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Jews enter genocide debate in schools

By Ted Siefer – Monday January 2 2006

A historical photo of alleged victims of the Armenian genocide.

Controversy erupts over what should be taught

Two prominent Jewish lawyers have lined up on opposite sides of a sensitive legal battle over how the Armenian genocide is taught in Massachusetts public schools.

Last week, local Armenians and the Watertown chapter of the Armenian Assembly of America filed a motion to halt a lawsuit brought in October by the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, which accuses the state Department of Education of promoting one point of view on the historical disaster.

Armenians have long claimed that more than 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey were killed 1915 as part of a genocidal campaign, recognition of which has long been championed by Holocaust survivor and Boston University professor Elie Wiesel.

Lawyer Arnie Rosenfeld, who is representing the Armenians, rejected the notion that the Department of Education was violating free speech rights by not teaching Turkish point of view; the Turkish government has maintained that there never was a systematic campaign to kill Armenians and the deaths that occurred were the result of inter-ethnic strife, disease and famine during the turmoil of World War I.

“[The Turkish Association] has tried to manufacture a First Amendment issue; they’ve created this out of whole cloth,” Rosenfeld said. “The law is clear. The state has an absolute right to teach what it wants. Constitutional law states that unequivocally.”

First Amendment lawyer and writer Harvey Silverglate, who is representing the Turkish group, has argued that, regardless of the subject, the government should not impose on a teacher or student a position on controversial historical subjects.

“My opinion is those who are professionally assigned the role of teaching deserve a certain amount of deference and should not be countermanded by political people or political bodies strictly for political or ideological reasons,” Silverglate said. “History should be left to the historians, not the politicians.”

Asked in an interview in early November on NECN’s “NewsNight” if he would be willing to represent someone who wanted a pro-Holocaust point of view taught in school, Silverglate said: “Absolutely, because if educational officials had decided that both sides of the Holocaust should be examined, I think it’s improper and unconstitutional for political authorities to insist that one side come out.”

The department of education mandated teaching about the alleged Armenian genocide as part of a curriculum on human rights in 1993, but issued a revised guide in 1999, the “Guide to Choosing and Using Curricular Materials on Genocide and Human Rights Issues.” The guide, which addresses historical human rights abuses like slavery in America, the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide and the Irish famine, eliminated references to materials that supported the Turkish point of view on the Armenian disaster.

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