The late Sen. Carl Levin

Sen. Carl Levin Leaves Lasting Legacy of Friendship

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DETROIT — Carl Levin (D-Michigan), one of the longest serving Senators in American history and a steadfast friend of the Armenian community, died on Thursday, July 29 from lung cancer. He was 87.

Levin came from the old school of public servants whose guiding principle was not ideology but integrity. Respected by colleagues and constituents alike on the right and the left, his re-election five times by the people of Michigan was a testament to the fact that ultimately, true dedicated public service and getting the job done matter more than divisive political issues. A strongly liberal Democrat, he gained the confidence of the majority of Michigan’s middle-of-the-road electorate and deep respect from both Democrats and Republicans who viewed his tenure as a United States Senator as model of how to serve in public office. He lived his life in a way that before being a Democrat, he was an American and a Michigander.

Born to a Jewish family in Detroit, Levin’s exceptionally strong support of Armenian issues was a mirror of the strong relationship between the Jewish and Armenian communities in Michigan. From the joint legislative push for a Holocaust and Armenian Genocide educational mandate in Michigan’s public schools to the community collaboration spearheaded by the late Fr. Diran Papazian, dean of Michigan’s Armenian clergy, and the martyred Rabbi Morris Adler from their respective Southfield-based congregations, the Jewish-Armenian friendship runs deep in the Metro Detroit area.

Levin was a man with deep ethnic roots who was loyal to the values instilled by immigrant grandparents. The Jewish community has referred to him as a “mensch,” the Yiddish word for “human” which similar to the Armenian expression “martgoutiun” (humanity), connotes integrity and coming through for friends in need.  For Levin, the Armenians were counted among those friends. The Armenians who saw in him the embodiment of the best old-world values and who continually supported his re-election financially or through networking (the late captain of industry, Alex Manoogian, was a strong supporter), were the beneficiaries of his solid advocacy on Capitol Hill and in numerous large and small ways.

Elected to the Senate in 1979, his maiden speech on the legislative floor was on the Armenian Genocide, a fact that he used to mention in conversation throughout his career. The brotherhood he clearly felt with Armenians, as a people who had suffered a Holocaust as horrific as that under the Nazis, was always apparent. Fr. Garabed Kochakian, retired pastor of St. John’s Armenian Church in Southfield, MI, recalls that he often saw Levin in the airport when they were both travelling on business. “The minute he would see me, the conversation about the Genocide would come up,” Kochakian recalls. “Things that Turkey was doing and so on. He would always say ‘They’re still at it.’ It was something that was always on his mind. Seeing me and knowing me to be an Armenian clergyman, as a person carrying the same burden as his [Jewish] people, this would come to the surface.”

Levin’s relationship with the Armenian-American community was strengthened during his time as a Detroit City Council member before he was elected to national office, and as a Senator representing Michigan. This period coincided with a time of exemplary generosity of Armenian Americans for the betterment of Metro Detroit, including Alex and Marie Manoogian’s gifting of their home to the City of Detroit in the mid-1960s, Edward and Helen Mardigian’s major contributions to the University of Michigan-Dearborn resulting in the establishment of the Mardigian Library on campus in 1987, Richard and Jane Manoogian’s remarkable contributions to the Detroit Institute of Arts, which dedicated its American Art wing in honor of Richard Manoogian in 2007, and Alex and Marie Manoogian’s  contributions to Wayne State University resulting in the establishment of Alex Manoogian Hall and its Ethnic Heritage Center in 1970.

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Levin taught law at Wayne State University, whose law school currently houses the Levin Center, an academic institute which aims at advancing the vision and legislative legacy of the Senator.

John Jamian, the Metro Detroit political figure who was a former executive director of the Armenian Assembly, used to sit with Levin on their flights back and forth to DC when Levin was a Senator and Jamian was director of the Assembly. Although a Republican, Jamian worked with Levin on numerous issues both in local politics (including when Levin was a Detroit City Council member) and on Armenian issues in Washington.

Jamian recalls that in 2002 he received a frantic phone call from Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem Torkom Manoogian. In response to the Second Intifada, the Israeli government had decided to build a wall separating Israeli-controlled territory from the West Bank. “The wall was going to right through the Armenian Church’s property,” Jamian recalls. “We had olive trees that were 300, 500 years old that the monks used to press for olive oil to light the lamps in the church. The IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] showed up and started bulldozing olive trees.”

After receiving the call from the Patriarch, Jamian went right to Senator Levin’s office, at the time, across the street. As a Jewish-American Senator who was a supporter of Israel and chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, Levin held enormous sway in Israeli governmental circles. Jamian asked him what could be done about the situation and, as he recalls, Levin “got on the phone and called some Israeli general. Levin told him to pull out right now — find some other way, but stop knocking down olive trees. The IDF was gone in a matter of hours. This is the kind of guy he was.”

Jamian added that “Anytime I wanted to see him for Armenian Assembly issues, he would help,” and in regard to local politics, “I worked with him when I ran the [Detroit] Port Authority. He displayed and showed his affection for our people and his concern for our people’s issues.”

Edmond Azadian of the Armenian Democratic Liberal Party and the Tekeyan Cultural Association also shared his strong appreciation of Levin’s work on behalf of the Armenian cause. “He was extremely helpful to the Armenians,” Azadian said. “Anything we asked for, any personal favor, or for the community, he was ready.”

From left, Maral Arzoumanian, Senator Carl Levin, Mike Arzoumanian, and Edmond Azadian at an Armenian fundraiser for the senator

Azadian relates that Levin was responsible for one of the most consequential decisions in regard to Armenian immigration to the United States. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian Jews fled to the US under the immigration laws of the time that allowed Jews from the USSR to claim refugee status. Simultaneously, Armenians were fleeing Azerbaijan after the pogroms in Baku and Sumgait. An Armenian man from Baku whose wife was Jewish had come to the US under her refugee status and settled in Detroit. He tried to bring the rest of his Armenian relatives who were scattered throughout the Soviet Union, to America, but Armenians were not covered under the same law. Azadian wrote a letter to President George H.W. Bush and got nowhere. But when he asked Levin for help, the Senator “walked to the State Department and complained ‘why aren’t the Baku Armenians being given refugee status?’ He was able to get the resolution passed,” Azadian noted, and thousands of Armenians fleeing Azerbaijan were able to settle in the United States.

Over the years, Levin accepted numerous Armenian-American college students as summer interns through the Armenian Assembly. He supported Armenian issues and the Armenian community, particularly in the State of Michigan, in so many ways that they can scarcely be enumerated.

State Rep. Mari Manoogian mentioned his mentorship as an elder statesman in local Democratic Party circles: “I saw Senator Levin at a campaign event for now-Rep. Haley Stevens at a home in Birmingham just a few days before the 2018 Election — my first general election as a candidate — and he gave me an incredible pep talk that calmed my nerves and gave me the confidence to finish our Get Out the Vote effort strong.”

Manoogian added, “Sen. Carl Levin embodied what it means to do the work of the people. Throughout his life and work in the United States Senate, Senator Levin never compromised his principles or values, holding folks accountable and looking out for the American people. Yet, he also deeply understood the value and importance of reaching across the aisle to not only build trust, but also genuine friendships. His example is one that we should all follow as Michiganders and Americans.”

The respect in which the Metro Detroit Armenian community held the late Senator is profound, both as Armenians and as residents of the State of Michigan. It is difficult to summarize the Levin legacy, but Nancy Malkasian Banks, former City Clerk of Southfield, Michigan, had the following to say: “Carl Levin was an extremely genuine man who truly cared about all people with dignity. He told it like it was, was always prepared, and always followed through in his 36 years of service in Congress.”

Carl Levin married Barbara Halpern in 1961, and they had three daughters and six grandchildren. He retired from the senate in 2015 and was succeeded by Gary Peters.

Carl Levin is already missed, not only by Americans in general, Michigan residents in particular, and his own Jewish community, but by the Armenian community and especially the Armenian-American community of Michigan.

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