By Pierce Nahigyan
Few would expect a survivor of the Holocaust to be the face of genocide denial. Imagine the surprise of Suffolk Law School’s student body when its administration’s chosen commencement speaker turned out to be just that.
Abraham Foxman, the long-time director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an organization dedicated to eradicating anti-Semitism and bigotry and protecting civil rights, seems a figure beyond reproach. Yet Foxman has invited controversy to Suffolk University for his unwillingness to recognize the 1915 Armenian Genocide – an event which saw an estimated 1.5 million Armenians massacred by the Turks – and his campaign to defeat Congressional acknowledgement of said genocide.
Criticism of Foxman has centered on this disconnect, that a man who lived through the attempted extermination of an entire race now denies that truth of another. Many at Suffolk are unwilling to participate in that hypocrisy.
Suffolk’s Students Speak Out
Shortly after Foxman was announced as their 2014 speaker, Suffolk Law students rejected the decision. Amy Willis, President of the university’s National Lawyers Guild chapter, told the Boston Globe that “Suffolk claims to embody diversity and be a place for all people, but this clearly is a speaker who does not embody those values.”
This stance was reflected in a petition to remove Foxman as the keynote speaker, as well as to deny him the honorary Juris doctorate he is slated to receive. The petition states that Foxman’s presence “not only insults students and their families, but also insults the very foundation of Suffolk Law as a safe place of diversity and acceptance.” As arguments for his removal, the petition enumerates Foxman’s refusal to explicitly label the Armenian Genocide as a genocide as well as his support for racial profiling of Muslim-Americans in the interest of “national security.”
What Is Genocide?
Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” in 1944 to describe the magnitude of premeditated racial extermination, citing what happened to the Armenians as the prime example. After the war, the United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, establishing genocide as an international crime.
In the Convention, genocide is defined as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” which includes “killing members of the group” and “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”
The mention of “intent” is significant in this definition. Foxman’s 2007 statement (described below) would go out of its way to avoid labeling the Turkish pogrom as intentional, admitting only that its “consequences” were “tantamount” to genocide. To the casual observer, it is perhaps a negligible distinction. From a legal standpoint, it is strategically evasive.
What Is the Armenian Genocide?
This definition applies to the systematic slaughter of Armenians by the Turkish government that began in 1915. To understand how this genocide came to be, a brief summary of the two nations’ history is required.
Existing in various forms for approximately 3,000 years of recorded history, Armenia was the first nation to declare Christianity its national religion. It remained Christian under the several empires that conquered it, including the Muslim caliphate of the Ottoman Turks. From the 15th century onward, Armenians and their fellow “infidels” were allowed to continue their religious practices, though subjected to higher taxes, fewer rights and ethnic discrimination. For the Armenians, this culminated in the Hamidian Massacres of 1894-1897. This state-sponsored pogrom was instituted by Sultan Abdul Hamid II in retaliation for Armenians’ attempts to win civil rights.
By the start of World War I, political tensions between Armenians and a new Turkish government were even more strained. Armenia itself had been divided by warring empires, with Russia claiming the east and Turkey claiming the west. Duty-bound, both sides fought for their respective empires.
This dichotomy of loyalty enabled the Turks to concoct a pretext that veiled their ultimate goal of an ethnically and religiously uniform empire. A purge would enable them to “liquidate” the “Christian element” and seize the wealth and property of suspected insurgents. On April 24, 1915, the Turkish government authorized the arrest and execution of several hundred Armenian intellectuals. From that point, the executions would continue for eight years, shrouded under the fog of the Great War.
Turkish soldiers and mercenaries acting under the general outfit of “Special Operations” murdered hundreds of thousands of Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks, marching them through the Anatolian and Syrian deserts without food, water or clothing. “Infidels” not sentenced to hard labor camps were drowned in rivers, thrown off cliffs, crucified and burned alive. Property was seized, women were raped and dispatched to Turkish harems, and many children were kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam.
The number of survivors is a matter of debate, but of a population of 2 million indigenous Armenians, it is estimated that upwards of 1.5 million were slaughtered in Turkey between 1915 and 1923. Even today, almost a century later, the Euphrates River is filled with the bones of dead Armenians, as author Peter Balakian, writing for the New York Times magazine, can attest.
Stark, horrific images exist to document the savagery of the Armenian massacre. Yet still Turkey denies its own legacy.
Turkey and Foxman’s Denials
Article 301 of the Turkish penal code makes it illegal to insult Turkey, the Turkish nation or the Turkish government. To acknowledge an “Armenian Genocide” is the most egregious insult possible.
Because Turkey was the first nation in the Middle East to establish diplomatic relations with Israel and remains an instrumental ally of the West, the United States is unwilling to rock that political boat. Even when a resolution was proposed by the 110th Congress to recognize the Armenian Genocide, then President George W. Bush publicly opposed the measure. He was not the first, and current President Barack Obama’s silence on the issue suggests he will not be the last.
And this has been Abraham Foxman’s dilemma. His public opposition to Armenian recognition has been out of loyalty to Israel. “Our focus is Israel,” he has said. “If helping Turkey helps Israel, then that’s what we’re in the business of doing.” It seems absurd to the point of tragedy that a man who lived under Nazi oppression can answer the question of Armenian genocide with, “It was wartime. Things get messy.”
But in 2007, Foxman tried to pacify his critics. Speaking for himself and the ADL, he stated that, “We have never negated but have always described the painful events of 1915-1918 perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire against Armenians as massacres and atrocities,” ending with decision that “the consequences of those actions were indeed tantamount to genocide.”
But “tantamount to genocide” without intent is not genocide. This calculated elision of “intent,” its palpable absence, is an insult to the Armenian community. The ADL’s defenders decry this as splitting hairs, but they overlook the importance of legacy and how powerfully a single word can affect it. It was important enough to prompt a dozen Massachusetts cities to pull out of the ADL’s “No Place for Hate” anti-bias program. It was important enough that when Andrew H. Tarsy, a regional director for the ADL, acknowledged the genocide as true genocide, he was promptly fired from the organization.
Unfortunately for Suffolk Law School, and all those who expect the ADL to uphold its own morality, Abraham Foxman represents a willful blindness – to look the other way on a hundred-year-old crime – for the sake of political expediency.
It is the opinion of Suffolk University President James McCarthy that Foxman, despite students’ protests, “is well deserving of recognition.” Moreover, it is the University’s hope that Foxman’s “life of public service will inspire our graduates as they embark on their professional careers.”
This does beg the question of what recognition the Syrian desert’s uncounted dead deserve, or what their lives may have inspired, but the answers are unlikely to be found in Foxman’s commencement speech.
Pierce Nahigyan is a freelance journalist living in Long Beach, California. His work has appeared in several publications, including NationofChange, the Los Angeles Post-Examiner and SHK Magazine. A graduate of Northwestern University, he holds a B.A. in Sociology and History.