Needham officials are facing a decision on whether to remain in the Anti-Defamation League's No Place for Hate program, or leave over the ADL's refusal to refine its stance that the atrocities committed by the Ottoman Empire against the Armenians are "tantamount to genocide."
The Needham Human Rights Committee has recommended to the Board of Selectmen that the town suspend its ties to the program, which supports efforts to combat racism and bigotry.
The committee had wanted the ADL to clarify its position by dropping the word "tantamount" during its national commission meeting last month.
The vote on the fate of No Place for Hate in Needham could come as early as Tuesday, said Gerald Wasserman, chairman of the Board of Selectmen. Several other municipalities, including Newton and Watertown, have withdrawn from the program over the ADL's position.
Myrna Shinbaum, a spokeswoman for the national ADL, said the organization "has nothing more to say" about its perspective on the Armenian genocide, except that leaving the No Place For Hate program "would be an injustice" for Needham.
"We hope the selectmen will reject the recommendation of the Human Rights Committee," Shinbaum said in a written statement. "ADL provides a wealth of expertise in fighting hate and promoting diversity," she said, and the No Place for Hate program "has proven to be an important resource for the people of Needham."
Several members of the Board of Selectmen expressed concern that the ADL has not acquiesced to calls for changing its stance. Selectman John Cogswell said he would support the Human Rights Committee's recommendation "until such time as the ADL changes their position."
Selectman John Bulian praised the committee for its "slow and measured approach" to the issue.
"Yes, we hang on words, but words are important," Bulian said. "There is no question that a genocide occurred. . . . I just think that we have to be open to elements of tragedies that have occurred in history and recognize them for what they are."
The antibias program, which has provided funding for tolerance and diversity education in roughly 60 communities statewide, has been surrounded by controversy since August, when the ADL fired its top New England executive, Andrew Tarsy, for going beyond the national group's position in recognizing the Armenian genocide. He has since been reinstated.
Needham's Human Rights Committee sent a letter in September to the ADL, asking that it reconsider its position and support legislation labeling as genocide the mass killings of more than 1 million Armenians between 1915 and 1923. When the ADL decided not to take further action, members voted 6-1 to recommend the town distance itself from the No Place for Hate program, said Debbie Watters, committee chairwoman.
The ADL has recognized the genocide and is allowing its officials to use that term, according to Michael Sheetz, a Needham resident and a 20-year member of the ADL.
There is no ambiguity in the organization's policy toward the Armenians, said Sheetz, who has represented the ADL before the town's Human Rights Committee.
"How can you throw out all the good that's been done just because you disagree with the wording of a press release?" Sheetz asked. "It's semantics over substance."