At least two prominent board members of the regional Anti-Defamation League have resigned in protest over the national ADL's decision to fire the regional director for acknowledging the slaughter of Armenians during World War I as genocide.
Former chairman of the Polaroid Corp., Stewart L. Cohen, and City Council member Mike Ross told the Globe yesterday they could no longer be part of an organization with national leaders who refused to acknowledge the Armenian genocide and fired regional director, Andrew H. Tarsy, on Friday for taking a position in support of Armenian-Americans.
"I'm devastated by that and it's not something I can support," said Ross, whose father is a Holocaust survivor. "So I have to take this step. I can only hope that it helps to send a message and that the very good people of the Anti-Defamation League can reconsider their position."
Cohen, who resigned in frustration hours after Tarsy was fired, said the entire affair has been a blow to the ADL membership. "Everyone is incredibly sad," he said. "Some I would describe as heartbroken."
The resignations -- which may be the first of others to come -- were announced as members of the local Jewish and Armenian-American communities praised Tarsy and the regional board for taking stands recognizing the Armenian genocide and criticized the ADL's national director, Abraham H. Foxman, for taking a position out of step not just locally, but perhaps nationally.
If Foxman does not change his position and acknowledge the genocide, George Beilin, a past president of the North Shore Council of the B'nai B'rith Organization, called on the national leader to "resign immediately for the sake of the Jewish community in the United States and the world."
Beilin, a Hamilton resident and clinical psychologist, said he had sent a petition stating these demands to regional ADL offices across the country. And with legislation pending in Congress that would formally recognize the genocide, many believed the outcry over this issue may have only just begun.
"This is not going to stop," said Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. "This is going to continue in every community across the country where there's a strong Armenian community and the ADL. Because this is not just a local issue. This is a national issue."
The debate that led to the ADL rift started weeks ago in Watertown, home to more than 8,000 Armenian-Americans. Residents became angry when they learned that the ADL was the sponsor of the town's antibigotry program "No Place For Hate."
Last Tuesday, the Watertown Town Council voted unanimously to pull out of the program.
At issue was a longtime dispute. From 1915 to 1923, Ottoman Turks massacred as many as 1.5 million Armenians in what is now modern-day Turkey.
Armenians, historians, and some European nations have recognized the killings as genocide. But the Turkish government has refused to accept the genocide label; the national ADL refuses to use it as well.
But after Watertown officials voted to pull out of the ADL's program, the executive committee of the regional board broke with the national office, calling on the national ADL to recognize the genocide and, according to a source, resolving to support the legislation in Congress.
Tarsy, who is separate from the board, then spoke out publicly, which led to his firing on Friday and outcry all across the metropolitan area.
"I applaud Watertown, the New England ADL, and Mr. Tarsy," said Anthony Barsamian, a Sherborn resident and member of the board of directors for the Armenian Assembly of America. "And I call upon the ADL nationally to change its position at this point. It's incumbent upon the ADL to unequivocally affirm the genocide."
Officially, Foxman says, the ADL has no position on the genocide issue. But it does not support the legislation in Congress. In an open letter to be published in advertisements in local newspapers this week, the ADL called the legislation "counterproductive" and the organization, founded in 1913 to fight anti-Semitism, worried what effect passing the legislation would have on Jews living in Turkey.
Documents obtained by the Globe yesterday show that this is a position that Foxman has held at least since 1984. But critics say it is a hypocritical position for an organization dedicated to speaking out for human rights.
Yesterday local residents spoke out against the national ADL's position and Tarsy's firing.
"I think that the ADL stands for stopping bigotry, and I think for us not to make a stand on the issue of Armenian genocide is a mistake," said Jon Rotenberg of Brookline, who is Jewish. He said he believes the national ADL should reinstate Tarsy.
Bernard H. Mehlman, a retired rabbi at Temple Israel, Boston's largest synagogue, said it is clear that Turkey's position as an ally to Israel was playing a role here. And past and current regional ADL board members said the recent events had hurt the reputation of the human rights organization.
"We're very, very upset with the way this has come down with Andy," said board member Jason Chudnofsky. "It's hard to justify the way that has been handled. Things could have been handled a lot more professionally, and not so emotionally."
Chudnofsky said he did not plan to resign. For him, and many other board members, the goal now is to work from within the organization to create change.
"This is all new territory," said Sam White, another member of the regional board. "I think most of us do not plan to quit, but do plan to stand up and do what's right. Everyone is steadfast on standing up and not backing down."
A meeting of the entire board has been scheduled for Wednesday morning. What happens after that, board members say, they are not quite sure. But Richard Morningstar, a former chairman of the regional board's executive committee and the former US ambassador to the European Union, said the reputation, membership, and fund-raising capabilities of the regional ADL may hang in the balance.
"I think it's extremely unfair that Mr. Tarsy has been terminated because he and the executive committee of the regional board had a different view from the national office," said Morningstar, a Marion resident. "I believe that the ADL will suffer significantly in this area unless the situation is rectified."