Heritage Park Lecture Commemorates US Armenophile Movement, Calls for Change in US Middle East Policy
By Aram Arkun
BOSTON — Historic Faneuil Hall in the heart of Boston was the site of an evening of lectures and performances called “Honoring America’s Call to Action: Then and Now” on October 22. This program constituted the sixth annual K. George and Carolann S. Najarian, MD, Lecture on Human Rights, presented by the Armenian Heritage Foundation, and on the occasion of the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, it returned to the relationship of the Armenian Genocide and the US. It was also a tribute to the New Englanders who worked for intervention and aid for the Armenians.
Najarian, a philanthropist and author, initially welcomed the guests, introduced the speakers, and later closed the formal part of the program, which continued with a reception at the Millennium Bostonian Hotel and an exhibition of Near East Relief posters called “They Shall Not Perish: The Story of Near East Relief.” Najarian, referring to the dramatic portion of the program, said at the end, “We took a little bit of a risk and did something different this time.”
Dr. Peter Balakian, Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor at Colgate University, provided the historical perspective of the “Call to Action” from 1894 to 1919. Balakian, the author of seven books of poems and four books of prose, is the author of The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, which describes how America became involved in the Armenian cause. One copy of this book was placed on every seat in the hall that evening, courtesy of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, and the Najarian Lecture Planning Committee.
Balakian started by exclaiming that the energy in the Boston-Armenian community was exciting, with all its organizations and the creation of the Armenian Heritage Park, and that this was part of an extraordinary flowering and renaissance of Armenian culture over the past few decades in Boston and in the US as a whole. The movement forward on recognition of the Armenian Genocide has been important, he said, but there is so much more to happen. He said that by the centennial, “the coverage is making it clear that massive human rights crimes done with impunity fester and explode — they don’t go away.”
Concisely and eloquently, Balakian sketched the synergy of the Armenian and the American which was ignited by Ottoman oppression of human rights and massacre of Armenians in the 1890s. He argued that this was the first US human rights intervention abroad, with relief teams sent to the Ottoman Empire. The whole movement was started in Faneuil Hall on November 26, 1894 by a group of prominent Boston American leaders, including Julia Ward Howe, William Lloyd Garrison, Jr., and Alice Stone Blackwell and her mother Lucy Stone, who later were joined by Clara Barton and her Red Cross mission. The national relief movement brought the involvement of Wall Street and turned into a grassroots movement throughout the country. Major American intellectuals spoke out, and when in 1915 it became clear that a largescale attempt was being made to annihilate the Armenians, a new phase of American relief for Armenians began.
After Balakian spoke, actors one by one took the stage to bring back to life the words of six important leaders of the Armenophile movement of a century ago as part of a play called “Friends of Armenia,” by playwright Joyce Van Dyke. Van Dyke teaches at Northeastern and Harvard, and is the author of many plays with Armenian themes.
The actors presented Blackwell, Movses Gulesian, Howe, Barton, Garrison and Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, many of whom had actually spoken in the past in this very same hall. Blackwell (played by Gail Shalan), poet and translator of Armenian poetry, was a leader of the women’s suffrage movement as well as a founder and vice president of the organization Friends of Armenia. Marash-born Gulesian was forcefully played by Patrick Varner. He was an entrepreneur and philanthropist who gave the top floor of his copperworks factory in Boston to house Armenian refugees, and was the recording secretary of the Friends of Armenia. Howe (played by Elaine Vaan Hogue), author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was also a leader of the women’s suffrage and abolition movements, and president of Friends of Armenia.
Barton (played by Susan bigger) was the founder of the Red Cross, and led a mission to the Ottoman Empire despite her advanced age, while Garrison (played by Johnny Kinsman), an abolitionist and leader of the women’s suffrage movement, was treasurer of Friends of Armenia.
US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Henry Morgenthau (played by William Endslow) attempted to help Armenians both during the Genocide and afterwards through the organization that became Near East Relief, and wrote an influential volume of memoirs.
The actors were directed by Judy Braha, head of the MFA Directing Program at Boston University’s School of Theatre and a founding member of the New Ehrlich Theater. The performances were an interesting attempt at making a direct connection between past human rights movements and the present. They led directly into the final lecture of the evening, “Call to Action: 2015,” by Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Whitson has led dozens of missions to the region, supervises staff located in 10 countries, and writes or speaks in many mainstream media outlets.
Whitson did not mince words as she reviewed the grim human rights situation in the Middle East today. She said, “Manmade misery afflicts the region…violence, chaos and destruction.” Thirteen Arab countries and dozens of non-Arab countries are involved in wars. Armenians are attached to the region due to personal connections, while Americans, Whitson stressed, as “citizens, voters and taxpayers, are responsible for what our government does in the Middle East.” Indeed, she continued, the United States is deeply embroiled in developments and pervasive human rights failings, and so Americans have a duty to be well informed. She felt that “our most modest burden is to seek the truth and do no harm.”
Whitson focused on Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Palestine. In Egypt, the destruction of a democratic movement was so disappointing, she said, because that was where there was so much hope. A counterrevolutionary coup supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates crushed all democratic resistance, and in one day, Egyptian officials massacred over 1,000 protestors. This was the world’s largest mass killing of protestors. Thousands were sentenced to death, while the Egyptian government made little progress against armed groups in the Sinai declaring allegiance to the Islamic State. Here the US provided equipment used in an atmosphere of complete secrecy, Whitson said. An entire town was razed in a dubious campaign to fight terrorism. Despite the promises of President Obama, no one challenges human rights abuses, and, Whitson said she feels the oppression of Islamists is a perfect recruiting tool for groups like ISIS.
If Egypt was the greatest disappointment, Whitson said that the greatest shame of the international community in the 21st century is the continuing armed conflict in Syria, with over 200,000 dead and 10 million refugees and internally displaced individuals. Foreign governments support various sides to the conflict. Whitson said that disturbingly, the West sat on its hands for years during massive human rights abuses by the Syrian government, and only has intervened directly now against ISIS. Yet, she said, only a comprehensive approach toward a peace process, with arms embargoes and sanctions against all the worst offenders, and referral of Syria to the International Criminal Court, can help establish peace and security.
In Iraq, Whitson said, American intervention, especially the use of torture in detention camps, and the divisive al-Maliki government, helped radicalize Iraqis. Some Sunnis began to accept ISIS rule as the lesser of two evils. She felt single-minded attention on defeating ISIS was shortsighted and destined to fail Iraq’s civilians if not coupled with attention to abuses and killings by Iraqi government security forces and government-backed Shiite militias, who benefit from US weaponry. Whitson urged the US to press Iraq for major political, judicial and economic reforms, and accountability for its actions and those of militias. Otherwise, she predicted, the war on ISIS would fail.
She pointed out that the similarities between the Islamic extremism exhibited by US ally Saudi Arabia and ISIS were “quite striking” and undermined American credibility. Consequently, “we must challenge our government in our strategy and alliances.”
Finally, Whitson criticized US support of the Israeli government despite what she termed as decades of abuse against Palestinians and denial of the rights of the latter. Just in July-August 2014, Israeli forces killed more than 1,500 civilians and wounded 11,000 people by striking civilian neighborhoods with heavy artillery and bombs, she said. At the same time, Palestinians indiscriminately rain rockets and mortars on Israel. She said that there is no accountability in this war, and that the US pursued a selective approach to accountability that was “shameful.” For example, it opposed Palestine’s access to the criminal courts after its ratification of the Rome Statutes despite championing the same courts in Syria and Lebanon. She concluded that international justice was undermined when only weak nations without powerful international allies appear to be subject to it.
Whitson said that she and her colleagues in Human Rights Watch “do this work of documenting these crimes knowing that there is also justice and power and value in standing with victims, listening and giving voice to their experiences, and telling the truth.” She then turned full circle to connect again with the Armenian experience, saying that Armenians knew such scenarios all too well.
In April 2015 Whitson commemorated the Armenian Genocide in Istanbul together with thousands of Turks and Armenians, and this for her symbolized the enduring craving for justice, which carries through generations, crosses national boundaries and can give purpose and hope. In this vein, to those present in Faneuil Hall, the hallowed home of American freedom fighters and birthplace of the American Armenophile movement, and to those who would hear her words later, Whitson called for the renewal of “our own moral commitment, as we did one hundred years ago here in Boston, to hearing the truth and standing in solidarity with victims of terrible abuses in lands far away. As this evening we were reminded, what will they say about us if we who can do something, do nothing.”
She repeated that at the least, we ask that our government do no harm, and cease supporting governments that fuel violence, injustice and terrorism.