2007.08.25 -- Peter Balakian: The Anti-Defamation League and the Armenian Genocide

By Peter Balakian
The Armenian Reporter
August 25, 2008

The recent Anti-Defamation League decision to reverse its stance on the Armenian Genocide represents a significant and historic move forward for this important Jewish-American organization. By acknowledging the facts and the long historical record, the ADL shows that it can revise its previous, erroneous stance. In calling on a Jewish intellectual record and testimony -- Ambassador Henry Morgenthau and Elie Wiesel, for example -- ADL Director Mr. Abraham Foxman also reveals the strength of Jewish intellectual perspective on the Armenian Genocide.

The recent statement by David Harris, director of the American Jewish Committee, is also an important affirmation of the historical record on the Armenian Genocide. He too calls on the Jewish intellectual discourse, Ambassador Morgenthau and the U. S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum, in his assessment of the historical and moral record on the extermination of the Armenians in 1915. However, the discourse on the Armenian Genocide should not be articulated as “an Armenian view,” as Mr. Harris’s otherwise thoughtful and careful statement has done. It is crucial to acknowledge the broad and international record on the Armenian Genocide, one that has been created by an international body of dispassionate scholarship for decades, and notably affirmed by the International Association of Genocide Scholars in repeated statements that note that this is a resolved issue.

This discourse has also been profoundly shaped by Jewish writing, scholarship, and leadership. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, Franz Werfel, Elie Wiesel, Robert Jay Lifton, Deborah Lipstadt, Robert Melson, Israel Charney, Andrew Goldberg, Yehuda Bauer, Yair Auron are just a few of the important voices. Raphael Lemkin, the Jewish legal scholar who lost 49 members of his family in the Holocaust, invented the concept of genocide in the 1940s, in part on the basis of the extermination of the Armenians in 1915.

In 1949 Lemkin became the first to apply the term genocide to the eradication of the Armenians; he did so on American television. Both Mr. Foxman’s and Mr. Harris’s statements reflect a long-standing Jewish anxiety about appeasing Turkey, and one can understand the importance of Turkey to Israel, and the need for a Turkish-Israeli alliance. However, no country should be told by another country what to think and what to say about moral and intellectual issues. And, in the case of Israel and the Jewish diasporan lobbies, it is unseemly and unthinkable that Jews would trade, to use Mr. Harris’s phrase, “principle for pragmatism,” at least on this issue.

No culture I can think of has a richer and more ferociously independent and creative intellectual tradition than the Jewish one. And the recent process of critique, dialogue, and evolving opinion surrounding the ADL issue on the Armenian Genocide is a salient example of that tradition. If Jewish organizations continue to honor the moral and intellectual high ground they have done so much to create in Western civilization, they will have no problem seeing the value and importance of the congressional resolution (H. Res. 106) on the Armenian Genocide. For the crime of genocide that was done to the Armenians there has been no justice or acknowledgment from the perpetrator and its legacy, the Republic of Turkey.

In addition, what is hard to fathom is that Turkey has engaged in a nine-decade campaign to attempt to erase the truth and historical memory about the Armenian Genocide, and has gone to extreme measures to bully and coerce states and organizations that engage in the honest memory of the events of 1915. If Jews replace “Armenian Genocide” with the “Holocaust” in the previous sentence, as Mr. Harris has suggested, and imagine their horror at such a scenario in the wake of the Holocaust, they will surely see why forms of official and state affirmation of the historical record remain urgently important for Armenians and for broad ethical, psychological, and social reasons that affect us all. In not standing up to Turkish coercion on the issue of the Armenian Genocide, Israel, the Jewish lobbies, and the United States inadvertently aid and abet the repressive institutions in Turkey that keep it from being a genuine democracy -- one that is capable of allowing intellectual freedom and historical self-critique.

In truth, Turkey’s human rights record in the 20th century has been and continues to be disastrous. Its treatment of its minorities, including the Jews, in the 20th century is a dark story of extreme violence and repression. Throughout much of the last several decades Turkey has had more writers in jail or detention than any country including China and Syria, and continues to persecute its intellectuals and its educational system under penal code article 301. The assassination of Armenian journalist Hrank Dink this year is emblematic of how dangerous the current environment in Turkey is. Therefore it seems more important than ever for the Jewish lobbies and the United States to exercise roles of leadership in helping Turkey move forward on this litmus-test issue of historical fact and memory, just as many of Turkey’s best and most courageous scholars are also trying to do.

The recent statements by Mr. Foxman and Mr. Harris, in their different ways and contexts, are positive signs of change, more of which will be important in helping to resolve this issue. The AJC’s continued acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide and its refusal to lobby against H. Res. 106 importantly opens the way for further affirmations. The bonds that unite Armenians and Jews are deep. I would ask the ADL, all other Jewish organizations, and all Armenians to heed Mr. Harris’s advocacy that “protecting historical truth” be a top priority for Jews and Armenians and others of conscience everywhere, as the specter of denial is always lurking: poised to falsify the past and, in so doing, make the present ever more dangerous.

Peter Balakian is the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities at Colgate University. His book The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response won the 2005 Raphael Lemkin Prize.