Special for the Armenian Weekly
Abraham Foxman’s weekend address at the Suffolk Law School commencement was the subject of considerable controversy for the month leading up to his speech on Saturday. Campaigns were initiated by the National Lawyer’s Guild at Suffolk University as well as by the Armenian Museum of America to urge the University to reconsider its choice of speaker, citing Foxman’s controversial views on the Armenian genocide as well as on the rights of Muslims in America. Foxman, who is outgoing director of the Anti-Defamation League, has come under fire for his organization’s lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government against official recognition of the Armenian genocide on the part of the U.S., as well as the ADL’s series of vague, legalistic statements that attempt to sidestep classifying the Armenian genocide as such.
A fleeting reference in a commencement address is no substitute for a formal and unambiguous statement issued by the ADL, which itself would be meaningless unless combined with the absolute cessation of the ADL’s insidious pro-Turkish lobbying.
Suffolk University was roundly criticized in recent weeks for its choice of commencement speaker. The president of the Suffolk University chapter of the National Lawyer’s Guild, Amy Willis, was quoted in The Boston Globe saying, “Suffolk claims to embody diversity and be a place for all people, but this clearly is a speaker who does not embody those values.” Other sources went further; the blog Mondoweiss honed in on the issue of genocide denial with excerpts from National Lawyer’s Guild director Heidi Boghosian’s interview on Law & Disorder radio in April. The show’s co-host, Michael Smith, brought the issue into sharp relief:
The Jewish establishment personified by Abraham Foxman denies [the Armenian genocide]– why? Because in their ideology the Jewish genocide which followed the Armenian genocide has to be unique. Jews are the really sole victims. And they think if the Armenian genocide is recognized it will somehow undercut their moral authority in advocating for Jews and more broadly for the whole project of the Jewish settlement and colonization of Palestine, its displacement of the native Palestinians there and its ongoing oppression, really apartheid, in Palestine. Foxman is the leading voice in America for labelling people who criticize Israel as anti-Semites and if you’re Jewish like I am, and you criticize Israel, then you’re a self-hating Jew.
A Boston Globe op-ed titled, “Commencement Speakers: The good, the ‘meh’, and the ugly” by Suffolk University alum Alex Pearlman placed Foxman squarely in the “ugly” category:
Refusing to recognize the Armenian genocide while being a Holocaust survivor is just bad etiquette, not to mention Foxman’s controversial comments about the World Trade Center “mosque.” The Anti-Defamation League is also an organization that continues to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, a position that prohibits constructive debate about a two-state solution by shielding the Israeli government from criticism of their actions in an occupied Palestine. The Suffolk administration’s choice is a divisive one for the campus, which has both strong Armenian and Muslim populations, and has made commencement something to fight over instead of something to celebrate in unity. As a Suffolk alumna, I think this is a terrible choice.
Protesters outside the Wang Theater in Boston, where the commencement address was held, took a similar view. The small group, composed of Armenian and Jewish members of the community, distributed over 1,000 flyers to graduates and attendees detailing Foxman’s hypocrisy on the Armenian genocide issue. The flyers offered an in-depth explanation of the history of the conflict between the ADL and genocide scholars, as well as outlining the ADL’s series of disingenuous statements on the Armenian genocide, particularly in 2007 and 2008, which are still a subject of controversy today.
Much has been made of Foxman’s calculated mention of the Armenian genocide in his Suffolk address, which reeked of insincerity. A fleeting reference in a commencement address is no substitute for a formal and unambiguous statement issued by the ADL, which itself would be meaningless unless combined with the absolute cessation of the ADL’s insidious pro-Turkish lobbying.
After all, Foxman has shown himself capable of being quite frank when he wants to be. When asked in a 2007 interview with JTA if he had “done anything wrong” by engaging in a concerted effort against the recognition of a genocide, Foxman said, “It was also very clear to me that after the United States, the most important ally Israel has is Turkey. It’s a country that not only has promised to provide Israel with water until moshiach comes, but it’s a country that permits Israel’s pilots to do maneuvers over its land. And so, to me, it was very clear that there are two moral issues, but one trumps the other.” That is, his issue trumps the Armenians’.
The Boston Globe published an op-ed from Foxman on May 20, in which he discussed his choice to speak at Suffolk and how, ultimately, it was about promoting the ideals of open and free debate. Self-righteous and indignant, he lamented that disagreement with his policy approaches, “…stifles conversation, it is exactly the opposite of respect for freedom of expression that so many claim to be behind, and which inevitably leads to a purist approach, which rejects compromise as giving up one’s principles.”
These are lofty and rather surprising ideals coming from someone who has worked tirelessly to enforce Turkey’s gag rule on discussion of the Armenian genocide in the US. The ADL’s feeble argument against official US recognition of the Armenian genocide has been that it would be “counterproductive” to reconciliation efforts between Armenia and Turkey. By that logic, the reparations paid by Germany after World War II were surely counterproductive as well (an argument that I, as the granddaughter of a recipient of these reparations, would never make). If reconciliation is the sole and ultimate aim in any geopolitical conflict, then the establishment of Israel could be seen to be extremely “counterproductive.” Of course, this argument is fatuous because reconciliation cannot occur when an issue is stripped of its historical context, and reconciliation for its own sake is a worthless goal.
So it would seem that Foxman is for freedom of expression, as long as it is not in opposition to his views, which “stifles conversation.” Foxman is for reconciliation without counterproductive, pesky facts getting in the way, as long as the issue is not one in which he feels he holds a stake. It’s no wonder that Foxman is retiring in 2015; this kind of tap dance is a young man’s game.