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Genocide debate has local fallout

Affiliations in ADL program revisited

The fallout over the Anti-Defamation League's reluctant recognition of the Armenian genocide spread to Boston's western suburbs this week, as local communities scrambled to reevaluate their relationships with the ADL's No Place for Hate program and, in some cases, discovered that they had not participated for years.

The controversy erupted this month when officials in Watertown, which has a sizable Armenian-American community, voted to end their affiliation with the No Place for Hate program. A number of civic leaders and groups urged the ADL to adopt the conclusion widely held by human rights scholars that the Armenian killings fit the generally accepted definition of genocide.

For three weeks, Abraham Foxman, the ADL's national director, declined to do so, citing the sensibilities of the government in Turkey, which has been one of the few Muslim countries to support the state of Israel. Last week, the group fired its New England director, Andrew Tarsy, for taking a contrary position on the issue. The firing prompted the resignation of two regional ADL board members.

But on Tuesday, the national ADL reversed course and issued a statement declaring that the the mass killings of as many as 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks beginning in 1915 "were indeed tantamount to a genocide."

The ADL established the No Place for Hate program in 1999 as a vehicle for local municipalities to take a public stand against bias. To earn the designation, cities and towns had to show the ADL that they had taken certain steps, including hosting at least three antibias events. Communities would then receive recertification each year, provided they held at least two more annual events.

According to the website of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which cosponsors No Place for Hate, nearly 60 communities in the Boston area besides Watertown signed on to the program, including seven western suburbs: Franklin, Natick, Needham, Newton, Sudbury, Waltham, and Wellesley.

Yet a survey conducted by the Globe found that officials in just three -- Needham, Newton, and Wellesley -- could confirm that they were still participating. In other cases, the program appeared to be little more than a logo on the town's website or, in some cases, an increasingly distant memory.

In Natick, for example, officials decided to take no official position on the controversy after discovering that the town had not actively participated in the No Place for Hate program for at least five years.

Shortly before the ADL reversed its position on the genocide, Selectman Joshua Ostroff said he believed that the ADL was out of step with generally accepted thinking on the Armenian genocide, but that the organization's other good works should not be discounted because of the controversy.

In an interview a short time later, however, the chairwoman of the Natick Board of Selectmen, Carol Gloff, said that the point was moot because the town was no longer an active participant in the program.

In fact, town records appear to show that Natick adopted the designation in 2001, sent a representative to a No Place for Hate banquet in 2002, and then had no further participation in the program.

Mayor Jeannette A. McCarthy of Waltham said that "all of [the genocides] should be treated the same," but called her opinion a personal one. The city, she said, had not been an active participant in the ADL program for years.

Privately, some officials said it appeared that well-meaning individuals pushed cities and towns to participate in the program after it was first created, but that the recertification process proved too onerous.

In Franklin, local officials said that they were trying to figure out the status of the program in their town, but were having difficulty because the two citizens who had originally sponsored it had moved out of state.

Sudbury officials could not be reached for comment this week.

Even in cases where participation in the program was confirmed, officials seemed to be groping for a response during vacation season.

In Needham, two members of that city's Human Rights Committee reached this week, the Rev. John Buehrens and Marjorie Freundlich, said that they could not comment on the issue until the group had a chance to meet.

In Wellesley, Selectwoman Harriet Warshaw, who was primarily responsible for the town's participation in the program, also declined comment, saying she needed a chance to talk to her fellow selectmen.

Only Newton officials had an immediate response to the controversy. Last week, after a flurry of e-mails, both Jewish and non-Jewish members of the city's Human Rights Commission unanimously called on the ADL to change its stance on the Armenian genocide.

On Tuesday, Brenda Krasnow, a member of the commission who is Jewish, welcomed the news of the ADL's reversal.

"It's a very interesting development," she said. "We hope it's a step in the right direction."