Commentary: Preventing future genocides

By Howard L. Jaffe and Laura Boghosian

Mon Mar 31, 2008, 05:53 PM EDT nions/x1279459013

The Lexington Minuteman
Lexington, Massachusetts

LEXINGTON - We write this piece, a Jew (in fact, a rabbi) and an
Armenian, to express our mutual disappointment in the failure of the
Jewish community to take a more active, principled stand on
recognition of the Armenian Genocide than has been taken to date.

Ironically, the term `genocide' was coined by a Jew, Raphael Lemkin,
in response to the 1915-1923 Turkish massacres of Armenians. Lemkin, a
jurist, was appalled that Turkish `criminals were guilty of genocide
and were not punished.' This impunity later emboldened Adolph Hitler
who proclaimed, `Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of
the Armenians?'

The word `genocide' has been applied not only to the Holocaust, but to
massacres from Cambodia to Darfur. The call for similar recognition of
the Armenian Genocide has come from many quarters, including the
International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS). Over 20
countries, the Vatican, the European Parliament, and a United Nations
sub-commission have officially affirmed the Armenian Genocide, as have
40 U.S. states including Massachusetts. Presidents since Woodrow
Wilson have referenced the Armenian massacres, but only Ronald Reagan
employed the term `genocide.' The House of Representatives has twice
passed resolutions recognizing the Armenian Genocide as such, but the
Senate has never done so, leaving America in the shameful position of
not being on record on the right side of this issue.

What is especially troubling is that while Jewish Holocaust scholars
and some Jewish groups have recognized the Armenian Genocide, most
Jewish bodies have not. And the one organization whose mission
statement includes thewords `to secure justice and fair treatment to
all' - the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) - has steadfastly refused to
issue a strong, unambiguous acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide.

More disturbing, the ADL has joined others in lobbying against
official U.S. affirmation in deference to Israel's strategic alliance
with Turkey, which threatens retaliation against countries recognizing
the genocide.

The ADL's position is simply not justifiable. Recently, three
prominent Israeli genocide scholars condemned an Israeli ambassador's
comments supporting Turkish genocide denial by writing that Israel's
relationship with Turkey `does not require public displays of
obsequiousness and participation in genocide denial.'

Even if Turkey's threats are not mere saber rattling, as many believe,
the consequences to Israel are not great enough to legitimize the
ADL's actions. By engaging in such realpolitik, the ADL forfeits its
moral authority to speak on matters of conscience. Thus, the ADL must
choose: itis impossible to function simultaneously as a human rights
organization andas an advocate for any sovereign nation. Conflict is
inevitable, as became apparent last fall when numerous Boston-area
communities, including Lexington, voted to sever ties with the ADL due
to its unacceptable stance.

Although the ADL's New England region and its former director, Andrew
Tarsy, attempted to alter portions of the national organization's
policy on the Armenian Genocide, they were unsuccessful in effecting
meaningful change. Sadly, the New England chairman later said he was
`comfortable' with national ADL's position.

Yet last year's events have awakened some in the Jewish community to
the continuing injustice done the Armenians. We are hopeful that the
efforts of those attempting to alter the policies of the ADL and other
national Jewish organizations from within will succeed and that more
will join in working to promote Congressional legislation officially
acknowledging the Armenian Genocide. Through such joint activism,
change will occur.

Why is this important? Because by neglecting to acknowledge all
genocides and by failing to condemn decisively genocide denial,
individuals, organizations, and governments do immeasurable harm - not
only to the victims and their descendants, but to future generations
whom they put at risk.

Genocide scholar Israel Charny brands denial a renewed attack on the
victimgroup that mocks its suffering and celebrates the success of the
genocide. Current IAGS President Gregory Stanton warns that genocide
denial `is among the surest indicators of further genocidal

As the field of genocide studies has grown in recent years, the nexus
of the Jewish and Armenian experiences has become ever more apparent,
leading to conferences, papers and books that explore the inextricably
interwoven threads of these two dark chapters of the 20th
century. However, few remembrancesof one community have been shared
with the other.

As part of the Friday, May 2 Sabbath service of Temple Isaiah at which
the congregation will commemorate Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day,
one of the country's foremost scholars of the Armenian Genocide will
speak tothe interrelationship between these two experiences. Temple
Isaiah warmly invites its friends in the community to attend this 8
p.m. service and address by Dr. Richard Hovannisian of UCLA.

May this be a small step forward in bringing our two communities even
closer together in our mutual efforts to acknowledge past genocides
and to prevent this most horrendous crime against humanity from
occurring ever again.

Howard L. Jaffe is rabbi at Temple Isaiah. Laura Boghosian is a
resident ofRussell Road.