Two L.A.-Area Congressmen In Heated Debate over Armenian Issues

Harut Sassounian


Representatives Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, both serving on the powerful Foreign Affairs Committee, are forced to run against each other in the November 6 elections, because of redistricting.

The two congressmen are both Democrats, Jewish Americans, and both consistently supportive of Armenian issues. Voters of the 30th congressional district have a difficult choice in this hotly contested congressional race!

The Armenian National Committee of America – Western Region hosted a public debate at the Ferrahian School’s Avedissian Hall in Encino on Sept. 29, giving the congressmen an opportunity to present their views on Armenian issues to Armenian-Americans voters. ANCA co-chair Nora Hovsepian delivered the welcoming remarks, followed by moderator Zanku Armenian who introduced the two candidates.

The debate got heated right from the start when Cong. Sherman pointed out that while he has been exclusively a member of the Armenian Caucus, Cong. Berman has been a member of both the Turkish and Armenian Caucuses in Congress.

Cong. Berman countered stating: “for nearly three decades of service in the Congress, I have been an ardent, consistent, and outspoken advocate for the Armenian Cause. I worked persistently to achieve US recognition of the Armenian Genocide. As Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I led the successful effort to win that recognition at the Committee level.” He went on to affirm that it would be his priority to have the House recognize the Armenian Genocide before its 100th anniversary, and he would personally urge Pres. Obama to keep his pledge on the Genocide. The failure to recognize the Genocide is “a huge moral stain on this great nation’s record,” Cong. Berman stated. He then proudly announced: “I halted the transfer of sensitive arms to Azerbaijan because I grew sick and tired of Azerbaijan’s arms build up and bellicose rhetoric. Just this week, I wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about one of the most disgusting actions any world leader has taken within memory — I am talking about Pres. Aliyev’s decision to pardon an Azerbaijani axe-murderer who was serving a life sentence for killing an innocent Armenian soldier in his sleep…. I asked Secretary Clinton that first, all of NATO condemns Aliyev’s action, and secondly, that Azerbaijan is suspended from all future NATO-sponsored activities.”

In response to questions from panelists Harut Sassounian, publisher of The California Courier, and Ara Khachatourian, English editor of Asbarez, the congressmen addressed US recognition of the Armenian Genocide, reparations from Turkey, Israel’s refusal to recognize the Armenian Genocide, protection of Armenian communities in Syria and Georgia, payment of rent for US air base in Incirlik, Turkey to Armenian owners of that land, return of churches in Turkey to Christian communities, Israeli arms sales to Azerbaijan, US aid to Karabakh (Artsakh), Azerbaijan’s and Hungary’s culpability in releasing the Azeri axe-murderer, independence of Artsakh, US trade agreements with Armenia, and Turkish Gulen charter schools in the United States. Below are excerpts from their remarks:

Cong. Berman: “Turkey has to understand that they have to come to terms with their own history. I am Jewish. The notion that in order to avoid hurting sensibilities, we do not acknowledge the historical truth of the Genocide, to me, is a horrible stain on our country.”

Cong. Sherman: “Genocide denial is the last step in genocide; and the first step in the next genocide. That’s why, it is critical that America recognize the first genocide of the 20th century. I will work … as many years as it takes, but hopefully as quickly as possible, to get Congress to recognize the Genocide. … It is time to put pressure on the administration, especially in the next 38 days, to turn to both candidates for president and get a clear statement from them. … We should know what they are going to do next April.”

Cong. Berman criticized Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for having referred to the Armenian Genocide as an “historical debate.” He stated: “No one in the Congress makes the case that the Genocide didn’t happen. They may argue ‘oh, we can’t hurt our relationship with Turkey’ or may be they’re close to some people who are representing Turkey … but nowhere do I hear now, like I used to hear, ‘this is an historical debate.’ … It is very disappointing when the leadership of our country goes back to raising that issue…. This happened. It has to be acknowledged. The Germans acknowledged it, and particularly for somebody who is Jewish, the notion that you can get away with denying this or try to fuzz it up as a historically debatable point, is in a very fundamental sense wrong.”

Cong. Sherman: “We need to recognize the Genocide not only for Armenia, not only for America, but the Turkish state will never be a modern state until it comes to grip with its own history.” Criticizing US governments’ reluctance to use the term Armenian Genocide, Cong. Sherman asked: “What kind of superpower cowers before history? What kind of superpower worries about Turkish threats? Dozens of parliaments around this world have recognized the Genocide. It is about time for Congress to have the same level of courage!”

In response to a question on what the two Congressmen would do to encourage America’s allies such as Israel to recognize the Armenian Genocide, Cong. Berman stated that “it is audacious for a country that itself hasn’t recognized the Armenian Genocide, to start telling other countries what they should be doing. So number one: get this [genocide] resolution passed, and push and persuade the Executive Branch to support what the Congress has done, and then you do want to make it into an international consensus. But, we are not effectively going to tell a government that they should do something that we haven’t yet done. …”

Cong. Sherman: “I’m proud that Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, recognizes the Armenian genocide; proud that the Holocaust Museum in Washington does the same. We need to recognize the Armenian genocide at the U.S. government level, but I for one have the chutzpah to urge my Israeli friends to do it even before we do it. And the politics in Israel are a little different.  Here, there is still this mirage that somehow Turkey is the critical American ally. In Israel, that same mirage was more or less shattered recently, and so we may indeed find that Israel is able to beat the United States in recognizing the first genocide of the 20th century. And given the history of Israel and the history of the Jewish people, I think it’s an important thing to do. So I for one don’t believe we should wait to urge Israel to move forward, but we should be inspired to move forward ourselves as quickly as possible.”

Panelist Harut Sassounian: “I would like to clarify something for the record based on the answers that you both gave. Before we give any wiggle room for Israel to wait for us to pronounce judgment on this issue, I think we would do well to remember that in 1975 and in 1984, twice, the House of Representatives, the full House, adopted resolutions recognizing the Armenian genocide. So Israel doesn’t have to wait for the US to do it first. We’ve already done it twice, so they can do it once at least, in the meantime.”

Cong. Berman: “For historical reasons Israel should do it, particularly Israel, should do it.”

Cong. Sherman: Israel is going to recognize the Armenian Genocide “because it is the moral and right thing to do and because the historical record is there.”

In response to a question on whether the United States should stop paying rent to the Turkish government for the Airbase in Incirlik, Turkey — located on occupied Armenian territories — and pay that money to the heirs of original Armenian owners, Cong. Sherman stated:  “I look forward to developing a foreign policy where we are less dependent upon the use of bases in Turkey, because I’ve seen them try to lobby the Pentagon, to lobby Congress not to recognize the Genocide on the theory that, ‘oh, you need our bases.’ We can and should work with our other southeast Asian NATO allies to have a basing structure that does not require us to be paying rent to the Turkish state.  …However, as long as our base is on that land, that becomes an excellent argument for additional aid to the Armenian state because we’re on that territory.”

Cong. Berman: “…One of the arguments made in Congress against the genocide resolution is ‘Oh the Turks will kick us out of Incirlik.’ The Turks have no intention of kicking us out of Incirlik. They want us there; they’re desperate to have us there. This is a smokescreen. This is an argument that people who are fronting for the Turkish position use to scare Congress into thinking there’ll be great dangers to our national security.”

(to be continued)

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One Comment;

  1. Tsoghig said:

    Thank you for publishing the details of the debate, this is very interesting and I am looking forward to reading the following article!