Rep. Andy Levin

Rep. Levin Expresses Support for Armenian Community at Virtual Coffee Hour

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WASHINGTON —  Congressman Andy Levin has represented the 9th district of Michigan in the US House of Representatives since 2019. The son of previous 9th district Representative, Sander Levin, and nephew of longtime US Senator from Michigan, Carl Levin, he comes from a family with a long history in Michigan and national politics. All Democrats, the Levins have had a long and positive relationship with Michigan’s and Metro Detroit’s large Armenian community. Therefore, when Levin announced that he was conducting a virtual coffee hour to discuss issues with community members and open the floor to questions, the move was both welcome and anticipated.

It was especially crucial at this time, given the recent war in Artsakh, the incoming Biden presidency, and the prospect of the official US recognition of the Armenian Genocide. With these issues in the forefront, as well as a desire to speak to the Armenian community about the Covid pandemic, Levin held the “coffee hour” discussion with Armenian community members over Zoom on Saturday, April 17.

First of all, Levin shared that he found the situation in Artsakh this past year “troubling,” and stated that he had personally focused on it in a “pretty bipartisan way”. (Based on this discussion , bipartisanism without abandoning his progressive values seems to be a hallmark of Levin’s pragmatic political approach.) A member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Levin has a large role in foreign policy issues discussed in Congress. He was one of the original co-sponsors of H.Res. 1165, “Condemning Azerbaijan’s military operation in Nagorno-Karabakh and denouncing Turkish interference in the conflict,” which was introduced by Representative Jackie Speier of California. Levin also stated that he has urged President Biden to support better relations with Armenia as well as to support Artsakh. Levin shared with community members the fact that Turkey and Azerbaijan are lobbying in a major way in Washington, and spreading false information.

Question and Answer Session

As the floor was opened to questions, Levin was asked “what’s your driving force behind your support of the Armenian community?” Though he seemed to find the question unexpected, his answer came quite naturally. “The Armenian community is not an abstraction to me,” Levin stated, and shared that growing up in Metro Detroit and being part of the Levin family in politics, there was always a relationship with the Armenian community. He recalled yearly attendance at the St. John’s food festival/bazaar in Southfield, as well as other Armenian affairs and interactions/relationships with the Armenian community.

Levin further shared his personal experiences. “Growing up Jewish in [the Detroit suburbs]…there was a ton of anti-Semitism,” even to the extent of other children asking why if he was a Jew he “didn’t have horns.” These early experiences led Levin to a place where he is “always for the underdog, and religious minorities around the world.” He mentioned that “National borders grow up because of random things and historical accident. Artsakh is an Armenian place but surrounded by Azerbaijan, so [the issue is] how do you protect people?”

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He added that he is also an opponent of Islamophobia, while at the same time has always taken a stand for religious minorities in majority-Muslim countries. Notably, since Levin represents the Detroit suburb of Sterling Heights, “I represent the most Iraqi-born people of the whole House. And it’s mostly Chaldeans.” (Chaldeans are the Aramaic-speaking Catholic natives of Northern Iraq, who in the US primarily live in the state of Michigan.) “I’m out there fighting for them. When Trump became president they started to mass deport Iraqi nationals.” Levin shared that the deportations were done to anyone who had committed a crime, and while these crimes might have been real, they could be minor infractions. Twenty years after a minor infraction, the individual is a contributing member of society who runs his own business and goes to church every week, yet the government is trying to deport him. This was a major issue in Michigan a few years ago and Levin stated that he has “spent a huge amount of time trying to help the Chaldean communities.”

Levin further stated that he stands up for religious minorities and the underdog everywhere, no matter who it is. He gave the example that as a young man he studied Tibetan Buddhism, and planned on a career as a professor of Asian religions. Yet, he found that his zeal for Tibetan human rights led him more naturally to a career in politics. Levin stated, “I love Buddhism, but yet in Myanmar the Buddhist majority is oppressing the Muslim minority.” Levin passionately concluded in relation to the oppression of religious minorities and Armenians in particular, “We cannot let it happen. We must protect Artsakh, and I will not stop.”

POW and Foreign Aid Issues

Levin was asked whether he has been aware of or advocating for the release of Armenian POWs held by the Azerbaijan. He responded that he was aware of it and “We’re trying to raise it up with the Biden administration and say that we need to use the levers that we have in diplomatic relations to force Azerbaijan’s hand,” and that “we are trying to pressure Azerbaijan and Turkey.”

In relation to foreign aid from the US to Armenia, Levin stated that he was “pushing for increased aid in the new budget.” He added that he thought “we will achieve increased aid, but it’s part of the whole package.” Levin also shared that “there’s a new isolation in the Trump wing of the Republican party that is hostile to foreign aid.” He added that even Republican politicians who were not “Trump Republicans” fear the electoral backlash from the “Trump wing” of the party and have taken a more isolationist approach to foreign aid and other issues. For this reason, Levin stated “It’s hard to build bipartisan consensus. I think we will have more aid, but it is difficult.”

Levin was also asked about the little-known Trump memorandum with the Turkish government, which suggests that Turkey has the right to reclaim any historical artifacts held within the US that originated on Turkish soil. Because the memorandum was signed on the last day of Trump’s administration, and the issue has been overshadowed by the Armenian POW issue and other issues related to Artsakh, few are aware of it. Yet, the status of Armenian heritage artifacts originating in Anatolia and which are held by Armenian groups in America and even by such institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, are in danger. Levin responded honestly that he was not aware of the issue but would look into it, and thanked the questioner for bringing it to his attention, because “it’s important” even if POWs and Artsakh are a priority right now. A few days later a communique from his office shared that they were planning to bring the issue up with the State Department.

Armenian Genocide Recognition

In regard to a question about President Biden’s possible recognition of the Armenian Genocide this year, Levin stated “we won’t let him not” recognize is. Levin stated that “learning about these things, holding up their truth” is very important and that “no country should think they are immune.” Unfortunately, there are countries like Turkey that “try to deny the reality of history,” and that if we let that happen we might allow history to repeat itself, Levin said. [This report was written before April 24.]

In the same regard, Levin discussed his relationship with Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), who is now chairman of the Foreign Affairs committee. In the past, Meeks had not necessarily been a supporter of Artsakh. Levin stated that “I realized Meeks was going to win and I’m going to help him. I am convinced it was the right thing to do. We have a more active foreign affairs committee than we have had in the past. I don’t know his history, but he wants to empower the membership of the committee as a whole, and be a chair that earns the loyalty of his membership.” Levin added that “I think chairman Meeks is going to be fine on this issue.”

Levin believes in regard to foreign policy and the US role in the world, “it’s not about being the big kid in the sandbox. It’s about playing a constructive role and leading.” He added “the truth is not negotiable – the truth of history…to have a healthy future we have to, not just admit it, but sit with it.”

Levin also discussed various subjects of general interest such as the pandemic, and trade agreements (which he believes have gutted American industry, an issue important to Michiganders).

 

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