Derrek L. Shulman, who will take over as the ADL’s New England regional director in October, worked for the past five-and-ahalf years as political director in the Boston office of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and for nine years before that as a top official in the state Executive Office of Elder Affairs.
He takes over at a time of turmoil for the ADL, a 95-year-old organization that was founded to fight anti-Semitism and now has a stated mission to combat “all forms of bigotry.”
More than a dozen Massachusetts cities and towns have withdrawn from one of the ADL’s signature initiatives, the No Place For Hate (NPFH) program, to protest the national office’s refusal to acknowledge as genocide the killing of 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1923 in present-day Turkey.
Shulman said he sees a “tremendous opportunity” for progress on the issue, but declined to offer specifics.
“I’ll be looking to talk to a lot of people, to get input, to get into look-learn-listen mode before I start to set a course,” he said yesterday.
The ADL has battled controversy since last August, when Watertown, which has a sizeable Armenian community, pulled out of the NPFH program to protest the organization’s stance on the Armenian Genocide.
When Andrew H. Tarsy, the ADL’s New England regional director at the time, spoke out and said the group should acknowledge the Genocide, the national office fired him. Local Jewish and Armenian leaders reacted angrily, calling his firing vindictive.
Under mounting pressure, the national ADL modified its stance, saying that the massacre was “tantamount to genocide” but that a congressional resolution acknowledging it was counterproductive.
Two weeks later, Tarsy was rehired. But the conflict continued to mushroom.
Late last August, Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the ADL’s “tantamount to genocide” statement, calling it “an injustice to the unique character of the holocaust, as well as to the memories of its victims.” Armenian-American leaders, meanwhile, expressed anger at the ADL’s refusal to support the congressional resolution.
In December, Tarsy resigned, saying he made a “professional judgment based on knowing when it’s your time.”
Jewish leaders praised Shulman’s appointment, while Armenian leaders said they would wait to see what action, if any, Shulman takes on the genocide issue.
“Our concern has never been as much with the person who holds the position, as with the policy of the ADL,” said Aram Suren Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA).
Ara Nazarian, spokesman for the No Place For Denial campaign, which opposes the national ADL’s stance on the genocide, echoed the sentiment.
“The ball is in their court at this point, and we’re waiting for them to do the right thing,” he said.
Nancy K. Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, said Shulman has “got his eyes wide open and he knows what his challenges will be.”
“My guess is he will try to build bridges and do everything that he can to get ADL back on the footing it once had in the community,” Kaufman said. “It is a big job and it’s an important job, and he has big shoes to fill.”
The ADL selected Shulman, 40, from among several candidates identified by a search firm. The Needham resident also teaches at Lasell College in Newton.
“We think he’s got great leadership and political skills,” said James L. Rudolph, chairman of the New England board.
The national ADL declined to comment on the controversy surrounding the Armenian Genocide, but released a statement calling Shulman “a terrific choice.”
Steve Grossman, a past president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and a former member of the New England ADL board, said Shulman would rebuild trust in the ADL and attract younger members.
“I’m thrilled that they brought in somebody of Derrek’s caliber and experience, but who is comparatively untested in executive leadership,” Grossman said. “They took a chance on Derrek, but I think it’s exactly the kind of risktaking that will pay off in days to come.”