Armenian Weekly: Tarsy Sets the Record Straight

Calls on U.S. Congress and President Bush to Recognize Armenian Genocide

By Khatchig Mouradian

The Armenian Weekly
March 29, 2008

BOSTON, Mass. (A.W.)—
On March 19, former New England director of the Anti-Defamation league (ADL) Andrew Tarsy, who resigned last fall during the uproar over his organization’s position on the Armenian genocide, delivered the Robert Salomon Morton Memorial Lecture at Northeastern University in Boston.

Titled “The Power of Words: Why the Term Genocide Matters so Much 60 Years After it Became a Crime under International Law,” the public lecture was Tarsy’s first after his resignation, and was—with its content and message, with the lines and what was implied between the lines—a groundbreaking one. Although he avoided directly criticizing the ADL for its denial of the Armenian genocide and its opposition to congressional resolutions affirming it, Tarsy’s lecture served as a powerful call against political expediency and for the unambiguous recognition of the genocide.

“In the past, the Morton Lecture has brought scholars and authors, war crimes prosecutors, and Holocaust survivors before this academic community from all over the world,” Tarsy said. “I am none of these things. But last year I wound up in the center of a storm over genocide right here in Boston, Massachusetts. You have heard the story by now. And it is not my intention to relive it with you today.” He went on to explain that his lecture is based on personal experience, recent intense learning, and reflection.

Tarsy discussed in detail how and under what circumstances jurist Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide. He said, “The creation of the term genocide is inextricably linked to the deliberate annihilation of the Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in the early part of the 20th century and to the Holocaust itself.”

He mentioned the impact Soghomon Tehlirian’s assassination in Berlin of Talaat Pasha, the genocide mastermind, had on Lemkin, who embarked on a lifelong quest to make crimes against ethnic groups punishable by international law.

Tarsy provided an overview of the Armenian genocide. “The first stage was the murder of Armenian political leaders, priests and intellectuals. Then Armenian men were driven out of their communities and either executed or sent to death camps. Next the remaining women and children were taken out of their homes. Many of the women and girls were raped and murdered in scenes that are far more obscene than I could convey,” Tarsy said.

“The rest, hundreds of thousands, were sent on death marches across their country, without significant food, water, clothing or shelter. Special units were organized and given orders by the government to attack the marchers on their way. Most of those who managed somehow to survive the rape and beatings died of starvation and thirst. Many surviving women were forced into the harems of Turkish men and Islamized with their children. Other groups of Armenians were loaded onto boats, taken offshore and thrown into the sea to drown.”

Tarsy concluded his account of the genocide by saying, “In all, well over a million Armenians were murdered and left to starve to death by their own government and by their own countrymen. Hundreds of thousands more were permanently displaced. And their property personal, religious and historical artifacts, along with their homes, churches, schools and businesses were taken, defiled and destroyed.”

Tarsy went on to explain Lemkin’s effort to find a name for the crime of killing an entire group of people, and to lobby to make it an international crime. He explained, “Lemkin failed to win over the delegates at the 1933 League of Nations conference. Too political, some said. These kinds of crimes occur too seldom to legislate, said others. ... Six years later, in 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland. Lemkin escaped but could not convince his family to go with him in spite of the danger. He would not know until after the war, but 49 of his family members, including both of his parents, were killed in the Holocaust. The painful irony is overwhelming.”

Lemkin coined the word genocide in the mid-1940s and his tireless lobbying culminated in the adoption of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, although it would take decades until mass murderers would be tried for committing genocide.

Why the Word Matters

Tarsy explained that the word genocide matters so much today for four reasons: validation, justice, reconciliation and prevention. “All four contain the ultimate reason for the importance of the term and that is our moral obligation to discern, to the best of our ability, the truth,” he said.

Talking about validation, Tarsy said, “The simple designation of genocide can be a source of meaningful validation for its victim class. ‘At least the world understands what happened to us,’ a survivor might say.”

He added, “Many of those who avoid using the word genocide in the Armenian case are simply caught in a political no-win situation and are choosing politics over truth.” He expressed hope that the next president of the United States would acknowledge the Armenian genocide.

Responding to the argument made by some that the validation conferred by using the term genocide gives the impression that all genocides are the same, Tarsy said, “I have seen no evidence of this problem during my immersion in the issue. To the contrary, the common ground Jews and Armenians find as victims of genocide seems to make them even more interested in understanding the particular and unique aspects of each other’s stories. Their mutual empathy can be a source of healing, and their mutual efforts can produce wisdom.”

He added, “Perhaps it can even strengthen our resolve to intervene the next time we see the precursors to genocide.”

Talking about the second component of his argument, namely, justice, Tarsy said that mass murder and genocide are not one and the same. “If we don’t charge people with the crimes they have actually committed, we can never provide a full accounting of the damage done. This has obvious implications for redress including reparations for the victim community. But it is much deeper than reparations. Holding people accountable for precisely the crimes they commit is fundamental to the administration of justice.”

Addressing the issue of reconciliation, Tarsy again underscored the importance of using the term genocide. He said, “Being specific about what happened in these catastrophic instances is also a prerequisite to the possibility of reconciliation and progress. The existence of the term genocide itself has helped diverse people talk about history with candor and precision, and turn terrible tragedies into new possibilities.”

To drive home his argument, he asked, “How can Tutsi survivors in Rwanda be expected to go back and live peacefully with their Hutu neighbors in reconciliation if there is no way to describe the entirety of what was done to them?” He also argued, “The rebirth of a Jewish community in Berlin is another example. I will not oversimplify the matter. But can you imagine this taking place without Germany’s acceptance of what happened in the Holocaust?”

Finally, Tarsy underscored the importance of the term genocide in the context of prevention. He noted that when we see the precursors to genocide, we must effectively petition our leaders to act.

Tarsy called the packed audience, consisting mainly of students, to contribute to the recognition of past genocides, and the prevention of future ones. He concluded the speech poignantly, saying, “When the term genocide applies, as it does for example in the case of the Armenians, it is imperative that we be unhesitating and unambiguous in applying it, regardless of the political consequences. Anything less facilitates the obfuscation of truth. Anything less dishonors the memory of the dead. And anything less ultimately imperils the safety of the living. This is why words matter, and this is why the term genocide means so much 60 years after it became an internationally recognized crime.”


During the question and answer session following the lecture, Tarsy was asked what he thought about the congressional resolution on the Armenian genocide. He responded, “Congress should recognize it as a genocide because it was a genocide, and our president should recognize it, and maybe our next president will. The politics are always going to be fierce. We are going to have troops in Iraq. Turkey is a very important ally that should be handled with the most care out of strategic reasons and out of care for the people there, but it was a genocide. So that’s where we’re left.”

Asked about justice for the Armenian genocide 92 years after it happened, when all the perpetrators have long died, almost all the survivors are now gone and the successor government, the Turkish government, still denies it, Tarsy said, “You’ve identified a really big problem. The number one rule in response to it should be, ‘the burden of getting us out of that predicament should not fall on the victims’ because that is where it is stuck at this point. For all the Armenian people living in Boston, in the U.S., in France, or wherever, it’s a really bona fide intellectual dilemma, but somebody took their houses, somebody took their bank accounts, somebody took their family Bible.”
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