BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
It is unfortunate that the noble and sacred concept of establishing an Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial (AGM&M) in Washington D.C., had to end up in court.
But contrary to popular belief, the issue was not simply a feud between two wealthy individuals — Gerard Cafesjian and Hirair Hovnanian — or a mere disagreement over the size and scope of the project. The actual dispute resulted from an attempt by Armenian Assembly leaders to take control of the multi-million dollar museum buildings donated by the Cafesjian Family Foundation (CFF) and exclude Cafesjian from any decision-making powers as a Board member of the AGM&M charitable organization.
After a lengthy litigation, Federal Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled on January 26, 2011, that the museum buildings had to be returned to CFF. She upheld the validity of the “reversionary clause” included in the grant agreement signed by the Armenian Assembly of America on Nov. 1, 2003, which stipulated that the properties donated by CFF to the Assembly for the purpose of establishing an Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial would be returned to CFF, if the Assembly failed to develop the museum by Dec. 1, 2010. That obligation was subsequently conveyed to the AGM&M organization.
In response to a new filing by the Assembly objecting to the January 26, 2011 verdict, Judge Kollar-Kotelly made a final ruling on May 9, 2011 ordering the Assembly to transfer ownership of the museum property to CFF no later than May 23, 2011. She rejected the Assembly’s demand for a new trial. She also asked a magistrate judge to recommend to her the exact amount of Cafesjian’s legal fees to be reimbursed by AGM&M.
While CFF must be satisfied with the verdict, the Assembly is probably considering its legal options. However, given the Judge’s two recent verdicts in favor of CFF, filing more lawsuits or appeals is neither in the Assembly’s interest nor that of the Armenian-American community. The time has come to put a stop to the legal wrangling and start concentrating on the important task of building a genocide museum.
CFF’s chairman, Gerard Cafesjian, made the right decision when he announced that “the court’s concluding verdict frees us all to build this long-awaited museum and memorial about the fact and ongoing consequences of the Armenian Genocide.”
CFF’s Board member Ross Vartian pledged that CFF would relaunch the museum project “with the participation of ALL interested organizations and individuals.” During a subsequent Voice of America interview, Vartian made it clear that CFF welcomed the participation of the Armenian Assembly in such a community-wide effort.
This is a very sensible approach. As the Bible states, “to everything there is a season. …A time to break down and a time to build up, …a time for war and a time for peace.” In this instance, one could appropriately add: There is a time to sue and a time to settle!
Over a decade ago when the idea of an Armenian Genocide museum was first discussed at an Armenian Assembly board meeting, long before any internal disputes had surfaced, the organizers asked for my view on their initiative. I suggested that they invite major Armenian-American organizations to participate in a community-wide effort to oversee the fundraising and implementation of this pan-Armenian project. Regrettably, back then, my advice was unanimously rejected.
CFF is moving in the right direction by inviting major Armenian-American organizations, including the Armenian Assembly, and prominent Armenian and non-Armenian individuals to come together to realize the laudable, yet long-delayed plan to establish an Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial by April 24, 2015 — the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. In order to accomplish such a lofty goal in four years, everyone must put aside all other considerations and concentrate on the monumental task at hand. Internal Armenian squabbles only serve to provide Turks with further ammunition to ridicule Armenians and their sacred cause. Rather than wasting more time and money on further lawsuits and appeals, the funds and energies of the Armenian-American community should be channeled towards establishing this important edifice which is expected to cost well over $100 million.
An Armenian Genocide museum located in the heart of the nation’s capital, just two blocks away from the White House, will be a lasting memorial to the 1.5 million innocent victims and a tribute to the indomitable spirit of the survivors.