August 22, 2007

Armenian Genocide

Museum Program on the Armenian Genocide, 2005

The subject of the Armenian Genocide was in the news over the past few days. The Regional Director of the ADL in Boston, Andrew Tarsy, was fired by the National Director, Abe Foxman, for openly challenging the policy of the ADL to avoid using the term, "genocide," in connection with the Armenian tragedy. The precipating event involved intense opposition to an ADL program in the Boston suburb of Watertown. Local residents opposed the town's involvement in the ADL program because of the ADL's policy regarding the the use of the term, "genocide." Tarsy had apparently defended the ADL position until he decided that it was no longer possible for him to do so. He publicly refuted the position and was promptly fired by Foxman. In an unusual turn of events, Foxman reversed himself yesterday and stated what happened to the Armenians was "tantamount to genocide."

The complexities of this issue are not to be underestimated; they extend beyond the technical definition of genocide and involve highly-charged questions of geopolitics and international relations. We have had some experience with this subject at the Museum. Two years ago, we had a public program about the Armenian Genocide, and I received a number of phone calls from Jewish leaders in New York urging me to reconsider. The following is an excerpt from my remarks that evening:

Before I introduce our moderator and tonight’s guest, I want to say a few words about this evening’s program and about why we decided to hold it at the Museum. I say this because we have been criticized by some about our decision.

It is hard to imagine a subject that so underscores the power of history to move and to motivate than the Armenian Genocide. Those who are unaware of the ongoing, passionate, and politicized debate about this nine-decades-old history will be surprised, no doubt, that the program we hold this evening has been the object of an attempt to pressure and influence the Museum.

Earlier this month, our Chairman, Robert Morgenthau, and I received letters from the Consul General of Turkey in New York, who stated his disappointment that the Museum was planning to hold an event that would be “defamatory to Turkey and likely impede efforts to promote reconciliation between Turks and Armenians.” The Consul General wrote that it was “disheartening” that “[t]hose who choose acrimony over dialogue” had been given permission to hold an event at the Museum. He predicted in his letter that the participants would try to “build a lasting equivalence between the unique experience that is the Holocaust and the tragedy that befell the Ottoman Armenians at the end of the First World War.”

Let me be clear. I understand why the Consul General wrote to me. It is an indication of how real and raw this history is, and I mean no offense to the Turkish Government in raising this issue this evening.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it may not need to be said, but let me say it anyway: at its root, history is not a matter of opinion. To be sure, our libraries are full of books that interpret history differently, that offer wide ranging explanations for the causes, and differing accounts for the effects of historical events. In many ways, these differences can be defining. But it is the job of the historian, and the well informed citizen, to try to understand what happened – the how it happened, and why it happened, can be argued and debated. But what happened needs to become part of a common currency – a shared vocabulary. What happened is not a matter of opinion.

Our guest this evening, Ara Sarafian, has produced a set of volumes that contribute significantly to our knowledge of what happened in the Ottoman Empire 90 years ago. He has published a complete edition of the diary of Henry Morgenthau, US Ambassador to Constantinople from 1913 to 1916. And a compilation of official US records on the Armenian Genocide from 1915 to 1917. These volumes, both together and apart, provide crucial evidence about what happened 90 years ago in Ottoman Turkey. Sarafian has given us access to the raw material of history – an eyewitness contemporary account, and official documentation. His mission was not to interpret these records, but rather to place them at our disposal, for our own clear reading.

It is particularly ironic that tonight’s program should have invited such opposition from official Turkish sources and from others who have called me on their behalf. It is ironic because tonight’s program introduces primary source materials that are part of our own American history and that can be examined openly and freely by anyone who wishes. If all of the records that are relevant to the history that is the subject of tonight’s program were similarly available, perhaps much of the heat of an unproductive and distracting debate would be replaced by a cleansing light.

Allow me from this podium this evening to call for complete and open access to all records that bear on this tragic history. Let others follow Ara Sarafian’s example and work to secure free and unfettered access to every relevant record.

There is, of course, another reason why it is appropriate for us to hold this program in this Museum this evening. Above our door stands the name Robert M. Morgenthau. Our Chairman and the DA of New York County is the grandson of the man whose diary is the subject of our program. There are clearly many who influenced Robert Morgenthau to pursue a public life, but my bet is that the example of his grandfather was extremely important. So beyond the debt we owe Henry Morgenthau for his clear and insistent voice during difficult times, we can add the part he played in setting his grandson on a path of civic and communal service.

For many reasons (some of which I touched upon in my remarks), the subject of the Armenian Genocide is of particular interest to us at the Museum. We will continue to explore this subject in public programs and hope to deal with it in an upcoming exhibition. Stay tuned.

(Photo by Melanie Einzig)

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