, the son of a Holocaust survivor, voiced the anger many Jews and Armenians feel toward Abraham H. Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director. “Abe Foxman, like George W. Bush, is mumbling that it may not have been genocide,” Mr. Mehr said. “Foxman talks about commissions of scholars who should study this. That, to me, rang exactly like Ahmadinejad saying, ‘Let’s have a committee to study the Holocaust.’ Give me a break.”

Jewish leaders have long sought to focus attention on the killings of Armenians, starting with the American ambassador to Turkey in 1915, Henry Morgenthau Sr., who wrote in a cable that the Turkish violence against Armenians was “an effort to exterminate the race.” Several members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who voted for the resolution, including a key sponsor, Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, are Jewish.

Several major Jewish groups, like the American Jewish Committee, oppose the resolution, arguing that it is not the best way to persuade the Turks to examine their past.

Mr. Foxman argues that Turkey is the only friend Israel has in the Muslim world, and it has been hospitable to Jews since giving them refuge after they were driven from Europe during the Inquisition.

“Israel’s relationship with Turkey is the second most important, after its relationship with the United States,” Mr. Foxman said. “All this in a world that isolates Israel, and all this can’t simply be waved away.”

Widespread attention to the Anti-Defamation League’s opposition to the resolution came in July, when David Boyajian, an Armenian-American resident of Newton, Mass., wrote to a local newspaper saying that the town’s anti-bigotry program, known as No Place for Hate, was tarnished because of its sponsorship by the Anti-Defamation League.

He wrote that the A.D.L. “has made the Holocaust and its denial key pieces” of the program, “while at the same time hypocritically working with Turkey to oppose recognition of the Armenian genocide of 1915-23.”

The news shocked most local Jews, many of whom have long been active in campaigns against killings in Bosnia, Rwanda and, most recently, Sudan. By mid-August, Watertown, Mass., had decided to end its affiliation with the Anti-Defamation League’s program. On Aug. 17, the board of the New England Anti-Defamation League passed a resolution calling for the national organization to recognize the Armenian genocide. Its regional director, Andrew Tarsy, was fired by the national group the next day.

The clampdown on the local chapter infuriated many Jews in the Boston area. Two members of the New England board resigned, although one has since returned, and many local leaders criticized Mr. Foxman. Newton, whose population is heavily Jewish, voted to sever ties with the Anti-Defamation League unless it changed its position on the resolution.

Mr. Foxman quickly rehired Mr. Tarsy and issued a statement intended to heal what he said were dangerous rifts in the Boston Jewish community at a time when Jewish unity was crucial. The statement did not support the House resolution. The killings of Armenians, Mr. Foxman wrote, were “tantamount to genocide.”

He added, “If the word genocide had existed then, they would have called it genocide.”

Some Jews praised Mr. Foxman, whose reappraisal, they said, was uncharacteristic. But other Jews and Armenians said he did not go far enough.

“It denies the intentionality of genocide,” said Joey Kurtzman, executive editor of the online magazine Janet Tassel, a congregant at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, said she did not like Mr. Foxman but could not understand how Jews could be fighting over the word genocide when Israeli and American interests are at stake.

“If this resolution goes through, it’s goodbye Charlie for Israel, for U.S. troops in Iraq,” Ms. Tassel said. “It will lead to more anti-Semitism. I’m conflicted about what’s right.”

Dr. Porter, the genocide scholar, said the differing views among Jews on the resolution stemmed in part from whether they saw Israel as particularly vulnerable. “I see Israel as a strong nation,” Dr. Porter said, after speaking for cutting ties to the Anti-Defamation League at the Lexington meeting. “Jews are strong. They don’t have to be intimidated by politics.”

The complex of considerations weighed heavily on Rabbi Howard L. Jaffe of Temple Isaiah, who after weeks of thought decided to back the genocide resolution. “It’s very hard for me to support a position that could be detrimental to Israel,” he said. “But for me as a Jew, I have to take seriously Jewish values, and they require us to do what is right and righteous.”

At the Lexington meeting, nearly everyone praised the No Place for Hate program, which has worked with hundreds of residents in the past seven years.

Some Jewish residents pointed out that the local Anti-Defamation League chapter took a stand for the resolution and should not be punished for the national leadership’s policy; but Vicki Blier, another member of Temple Isaiah, said in a phone interview that the Anti-Defamation League had to be held accountable for its views.

“If this were an organization that were denying the Holocaust, would they be allowed to do anything in town, even if what they are doing is the most beneficial of programs?” Ms. Blier said. “In my experience, Jews are at the forefront in the recognition of injustice. Jews have always stuck their neck out for others.”

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