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. While the genocide scholars have not objected to the idea of a correction, they argue that the center, in apologizing, went too far beyond the mere fact that Lewy's scholarship was not supported financially by Turkey.
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."
The retraction was hailed by groups that support Turkey's position that a genocide didn't take place.
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." He said that statement is "beyond a shadow of a doubt" not true -- and that the Southern Poverty Law Center is helping to suggest otherwise.
Stanton -- along with six other past presidents of the International Association of Genocide Scholars -- wrote to the center denouncing the retraction. The letter states that the retraction is "congruent with the Turkish government’s tactics of denying the Armenian genocide in order to falsify history for the purpose of its nationalist agenda." Further, the letter states that the retraction places Lewy's view of what happened to the Armenians as a legitimate interpretation in a way that "ignores the entire corpus of decades of scholarship on the Armenian genocide." By ignoring the substantial criticism of Lewy's book, the letter says, the center has given it more credibility.
"Professor Lewy has lent his academic training to the continued denial of the Armenian genocide by Turkey, and through this apology, the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose mission statement claims the organization is 'dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry,' unfortunately lends support to this unscholarly and unethical perspective," the letter concludes.
Lewy's book has been criticized by many scholars of the period. In an interview in 2007, Lewy told Inside Higher Ed that the University of Utah Press published the book only after he was turned down for publication 11 times, including at least four rejections from other university presses. (He said at the time that he was turned down because of a reluctance to consider his positions.)
Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, responded to the letter by sending his own note to the scholars in which he said that "like you, we believe that the weight of scholarly opinion supports the conclusion that the murder of Armenians during World War I should be characterized as a genocide. We said as much in the article we published in 2008, and nothing in our retraction changes our position."
He added that while the center had an obligation to correct the false assertion about Lewy receiving financial support from Turkey, "we hope that others do not confuse our retraction and apology to Professor Lewy as an endorsement of his view on the genocide question." (This letter, unlike the retraction, does not appear on the center's website, Cohen confirmed.)
In an e-mail interview, Cohen added that the center had told Lewy's lawyers -- prior to the suit being filed -- that it was willing to correct the error about Turkey. Cohen said he viewed the suit not only as being about Lewy, but as an effort "to make a point on behalf of those [who have] denied that the murder of Armenians during World War I should be characterized as a genocide."
Lawyers for the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund -- which represented Lewy and which is suing the University of Minnesota over a website, changed shortly before the suit was filed, that declared information contesting the Armenian genocide to be "unreliable" -- issued a statement in response an inquiry about the genocide scholars' letter.
The Turkish American statement notes instances in American history, such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, in which "racist premises" led to false conclusions that were widely believed at the time. The genocide scholars who objected to the retraction "have learned nothing" from such incidents, the statement says, by "insisting that to question their gospel on the Armenian thesis is to blaspheme, deserving of excommunication from the academic community."
The genocide scholars are "the true 'denialists,' " the statement continues, in that "[t]hey deny that the genocide allegation is a genuine historic controversy. A consensus created by ignoring all contradictory evidence is a charade, especially for a group supposedly composed of scholars.... The audacity of IAGS past presidents to cite their own organization as the definitive word on the Armenian thesis gives new meaning to 'chutzpah.' IAGS’ serial pronouncements were made without notice or an opportunity for the accused to be heard. And IAGS voting members were not screened for knowledge of the Armenian issue or impartiality. These are glaring affronts to due process and historical accuracy, especially since no impartial tribunal has ever adjudicated the Armenian genocide allegation, in contrast to the Holocaust."
Further, the statement criticizes the Southern Poverty Law Center's most recent statement to the genocide scholars, saying that the center "displays" a "lack of neutrality." The Turkish American statement adds of the center: "Their marquee mission is identifying and condemning 'haters,' i.e., individuals and groups who employ epithets, threats, or violence against others based on ethnicity, nationality, religion, or viewpoint. We ... are chronically threatened, mainly by Armenian individuals and groups, for defending a free marketplace of ideas."