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Turk-Armenian fight over history goes to U.S. court

Thursday, October 27, 2005

By Kara Scannell, The Wall Street Journal

Nearly a century ago, perhaps a million or more Christian Armenians were slaughtered by Muslim Turks. It ranks among history’s major instances of genocide.

Or is “genocide” the wrong word?

For generations, Turks and Armenians have argued the point. Armenians say it was genocide, pure and simple. Some Turks respond that the deaths were a tragic byproduct of World War I and that both Turks and Armenians died.

Now, a Turkish group wants to settle the issue, American-style: in court.

Yesterday in U.S. District Court in Boston, two public high-school teachers, one student and the Assembly of Turkish American Associations filed suit challenging a Massachusetts statute that uses the word “genocide” to describe the Armenian deaths. The law sets guidelines for teaching about human rights in the state. The lawsuit argues that the state violates the plaintiffs’ free-speech rights by excluding from the curriculum a view of events more favorable to the Turks.

In 1915, during World War I, the Ottoman Empire under the Young Turk government sided with Germany against the Allies. Countless Armenians were killed or forced off their land. Many starved to death in the desert.

Armenian groups say it was a concerted effort to force Christians out of the predominantly Muslim empire. Turkish groups say that the Armenians were collaborating with the Allies.

The legal spat in Massachusetts has its roots in a Thanksgiving dinner when two state politicians who are brothers of Irish descent decided that students in the state should learn more about human-rights violations. Their particular interest was the Irish potato famine in the mid-1800s, which killed hundreds of thousands of people. Many Irish people blame British policies for the famine.

Because the brothers, Steve and Warren Tolman, grew up in Watertown, Mass. — home to one of the largest Armenian populations in the U.S. — they had heard horror stories from Armenian families for years. They sought to include the killings in the bill.

“It was under the guise of ‘Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it,’ ” says Steve Tolman, who is now a state senator. The statute, passed in 1998, says the Massachusetts Department of Education should develop guidelines for a curriculum that discusses slavery, the Irish famine, fascism in Italy, the Holocaust and other human-rights violations. The list includes a specific reference to “the Armenian genocide.”

When the education department started writing the guidelines, early versions provided teachers with the contact information for organizations sympathetic to the Turkish view. But after protests from Armenian groups those references were stripped out.

The resulting guidelines represent a free-speech violation, the lawsuit contends. “Shutting one side off from the discussion and taking a place away at the table is unconstitutional,” says Harvey Silverglate, a First Amendment lawyer who is advising the Turkish Associations.

The debate has nagged at Turkey over the years as it seeks to join the European Union. Several EU countries have pressured Turkey to acknowledge the killings as genocide. Turkey’s official position is that, while the deaths were horrific, they weren’t genocide. Although a 1986 report adopted by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights labeled the killings genocide, the U.N. hasn’t taken an official position on the dispute.

A U.N. convention officially defines genocide as acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Webster’s New World Dictionary, Fourth College Edition, defines it as “the systematic killing of, or a program of action intended to destroy, a whole national or ethnic group.”

The U.S. government, which considers Turkey an important ally, doesn’t call the Armenian deaths genocide. In April, on the 90th anniversary of the killings, President Bush called them a “terrible event” and a “human tragedy.”

The Massachusetts case isn’t the first time the issue has ended up in a U.S. court. This month, French insurer AXA agreed to pay $17 million, without admitting wrongdoing, to settle claims brought by descendants of Armenians killed in 1915. The descendants said a company later bought by AXA failed to pay off life-insurance policies to heirs of Armenian victims. Mark Geragos, the celebrity lawyer who defended Scott Peterson this year in his well-publicized murder trial, represented the policyholders. Mr. Geragos, who is of Armenian descent, called the settlement an important step toward “our ultimate goal, which is for Turkey and the U.S. to officially acknowledge the genocide.” AXA says it doesn’t take a position on the issue.

At one point the Massachusetts guidelines included a list of four resources from the Turkish side, including the Embassy of Turkey in the U.S. This came at the urging of the Turkish American Cultural Society of New England. Its president, Erkut Gomulu, wrote to the education department in 1999: “There is no academic consensus that there was in fact a deliberate plan of genocide against the Armenians by the Ottoman Empire.”

Then four regional Armenian National Committees of Massachusetts sent a joint letter to the governor and issued a press release demanding the removal of “racist sources” from the guide, referring to them as “genocide denial.” The final guidelines include references only to four Armenian groups. Negotiations with Turkish groups broke down this year and the groups decided to sue, says Mr. Silverglate.

David Driscoll, the Massachusetts commissioner of education, says his hands are tied because of the statute’s specific reference to “Armenian genocide.” “If the legislation said the world is flat and we had to implement it, we’d have to do it,” he says. However, teachers may approach the subject any way they want, according to Mr. Driscoll.

James Peyser, chairman of the state Board of Education, who is named in the suit, says he’s willing to consider other “academically sound” materials about the events but “I don’t think we’re in a position to simply cite a Web site that says it didn’t occur.”

Mr. Silverglate, the lawyer, argues that since the Turkish groups’ materials were at one point included in the teachers’ guide, it’s censorship to later remove them. He’s basing that on a 1982 Supreme Court decision that says once a book is admitted into a library on academic grounds, it can’t be removed for improper reasons. To do so violates the First Amendment of the Constitution, the court said.

“The whole point is that it is an issue for a free marketplace of ideas to resolve,” says Mr. Silverglate.

Dikran Kaligian, chairman of the Armenian National Committee of America’s Eastern Region, says “presenting alternate viewpoints is fine if they have some kind of legitimate basis to them.” He says Turkish groups wanted to include “Web sites that are mouthing the official Turkish position” and not academic, peer-reviewed resources.

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