SACRAMENTO, CA — In the last month, Armenian Americans across the country organized, led, participated in and covered events commemorating the 94th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. The events were varied in nature from solemn personal reflection to loud occasions to raise community awareness. In the process much attention was drawn to US House Resolution 252, the federal Armenian Genocide resolution, but less well known is that in California three legislative items addressing the Armenian Genocide are making their way through the California State Legislature.
Each piece of legislation tackles a fundamental aspect of genocide awareness and justice. Assembly Joint Resolution 14 (AJR 14) is an Armenian Genocide resolution in which the state itself commemorates the victims. Assembly Bill 961 (AB 961) helps ensure that California taxpayer dollars are not spent on companies that profit from genocide. Senate Bill 234 (SB 234) urges the inclusion of an oral history component to genocide education curriculum already mandated for California’s high school students. All together, they commemorate, help prevent/punish, and educate about genocide. Each prominently features the Armenian Genocide.
Already there is has been an organized Turkish opposition to these bills and the resolution. With votes on AB 961 and SB 234 quickly approaching, Californians will have the opportunity to learn more about these bills and weigh in on these issues with their representatives. The success or failure of these bills may depend on how vocal the anti-genocide advocates throughout California are in the coming days and months as legislators look to their constituencies for guidance when determining their votes.
Turkey Denies Genocide, ANCA Urges Community to Speak Out
While AJR 14 has passed through the California Assembly and will be making its way to the California Senate, both AB 961 and SB 234 have been steadily making their ways through committee with full floor votes projected in the Assembly and Senate, respectively, within the next month.
The Turkish government, eager to push its genocide denial efforts beyond the federal level, has dispatched its surrogate organizations, the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund and the Turkish Coalition of America to Sacramento which have started online attacks against the legislation. Bruce Fein, a notorious genocide denial spokesperson for these organizations, has been a stalking the halls of the State Capitol in the past few weeks and brought together Turkish leaders from California to undermine these anti-genocide legislative efforts.
The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) has written letters supporting both AB 961 and SB 234. This week it launched a campaign urging anti-genocide activists to contact their state legislators to ensure that California maintains a strong track record in confronting genocide.
AB 961: No California Taxpayer Dollars to Line the Pockets of Genocide Profiteers
“California has a long and storied history of leadership with respect to issues of social justice and fighting for human rights. AB 961 is in keeping with that proud tradition. From the horrors that scorched the Armenian landscape from 1915-23, to the devastation in Darfur that still blazes a trail of death, the world has suffered a recurring pattern of genocides by homicidal tyrannies. This legislation will send an important message by ensuring that California will not do business with companies that have enriched themselves at the expense of genocide victims.” — California Assembly Assistant Majority Leader Paul Krekorian (D-43rd District), author of AB 961
In 2007-2008, the Armenian American community was part of the community-wide anti-genocide effort to help make substantive efforts to stop the ongoing genocide in Darfur. Following successful legislation to divest various state funds from non-humanitarian corporations doing business with the genocidal government in Sudan, the State Legislature passed a bill introduced by Assembly Member Ed Hernandez (D-57th District) to ensure that California contracts were not going to such companies.
The Armenian American community may be more familiar with legal cases brought by the community against insurance companies and banks that wrongfully withheld assets of Armenian Genocide victims. However, this year Krekorian introduced AB 961 with a simple message; “California will not do business with companies that have enriched themselves at the expense of genocide victims.”
Written in the spirit of the 2008 Darfur legislation, AB 961 would force companies to confirm with California that they have not done business with a genocidal regime and wrongfully withhold assets of the victims of said genocide.
Krekorian’s legislation is another example of Armenian American leadership in confronting genocide that is not limited to its own communal experience. AB 961 identifies the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, the Cambodian Genocide, the Rwandan Genocide, and the genocide in Bosnia as cases for which companies must register compliance in order to be eligible to secure a contract with the state. (Read more from Krekorian about AB 961)
During committee hearings, Turkish lobbyist Bruce Fein tried to scare off state legislator support of the bill by referring to legal challenges being waged in a few other states against Darfur related anti-genocide legislation. In attempting to silence discussion about the Armenian Genocide, it appears that Fein is content with undermining a broad range of American efforts to confront genocide in the past several years.
In spite of vocal Turkish lobbyist opposition to the legislation, AB 961 was voted through two committees, the Business and Professions Committee as well as the Judiciary Committee. It will be heard in the Assembly Appropriations Committee in late May. Should it pass out of committee once again, it will proceed to a vote in the full Assembly.
SB 234: Humanizing Education about Genocide
“There is nothing more powerful in the academic world than hearing personal stories and real-life testimonies that engage students in areas which they have not previously been engaged. The use of oral histories in the teachings of horrific historical events like genocide makes these realities of our world more than just statistics on a page.” — California Senator Mark Wyland (R-38th District), author of SB 234
In the late 1980s the ANC was at the forefront of the community effort to raise awareness about the importance of educating Californians about genocide, including the Armenian Genocide. On October 2, 1987 the California Department of Education adopted the Model Curriculum for Genocide and Human Rights which explicitly included the Armenian Genocide. In 1999, The California State Board of Education established the inclusion of the Armenian Genocide in its history and social science content standards for 10th grade students, as well as high school exit exams.
Strengthening this foundation, In 2002 Assembly Members Paul Koretz and Mark Wyland introduced Assembly Bill 2003. The law also encouraged the use of survivor testimony to teach about genocide and established the California Taskforce on Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights, and Tolerance Education.
Now a California State Senator, Wyland has introduced SB 234 which calls on the California State Curriculum Commission to vote on the inclusion of an oral history component to the mandated state genocide education curriculum. The bill once again directly references the Armenian Genocide as well as other instances of genocide in the past century. (Read more from Wyland about SB 234 )
During the bill’s hearing in the Senate Education Committee, Bruce Fein scolded the legislators’ efforts to promote genocide awareness education. While testifying, he not only denied the Armenian Genocide, but also went on to deny the Cambodian Genocide and the genocide in Darfur.
California Senator Joe Simitian (D-11th District) expressed his disappointment with Fein’s testimony.
“You cannot help but ask, ‘Why is it that this happens over and over and over again in our history?’ And I would suggest that the reason that it happens over and over and over again in our history is because we are unwilling to step back and confront man’s inhumanity to man… Until and unless we confront these issues in a forthright and intellectually honest way we are never going to put them behind us and we are never going to avoid that all too human temptation to engage in the same behavior in the years ahead,” remarked Simitian to his colleagues on the Education Committee.
SB 234 was passed out of the Education Committee unanimously and awaits a vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee before it can be considered for a vote in the full Senate.
Commemoration and the Community: Where Do We Go From Here?
On April 23rd the California State Assembly unanimously passed AJR 14 during the floor commemoration of the Armenian Genocide in the State Capitol Building. The legislation, authored by Assembly Member Krekorian, continues the long tradition of California’s public commitment to remembering the Armenian Genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire and reminding the community about the importance of learning from this crime against humanity which served as a prototype for modern day genocides. (Read more about the resolution authored by Krekorian)
Joining several of his colleagues in making remarks that day, Assembly Member Cameron Smyth (R-38th District) spoke to the importance of the commemoration event. “I very proud to be a co-author of this resolution and to thank Mr. Krekorian, and to thank this body for taking this issue up and sending a message that we here in California know of what occurred in 1915 and we will never forget,” said Smyth.
With the exceptions of Krekorian and Simitian, most of the California legislators that spoke so eloquently about the Armenian Genocide on April 23rd were motivated to action not only by the facts of the matter, but the encouragement of their constituents. While how many of them will vote on AB 961 and SB 234 has yet to be determined, one can be certain their support or opposition and magnitude of their effort in either direction will be, in large part, decided by the majority of voices of the people of California.
Californians still have an opportunity to sound off on the fate of these bills. With votes pending in the coming days and over the next few months, will the Turkish government’s efforts to silence America’s response to genocide effectively take hold in California or will Californians rise up to confront genocide and its denial?