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 argument.”
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 engagements.
"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 allegations.)
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."