[Marxism] Armenian genocide scholarship controversy

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon May 4 07:04:11 MDT 2009

Going After a Scholar's Critic
May 4, 2009

Guenter Lewy, a professor emeritus of political science at the 
University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is a scholar whose work has been 
praised by Turkey’s government. When the embassy of Turkey in Washington 
was upset over a PBS documentary on the Armenian genocide during World 
War I, the ambassador's statement on the program noted the work of 
"respected scholar Guenter Lewy, whose latest book The Armenian 
Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide documents the 
incomplete historic record and excessive politicization associated with 
the issue."

Lewy does not believe that the slaughter of Armenians during World War I 
was a genocide – a position that puts him outside the consensus of 
scholars of genocide. Lewy’s 2005 book on the subject argues that while 
there were indeed many tragic deaths, there was no attempt by those in 
power to commit genocide, and that war was the primary cause of the 
deaths. In an interview two years ago, Lewy said that the book -- which 
was criticized by some scholars of genocide -- had been rejected by 11 
publishers, including 4 university presses, before the University of 
Utah Press published it.

Among those who joined the attacks on the book and Lewy was the Southern 
Poverty Law Center, a group known for its studies of hate groups -- a 
focus that has led the center to criticize Holocaust deniers and those 
who deny the attacks or bias experienced by members of various groups. 
Lewy featured prominently in an article published by the center last 
year, “State of Denial."

Now Lewy -- with backing from the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund -- 
is seeking millions in damages from the center in a lawsuit for defamation.

The lawsuit asserts a set of facts about what happened to the Armenians 
that differ from what many historians say. Generally, the suit 
characterizes the question of an Armenian genocide as open to question 
and debate.

"Since the conclusion of World War I and the disintegration of the 
Ottoman Empire, an historical and legal controversy has raged over 
whether, in the context of war and an undeniable Armenian rebellion 
against the Ottoman government in favor of its enemies, the deaths of a 
large number of Ottoman Armenians as a result of combat, disease, 
starvation, exposure, and massacre constituted the crime of genocide," 
the suit says.

"At present, those who dispute that the genocide label is apt are 
characteristically maligned by those who favor the genocide thesis as 
indistinguishable from 'Holocaust deniers' who are either bigoted 
against Armenians or Christians or are on the Turkish government 
payroll. Little solace can be derived from the fact such current 
intimidations mark an improvement from earlier decades. Then, those who 
defended the contra-genocide thesis could expect physical assaults or 
even assassination attempts."

Some scholars fear that the suit is part of a campaign to silence those 
who criticize scholarship that Turkey favors. In recent months, the 
Turkish American group has sent letters to the presidents of Hampshire 
College and McGill University on campus disputes involving the Armenian 
genocide, suggested a willingness to become involved with disputes large 
and small concerning the way the Armenian genocide is discussed.

Simon Payaslian, who holds an endowed chair in Armenian history and 
literature at Boston University, said he was not familiar with the 
lawsuit or its specific claims. But he sees it as part of a pattern. “I 
think the pro-Turkish scholars have launched a new wave of denialist 

Related issues of academic freedom and academic integrity are at play, 
Payaslian said. Part of academic freedom should be the right of those 
who disagree with scholars to question their work. Payaslian said he 
strongly disagrees with Lewy’s book and sees its theories about the 
genocide as being wrong, and deserving of strong scholarly scrutiny. He 
said that he fears that pro-Turkish groups “are trying to suffocate any 
kind of criticisms that these nationalists think is objectionable.”

The lawsuit against the Southern Poverty Law Center says of Lewy that he 
"bravely acted pursuant to the highest standards of scholarly integrity 
in his research, writing, and speaking about the fate of the Ottoman 
Armenians in the midst of a climate hostile to open inquiry and debate."

Two quotes in the Southern Poverty Law Center article are cited as 
defamatory. One states: "Lewy is one of the most active members of a 
network of American scholars, influence peddlers and website operators, 
financed by hundreds of thousands of dollars each year from the 
government of Turkey, who promote the denial of the Armenian genocide. ...”

The other states: “Lewy makes similar revisionist claims in his 2005 
book The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide and 
in frequent lectures at university campuses across the country. ... 
Revisionist historians who conjure doubt about the Armenian genocide and 
are paid by the Turkish government provided politicians with the 
intellectual cover they needed to claim they were refusing to dictate 
history rather than caving in to a foreign government’s present-day 
interests.” (The article goes on to mention specific support by Turkey 
for research or research centers involving American scholars, but does 
not cite an example of Turkey providing funds to Lewy.)

According to the suit, the statements "assert or imply" acts "of moral 
turpitude" in that they imply that Lewy "has and continues to compromise 
his scholarship on the fate of the Ottoman Armenians and disputes the 
genocide characterization of the events of 1915-1916 in exchange for 
money from the Government of Turkey" and that Lewy "deceives his readers 
and audiences when he addresses the controversy surrounding the Armenian 
allegation of genocide by concealing his receipt of money from the 
Government of Turkey."

Further the suit says that the statements "individually and taken as a 
whole in context of the article ... are defamatory because they falsely 
impute to Plaintiff academic corruption, fraud and deceit. ..." As a 
result of the accusations, the suit says that Lewy has had his 
"scholarly credibility" hurt and has lost book sales and speaking 

"The acute stigma attached to failures to disclose the receipt of money 
or its equivalent that could distort academic or professional judgments 
finds expression in a welter of government conflict-of-interest 
regulations and financial disclosure standards embraced by highly 
respected professional publications, including the Food and Drug 
Administration, National Institutes of Health, The New England Journal 
of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association."

The Southern Poverty Law Center declined to comment on the suit, saying 
that it was its policy not to discuss litigation.

The issue of whether Turkish support for research in the United States 
comes with strings attached has been contentious in the past. Last year, 
a scholar who teaches at the State University of New York at Binghamton 
went public with his complaint that he was given a choice by Turkish 
officials -- after using the word "genocide" to describe what happened 
to the Armenians -- of either quitting his position as chair of the 
Institute of Turkish Studies, based at Georgetown university, with 
support from Turkey's government, or of seeing support for the center 
evaporate. (The Turkish embassy in Washington strongly denies these 

Lewy's number is unlisted and his lawyer, Bruce Fein, said he is 
traveling. Fein said he could not answer the question of whether Lewy 
has ever received support from Turkey or from research entities 
supported by Turkey. Fein said that was "not a key fact at all" because 
the suit is based on the accusation that support from Turkey compromised 
Lewy's scholarship, which isn't the same as receiving support from Turkey.

"He could have gotten $10 in tax reimbursements in Istanbul," Fein said.

Asked if it wasn't odd for a lawyer to file a defamation suit focused on 
the alleged implications of a scholar receiving support from Turkey, 
without knowing if the scholar had received support from Turkey, Fein 
said "you can draw whatever inferences you want."
— Scott Jaschik

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