Fighting the good fight, and living to tell the tale
It is a rare thing for a public figure to sacrifice himself for a principle. It is even rarer for one who did so to get a second chance at a career. Yet that's what happened to Andrew Tarsy.
A couple of weeks ago, the New England regional director for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) lost his job after he criticized his organization for refusing to recognize the Armenian genocide. The firestorm that followed forced the ADL to jettison its policy of denial, but no one really expected Tarsy would return. Then, on August 27, the brave community leader was reinstated to his former post.
The showdown over the genocide began in Watertown, Massachusetts. Since 2005, the municipality had cooperated with the ADL in running an education program called No Place for Hate. But beginning in May, some local conservatives began to fear that the initiative would penalize politically incorrect speech; one Watertown resident even flew a Confederate flag in protest.
Of course, a few peevish right-wingers posed no real threat to the ADL program. But all bets were off when, in early July, an Armenian-American resident of nearby Newton entered the fray. Writing a letter to the Watertown Tab and Press, he charged the ADL - so eager to lecture others about hate crimes and Holocaust denial - with refusing to acknowledge the Armenian genocide.
Once more, all his claims were true.
During World War I (and later, in 1920-1923), the Ottoman Turks murdered as many as 1.5 million Armenians. Few reputable historians deny this was genocide, but American Jewish groups have discouraged Congress from recognizing it as such. Indeed, when forced to discuss this blood-red chapter in history, the ADL would use comparatively anemic words like "massacres." Shocked by the revelation, the citizens of Watertown began to reconsider No Place for Hate. After all, who needed tolerance tips from hypocrites?
REALIZING WHAT was at stake, Andrew Tarsy did his best to defend a morally indefensible position. Still, no letter to the editor could hide the fact that, since the Israel-Turkey entente of the early 1990s, the ADL has served as Ankara's lobby in the US.
On August 14, Tarsy pleaded for understanding from the Watertown Town Council, arguing that Turkish Jews and Israel would suffer a backlash if the ADL recognized the Armenian genocide.
Unimpressed by appeals to political expediency, the council voted 8-0 to cut ties with the No Place for Hate program. Two days later, the New England ADL director himself criticized his group's stance on the issue.
Tarsy would later explain that even as he defended the official ADL line in Watertown, he did not agree with it. Now it was time to make amends for the hurtful things he said. He told The Boston Globe: "I regret at this point any characterization of the genocide that I made publicly other than to call it genocide. I think that kind of candor about history is absolutely fundamental."
For the New England director to publicly criticize the national ADL was no easy thing. Informed sources say Abe Foxman runs his organization like a Ba'athist dictatorship, eliminating any and all challengers. He has replaced numerous civil rights and regional directors and, in 2001, fired a beloved Pacific Southwest leader without breaking a sweat. By taking on Foxman, Tarsy put his career in jeopardy.
And as expected, the dissenting ADL regional director was promptly canned.
However, Tarsy's sacrifice for what was right and good inspired people. The Boston Jewish community rallied behind him; two local ADL board members resigned in protest, and former critics heaped praise upon him. "I booed Tarsy at the Watertown council meeting, but now I cheer him on," said John DiMascio, a conservative columnist for The Watertown Tab and Press. "He showed courage."
MEANWHILE, leading Jewish personalities like Alan Dershowitz and Deborah Lipstadt took aim at the ADL. The blogosphere even called for Foxman's ouster. Clearly, the ADL leadership had underestimated how unpopular genocide denial was among the people it supposedly represents.
Four days after Tarsy was fired, the organization reversed course on the Armenian tragedy. Well, sort of. Rather than simply state its new position, the ADL's public letter on August 21 engaged in weird convolutions. It said "the consequences" of what the Ottomans did to the Armenians were "tantamount to genocide. If the word genocide had existed then, they would have called it genocide."
The vagueness of the letter troubled many. For others, the problem remained that the ADL still opposed Congressional recognition of the genocide.
Still, the statement was a positive first step. Six days later, Foxman took another by rehiring Tarsy.
Does this put an end to the ADL's troubling attitude toward the first genocide of the 20th century? No. But it was a rare, little victory for everyone who believes that truth is more important than politics. And how much sweeter is that victory now that Tarsy, the man who won it, is back.