Reversing long-standing policy, a major American Jewish organization has officially recognized the early 20th century massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide -- but set off a new furor Wednesday by declining to support a congressional resolution that would do the same.
Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman called the massacre "tantamount to genocide" in a statement this week, rebuffing Turkish claims that the bloodshed was not ethnic cleansing but casualties suffered by both sides in a civil war.
Foxman added, however, that a congressional resolution to recognize the genocide would be a "counterproductive diversion" that could jeopardize Turkish Jews and relations among Turkey, Israel and the United States.
Foxman's statements set off a firestorm of reactions, including anger and disappointment among Southern California's Turkish and Armenian American communities.
They also prompted a telephone powwow Wednesday among major American Jewish organizations to discuss whether to forge a united position on the issue.
" 'Furious' is an understatement" to describe Turkish American reactions, said Ergun Kirlikovali, the Irvine-based West Coast regional director for the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, an umbrella group of 63 organizations in 50 states. "We're disappointed the ADL has caved in to Armenian pressure and that history in America is being written by lobbyists, not facts."
But Armenian American organizations were not satisfied either.
"We welcome any organization that recognizes the genocide, but opposing the resolution is disappointing and illogical," said Andrew Kzirian, executive director of the Glendale-based Armenian National Committee Western Region.
Father Vazken Movsesian, an Armenian American priest in Glendale who is active on the genocide issue, was more blunt.
Foxman's dual stand "makes it very clear that his organization is not pursuing justice, but playing the usual political games," he said. "You would think that a group who has known the horrors of a Holocaust would be the first one to unequivocally stand up for the rights of others who have suffered the same."
The issue exploded this week after Foxman fired the executive director of the organization's Boston office for publicly criticizing the ADL chief's failure to recognize the Armenian genocide and support the congressional resolution. The action ignited a firestorm and prompted two ADL board members to resign in protest.
On Tuesday, Foxman issued a statement recognizing the genocide, saying that he had decided to revisit the issue "out of concern for the unity of the Jewish community at a time of increased threats against the Jewish people."
In an interview Wednesday, Foxman reiterated his view that the congressional resolution would be counterproductive. He said, however, that he had agreed to requests to reexamine support for it at the ADL's national board meeting in November.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, a New York-based umbrella organization of 50 agencies, held a national conference call Wednesday to discuss the issue and whether to adopt a united position on it. No decision was made, according to one member involved in the call.
The issue has divided the American Jewish community, with many voicing a moral imperative to recognize the Armenian genocide and others expressing concern that doing so would jeopardize Turkish Jews or Israel's relations with its strongest Muslim ally.
The Zionist Organization of America has unequivocally recognized the Armenian genocide, and President Morton Klein on Wednesday expressed support for a government resolution doing likewise.
By contrast, the American Jewish Committee has neither supported nor opposed it, according to spokesman Kenneth Bandler, but is concerned about potential ramifications.
When France passed a law in 2001 recognizing the Armenian genocide, Bandler said, it lost "millions of dollars in contracts" with Turkey.
"I'm not saying the resolution shouldn't be passed, but what's to be gained by it?" he said. "At the end of the day, the most helpful way to resolve this is to get Turks and Armenians to sit down and discuss it."
The congressional resolution, written by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), would declare that the Ottoman Empire killed 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1923 -- eliminating them from their historic homeland -- and would call on the president to properly call the massacre a genocide. The resolution currently has 227 co-sponsors, including the vast majority of the California congressional delegation and support from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).
Schiff said several American Jewish organizations -- including the ADL, American Jewish Committee and B'nai Brith -- had conveyed concerns to him about the resolution's effect on Turkish Jews and Israel. But he dismissed the concerns as "red herrings."
"This has nothing to do with Israel, and it's a mistake for any pro-Israel organization to make a connection where none exists," Schiff said.
He said U.S. work against mass killings in Darfur would be undermined without recognition of the Armenian genocide.
"To speak out on genocide when it is committed by a politically weak state like Sudan and not recognize it when committed by the predecessor of a powerful state undermines our leadership and credibility," Schiff said.
He added that the ADL had "sullied its reputation" as a leading civil rights group by not supporting the resolution.
"He's entitled to his opinion," he said, "but it's wrong."