Unlikely Foes

Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, December 20, 2010

The Southern Poverty Law Center is among the premier civil rights organizations in the United States, known for taking on hate groups and defending the powerless. A group of leading genocide scholars this month sent the center a stinging letter, obtained by Inside Higher Ed, that charges the center with getting out of a lawsuit in part by assisting “unscholarly and unethical” efforts to cast doubt on the Armenian genocide.

How could the Southern Poverty Law Center end up facing such an accusation?

One of its publications, Intelligence Report, in 2008 published an article called “State of Denial” about efforts by Turkey and the country’s supporters to contest the view about which there is a wide scholarly consensus: that the deaths of up 1.5 million Armenians during World War I constituted a genocide.

Guenter Lewy, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, does not believe that a genocide took place, and he sued the center over two places where the article says that he is among those scholars whose work has been financially supported by Turkey.

One of the quotes in the article says: “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. . . .” The problem with that statement — as the center has since acknowledged — is that there was never any evidence that Turkey financially supported Lewy’s work. Lewy charged that it was defamatory to suggest that his scholarship was influenced by Turkish financial support.

The Southern Poverty Law Center settled the lawsuit with, in part, a retraction and apology for those statements. {snip}

The retraction says in part: “We now realize that we misunderstood Professor Lewy’s scholarship, were wrong to assert that he was part of a network financed by the Turkish Government, and were wrong to assume that any scholar who challenges the Armenian genocide narrative necessarily has been financially compromised by the Government of Turkey. We hereby retract the assertion that Professor Lewy was or is on the Government of Turkey’s payroll. To our knowledge, Professor Lewy has never sought to deny or minimize the deaths of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey; nor has he sought to minimize the Ottoman regime’s grievous wartime miscalculations or indifference to human misery in a conflict earmarked by widespread civilian suffering on all sides.”

The retraction goes on to say that Lewy’s book, The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide, “does not substantiate a premeditated plan by the Ottoman regime to destroy because of ethnicity, religion, or nationality, as opposed to deport for political-military reasons, the Armenian population,” and that in holding this view “he is joined by such distinguished scholars as Professor Bernard Lewis of Princeton University.”

{snip}

But genocide scholars were galvanized as well. They said that the Southern Poverty Law Center, as a well-respected group, had been used to encourage a view that there is widespread disagreement over what happened to the Armenians.

Gregory H. Stanton, president of Genocide Watch and a research professor in genocide studies and prevention at George Mason University, said he understood the law center’s need to settle the lawsuit. “We just wish that the statement they agreed to publish in their apology had not repeated Lewy’s claim that there was no evidence of ‘premeditation’ of the Armenian genocide.” {snip}

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