SAN FRANCISCO–At its annual "Hai Tahd Evening," the San Francisco – Bay Area Armenian National Committee welcomed as its special guests–Professor James Russell–Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University–and California State Assembly Majority Leader–Kevin Shelley.
Professor Russell–who received extended applause from the capacity audience of 160 Armenian-Americans at San Francisco’s Treasure Island–spoke movingly about his indignation at increasing instances of Genocide denial by the Turkish government as well as by some groups in his own Jewish community.
Russell–who has held the Armenian Studies professorship at Harvard since 1993–first spoke briefly about his field of study–ancient Armenian history–which he has written and lectured about extensively. "I would stay there happily–a philologist doing his quiet unnoticed work–were it not for the injustices that sting my conscience and forbid silence."
He outlined the revisionism currently being conducted by Turkey–its denial of the Genocide–its insistence on agreement with its denial policy as the price for friendship. He spoke about Turkey’s assertion that Armenia’s had been disloyal–that they massacred Turks–that they had never populated the region. "Facts are derided as anecdotes. The essence of meticulous scholarship is derided as its opposite." Russell offered a phrase from George Orwell’s novel "1984" as an appropriate motto for Genocide deniers: "Truth is lies–freedom is slavery–ignorance is strength."
"This is what violates my sense of decency," said Russell. "It’s a giant lie–and a scholar who does not reply to mendacity on such a scale–about an event so seminally hideous for the people and culture he loves–is no scholar–not even a man."
Russell–who began studying the Armenian language at the age of 15 after a school trip to the Soviet Union and has since mastered classical and modern Armenian–says he developed a deep love for Armenian history–culture–and language–and identifies very closely with Armenia’s and their fight against revisionism. "It is particularly maddening–a real addition of insult to injury–that Armenia’s seem to carry the burden of proof–incessantly required to demonstrate that the Genocide happened at all."
Russell also criticized Jews who defend Turkey in its effort to clean up its international reputation regarding the Genocide. "It passes outrage and touches the borders of sheer insanity when–of all people–right-wing members of the Israel lobby and the American Jewish community are promoting Ankara’s official line–evidently in the service of a political alliance–and partly from what I think is the gravely misguided conviction that the Nazi Holocaust was unique."
Referring to water Israel seeks from the Euphrates River in Turkey–Russell invoked the memory of the bodies of Armenian victims who filled the river during the Genocide. "Blood money for a river stained by blood. How could one keep silent?"
Russell spoke about admirable Turks who accept the fact of the genocide and work to foster democracy in Turkey. "Recognition and repentance will be–ultimately–good for Turkey itself–since it will be part of genuine democratization. The Middle East can be a happier place–freer–more prosperous; and that is what I hope we are working for. It is all I want."
He counseled Armenia’s not to play the game of proving the Genocide happened–but to celebrate those Turks who uphold the truth–refrain from prejudice of all Turks–and reach out to other people and communities who have supported the Armenian Cause or have had similar experiences.
"We have to persuade the American public that our cause is part of the inexorable progress of human right and liberation–and that we will intensify it rather than abandon it–as time passes." Russell ended his commen’s with Armenian prose he authored encouraging Armenia’s to continue to fight for the Armenian Cause.
Assemblyman Kevin Shelley–who represents San Francisco in the state assembly and holds the influential post of majority leader–commended the ANC for its work. "This committee has long been a champion for justice," he said. He recounted his recent visit to his ancestral homeland of Ireland and that of his wife–Israel. He told the story of his wife’s upbringing as a Catholic and her discovery at age 18 that her family had been Jewish–but christened her as a Catholic in order to protect her from the possibility of future persecution.
Shelley spoke of his own efforts to drawn attention to the Irish Famine and insure that it is taught in California schools. He said he learned about the history of efforts to commemorate the Armenian Genocide in the California legislature from Armenian-American assemblymen Charles Poochigian and Howard Kaloogian–commenting that proof that progress is being made in the Armenian Cause is that Genocide resolutions are now passing unanimously.
Understanding Armenian-Americans’ "pain of the past and the passionate quest to change the future," Shelley said the legislature can help "insure teaching of the Armenian Genocide in every single classroom," and insist that Congress recognize the deaths as a genocide. "If you have a name–you should call it by its name. Condemning the perpetrator is the second step," he said–emphasizing that Turkey should be condemned for its continued denial.
Shelley presented the San Francisco – Bay Area ANC with a framed proclamation from the state assembly–commending the ANC for its work.
In her presentation about the past year’s activities–ANC spokesperson Roxanne Makasdjian reported on the committee’s meetings with Congress people–its participation in political campaigns–lobbying efforts for national legislation regarding Armenian issues–and sponsorship of various community lectures.
Makasdjian said there had gradually been a change in approach among Armenian-American activists. "We’re finding that the bolder we’ve become in pressing our issues–the more success we encounter. It is this non-defeatist approach which is getting us results. Why shouldn’t we bombard candidates with calls for recognition? Why shouldn’t we knock on classroom doors and get our history taught? Why shouldn’t we demand that writers get the story right? Why shouldn’t OUR genocide survivors be compensated?"
ANC member Kate Nahapetian reported on ANC’s Genocide Curriculum Project–including its meetings with Bay Area school board members–educational workshops that have introduced public school teachers to the study of the Armenian Genocide–and ANC’s partnership with the Armenian Genocide Resource Center and the national educational organization Facing History and Ourselves–to reach teachers and provide instructional materials.