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Antibias effort stirs anger in Watertown

Debate focuses on genocide

WATERTOWN -- As far as town proclamations go, the one that declared Watertown a No Place for Hate community in July 2005 seemed like a pretty innocuous one. The goal was to celebrate diversity and challenge bigotry. And the program, in place in 67 Massachusetts communities and hundreds of others nationwide, has generated very little controversy elsewhere.

But that has not been the case in Watertown. In recent weeks, the town that bills itself as No Place for Hate on a sign outside Town Hall is abuzz with anger and frustration, especially among the large Armenian population. At issue is not the program itself, but the group behind it, the Anti-Defamation League, and in particular the ADL's refusal to acknowledge the Armenian genocide at the hands of Turks during World War I.

"It's kind of the worst hatred to deny genocide," said Nayiri Arzoumanian, a woman of Armenian heritage who has lived in Watertown for eight years. "It's the worst kind of hypocrisy."

The debate began in letters to the editor of the Watertown Tab newspaper and has pitted Watertown Armenians against the ADL's national director, Abraham H. Foxman. Now what was once considered a positive civic effort, declaring Watertown No Place For Hate, finds itself at the center of a debate burdened by divisive international history and politics.

For decades, Armenians have fought to get the Turkish government and other world leaders to recognize the deaths of as many as 1.5 million Armenians during World War I as genocide. The refusal of the ADL to support the Armenians, especially as they lobby Congress to recognize the genocide, has fueled the local war of words.

Sharistan Melkonian -- chairwoman of the Armenian National Committee of Eastern Massachusetts, based in Watertown -- accused Foxman of engaging in "genocide denial" in an interview with the Globe. She said she will call for the Watertown No Place for Hate program to sever its ties with the ADL unless it denounces Foxman's position and acknowledges the genocide.

In a separate interview, Foxman countered that it would be "bigoted" to dismantle a program focused on fighting hatred simply because the ADL does not share the Armenians' point of view. And Foxman maintained his position that the ADL, which has spoken out against ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and genocide in Darfur, does not have a role in the long-standing dispute between the Armenians and the Turks.

"We're not party to this, and I don't understand why we need to be made party," Foxman said.

It is a tense and tangled debate that has taken Watertown officials and the ADL by surprise. The ADL says it never faced this issue until it bubbled to the surface in Watertown, home to more than 8,000 Armenian-Americans. How the town will respond is not yet clear, said Mark Sideris, Town Council vice president.

But some residents of Armenian heritage are clearly troubled.

"I'm not against, particularly, No Place For Hate," said Dikran Kaligian, an Armenian-American who has been a Watertown resident for 17 years. "I think it's got its heart in the right place. But let's get some answers."

The ADL has certified No Place For Hate programs in hundreds of towns and cities across the United States. After a year, during which the town or city organizes anti-bias programs, the municipality receives a placard from the ADL to be posted for public display.

When town councilors declared Watertown a No Place for Hate community in July 2005, it generated just a few lines in the town minutes and passed unanimously by a voice vote. "It seemed like a reasonable thing for the town to do," Sideris said. And he never expected that it would become controversial. But in recent weeks that is what has happened.

According to Armenians and many historians, the Turks systematically killed as many as 1.5 million Armenians living under the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1923. A Polish-Jewish lawyer later coined the term genocide, citing the Armenian experience. But the Turkish government has never acknowledged their history as such, leading to decades of anger and frustration among Armenians.

Foxman said he is surprised that he has become a target of Armenians. The ADL, a group founded in 1913 to fight anti-Semitism, has no official position on the Armenian genocide, he said.

"I'm not going to be the arbiter of someone else's history," he said in the interview, adding that he does not believe that Congress should either. When asked specifically if what happened to Armenians under the Ottoman Empire was genocide, he replied, "I don't know." The ADL only takes positions, he said, on current events, not on something that happened in the past.

But Armenian leaders say that is a disingenuous answer coming from an organization that often pressures people to stand up for human rights around the globe. They believe that Israel's ties to Turkey, a rare Muslim partner in the Middle East, have influenced the ADL's point of view. By refusing to become an "arbiter of history," Melkonian said, the ADL is suggesting that there is some question whether genocide happened, and that is what infuriates Armenians.

"You would never ever say that about the genocide in Darfur; you would never ever say that about the Holocaust," said Melkonian. "You need to stop genocide anywhere you can, and the only way to stop genocide in the future is to acknowledge that it happened."

The entire debate has become "politics at a different level," said Town Councilor Stephen Corbett, far beyond anything concerning Watertown's No Place for Hate program, a well-received effort that since 2005 has cosponsored public forums on immigration issues and produced a video and traveling exhibition about the many faces of Watertown.

"Ultimately, we'd like to get back to the business of doing the basic kind of local programs that we can do, free and clear of the shadow of this controversy," said Will Twombly, the cochairman of Watertown's No Place For Hate committee.

But Twombly, whose program receives corporate money through ADL's grant program, said it will not be possible to move forward until the committee meets with ADL's regional director Andrew H. Tarsy and asks some tough questions about its stance on the Armenian genocide. At that point, Twombly said, the committee will decide on the best course of action, including the option of severing ties with the ADL altogether, effectively ending the program. He said the committee acknowledges the Armenian genocide, even if the ADL does not.

"Clearly, No Place For Hate is a program based on tolerance, based on respect for differences, and based on mutual respect and care for individuals, and in no way does the Armenian genocide represent any of those values," Twombly said. "Not to condemn the genocide and fully recognize it for what it was, I personally find inconsistent with the mission of No Place for Hate."