G P N O R I G I N A L
PLEASE CLICK HERE FOR THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT COMPLAINT GUENTER LEWY VS. SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER
See also the story of the Turkish group's suit against the University of Minnesota.
Editorial Introduction: Sara Cohan played an important role in formulating the SPLC article on Guenter Lewy's denial of the Armenian Genocide. Here she tells the story from beginning to ending of SPLC "falling from grace" in a shameful retraction of its critique of Lewy. Perhaps the SPLC needed to withdraw unproven charges of financial interests by Lewy, but went on to an extreme that becomes a virtual denial of the Armenian Genocide. Sara Cohan -- and we at GPN with her -- is hurt and critical of the once "amazing" SPLC she admired so much.
“I think we would have won the case on summary judgment…’’ stated the Southern Poverty Law Center’s president, Richard Cohen, in a recent article published in the Boston Globe regarding their settlement in a lawsuit involving the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund (TALDF). TALDF filed a lawsuit against the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on behalf of Guenter Lewy, professor emeritus from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, shortly after the Intelligence Report, a publication of the Center, ran an article entitled “Turkey Spends Millions to Cover Up Armenian Genocide” by David Holthouse in 2008. The TALDF and Lewy claimed that statements in the article were libelous and sued for eight million dollars. Established in 2008, the TALDF has filed multiple lawsuits against groups supporting the affirmation of the Armenian Case as genocide and through manipulating the meaning of the First Amendment. In reality, the TALDF is engaging in what could be considered legal lynchings. Any institution interested in maintaining academic integrity regarding scholarship about the Armenian Genocide could fall victim to a lawsuit from this litigious organization with endless funds.
The Back Story
In 2001, I was named the Research Fellow for Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Working at Teaching Tolerance provided me with the opportunity to write a feature length article for their magazine. I chose to write about the history of the Armenian Genocide and the importance of implementing this important chapter of history in U.S. schools. Jim Carnes, the Director of Teaching Tolerance at the time, saw the subject of the Armenian Genocide and the denial of the genocide by the Turkish Government as a natural fit for an article published by the SPLC. In reaction to learning about the TALDF’s lawsuit against Holthouse and the SPLC, Carnes reflected on my article published six years earlier, “this article was one in a long line of Teaching Tolerance stories shining light in dark corners of racial, ethnic, religious, socioeconomic and other relations. In addition to its relevance for Teaching Tolerance, the article reflected the SPLC’s commitment to fighting oppression by giving voice to its victims and witnesses. “
Given the support I had received from the SPLC when my article was published, I wanted the Intelligence Report to follow suit and run an article about the efforts to deny the Armenian Genocide spearheaded by the Turkish Government and Turkish American associations in the U.S. After leaving the SPLC, I had the opportunity to pitch my story idea to a writer with the Intelligence Report. In the fall of 2007, I received word a writer had been assigned to the story. Shortly thereafter, I spoke with David Holthouse who had been assigned the article and sent him an email or two with background information on the subject. The following summer the article was published. He had done an exquisite job capturing the intensity of denial efforts in U.S. academia.
A few months later, Lewy filed his complaint and a year later I received a phone call from the attorney representing the SPLC. She explained that my emails to Holthouse were included in the body of evidence and questioned me about my thin involvement in the article. A month passed and she called again. This time there was concern over whether or not I would be deposed by the plaintiff’s attorneys. They were uneasy conversations, but I still had faith in the SPLC’s commitment to stand up to the TALDF, just as they stood their ground against the Klu Klux Klan and other hate groups many times before. When the news of the settlement found its way into my inbox on September 30, 2010, I was in shock.
Being raised in the South, I grew up hearing about the amazing work of Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center. I was a teen when they effectively shutdown an entire branch of the KKK after a man was lynched less than seventy miles from my home. I was proud to work for them and proud of Holthouse’s article. So, on September 30, all I could feel was bitter disappointment. My childhood heroes were now in cahoots with genocide deniers.
After the Southern Poverty Law Center published the article condemning the manipulation of higher education institutions in the U.S. by the Turkish Government and Turkish American special interest groups, the TALDF and Guenter Lewy lost no time in filing a complaint with the United States District Court, District of Columbia against the author, David Holthouse and the SPLC. One problematic section of the article by Holthouse reads “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.” Whether or not the statement contained some level of truth was not addressed in a court of law. Even if the statement was erroneous, the retraction the SPLC offered as part of the settlement was unethical and paramount to genocide denial. Why would the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization known worldwide for their legal expertise, settle a case their own president claimed they could have won? The Southern Poverty Law Center has appropriately discredited genocide deniers, like David Irving, yet Cohen described Lewy as “… a proper guy, he has a sense of honor…”
In a letter issued by past presidents of the International Association of Genocide Scholars
Consider historian Guenter Lewy, whose concept of the writing of moral-historical tracts, highly praised as "sophisticated and profound," is misrepresentation of documents, uncritical regurgitation of government claims, and dismissal of annoying facts that contradict them, and whose concept of morality is such as to legitimate virtually any atrocity against civilians once the state has issued its commands.
Guenter Lewy is no stranger to controversy. Lewy has spent much of his career supporting unpopular and often morally questionable views of historical events. He not only denies the Armenian Case as genocide in his quasi-intellectual work, The Armenian Massacres in Ottoman Turkey: A Disputed Genocide, but also denies the Roma and Sinti were victims of genocide during the Holocaust, denies the genocide of the Native Americans in the United States and contends that U.S. military actions against civilians in Vietnam were exaggerated.
Lewy was raised in German and he and his family fled for Palestine shortly after Kristallnacht (1938) for. Lewy’s publications demonstrate a preoccupation with protecting the “uniqueness” of the Holocaust as a Jewish-centric event that not only illustrates what genocide is but infers that it is one of the only examples of genocide in modern history. Maybe because of his status as a victim of Nazi Germany which is included in the complaint, or because of his early contributions to Holocaust studies, his work is welcomed at the United States Holocaust Museum and Memorial (USHMM). He has lectured at the USHMM on the subject of the Roma and Sinti during the Holocaust. The biography of Lewy posted on USHMM’s website does not mention his inclination toward deny genocides that are firmly established fact. Nor does his biography mention that he denies that what happened to the Roma and Sinti during the Holocaust constitutes genocide. In fact, the USHMM rightfully calls the persecution of the Roma and Sinti during the Holocaust genocide which is in direct opposition to Lewy’s of the subject. Those who deny that Jews were victims of genocide during the Holocaust are not invited lecturers at the museum. To include Lewy, the USHMM has demonstrated that they apply different standards for different victims of genocide.
Lewy’s work, or rather the acceptance of some of his writings, illuminates the double standards that a few institutions maintain for victims of genocide. The SPLC and the USHMM have both demonstrated that certain victims of genocide should receive more respect than others. They have both supported what prominent scholar Gregory Stanton calls the final stage of genocide- denial.
The story of the fall of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s fall from grace has the same tragic elements of a Faulkner novel. Established in 1971, the SPLC has grown to be one of the premier civil rights organizations in the United States. They have taken on the Klu Klux Klan, the Aryan Nation and other notoriously wicked hate groups and won. The founder, Morris Dees, has received hundreds of death threats as have many on staff. The building was firebombed in 1983. It is an organization that should receive high praise for their tireless work fight hate groups across the U.S, their dedication to juvenile justice issues and concern for worker’s rights. Every employee at the SPLC, has to be aware of the violent threats regularly received by staff members.
On the whole, the SPLC represented a team of professionals dedicated to protecting the underdog. This lawsuit unfortunately publically exposed another side to the SPLC. The author of the article, David Holthouse, was laid off from the SPLC after the lawsuit was filed. The article was edited by staff members at the center, but his name was on the byline. He is a well respected journalist who continues to write about injustice and is determined expose the truth regardless of the consequences.
The Unsettling Settlement
A settlement was reached between SPLC and Lewy in September, 2010—two years after the article was published. The full conditions of the settlement have not been publically disclosed. The only aspect of the settlement that has been made public by either party was the decree that a retraction run in publications including the Chronicles of Higher Education and New York Review of Books and a financial payment was made to Lewy. Not only did the SPLC recant their comment that Lewy received funds from the Turkish government, they asserted that Lewy’s argument for denying a well-documented genocide was valid, despite the overwhelming evidence indicating the Armenian case was indeed genocide. They also failed to mention that Lewy’s “scholarly” work on the subject had received harsh criticism from such esteemed scholars as Taner Akcam of Clark University who blasted Lewy’s research in a review of published in the journal Genocide Studies and Prevention.
In September 2010, just days before the SPLC settled with Lewy, the Assembly of Turkish American Associations issued a press release highlighting a new educational campaign in Alabama—the home state of the SPLC. The goal of the campaign is to educate two thousand teachers in Alabama on Turkish history and culture. ATAA President, Gunay Evinch, is characterized as the "key supporter of the Spotlight program" in the press release. Evinch is partners with David Saltzman who served as co-counsel in the SPLC case for the TALDF. Their firm has provided legal counsel for the Turkish Government (Turklaw.net). One of the contributors to the “Spotlight on Turkey Program” was a law firm (Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP) hired by the SPLC to represent them against Lewy and the TALDF. Other contributors included the Embassy of the Republic of Turkey, Washington, D.C, and the Turkish Cultural Foundation. Some of the Spotlight partners were the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, Consul General of Turkey, Houston, Embassy of the Republic of Turkey, Washington, D.C., Foreign Ministry of Turkey, Istanbul Center, Atlanta, Turkish Cultural Foundation and the Turkish American Association of Alabama. A partner in the firm representing SPLC, T.Atkins Roberts, served on the Board of Directors for the initiative.
After the settlement was publicized, genocide scholars around the world were outraged. The past presidents of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) issued a letter to the SPLC condemning them for publishing a retraction that promotes genocide denial by supporting the idea that it is ethical and academically sound to question the Armenian Case as genocide. One poignant passage of the letter reads:
In that sense it can be said that 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…
Richard Cohen responded to the letter by stating ““We hope that others do not confuse our retraction and apology to Professor Lewy as an endorsement of his view on the genocide question.” Seven of the most prominent scholars in the field of genocide studies did not misunderstand the retraction. Cohen’s statement simply indicates an unwillingness to stand up for justice regarding the Armenian Case in a court of law.
While Cohen and the SPLC did not have the determination to advocate for the victims of genocide, other institutions are taking the high road and winning when confronted with outrageous lawsuits filed by the TALDF and other Turkish American groups. On January 19, 2011, the State of Massachusetts was victorious in the case, Griswold vs. Driscoll case against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal to a lower court ruling to dismiss the case. The Assembly of Turkish American Associations (ATAA) and the TALDF both supported the plaintiffs who were demanding that genocide denial materials be added to educational materials approved by the Massachusetts Department of Education.
The University of Minnesota felt the wrath of the TALDF on November 30, 2010 when they were sued for challenging the academic legitimacy of certain websites promoting genocide denial. The university did not back down and are ready to fight the lawsuit.
“The Civil Rights Memorial fountain at the SPLC displays the names of individuals whose stories went untold for decades, often silenced by elaborate systems of denial. Through the simple, moral acts of telling and listening, backed by sound research, stories like these light a path out of the darkness,” commented Jim Carnes, past Director of Teaching Tolerance. Richard Cohen’s office faces the Memorial. Maybe one day he will truly understand the meaning of the Civil Rights Memorial and realize the SPLC’s retraction and willingness to settle this abhorrent lawsuit is in direct opposition of what a civil rights institution should stand for—demanding justice for the victim.
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PLEASE CLICK HERE FOR THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT COMPLAINT GUENTER LEWY VS. SOUTHERN POVERTY LAW CENTER
Sara Cohan is the Education Director of The Genocide Education Project. Having earned her Master of Science degree in Social Science Education from Florida State University and her Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology/Sociology from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, Cohan has taught secondary education in Florida, including in an International Baccalaureate program.
Cohan received the George Washington Medal of Honor from the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, for the service-learning projects she implemented, including a comprehensive project with Nobel Peace Laureate, Betty Williams. During her tenure as a teacher, she was also selected as a Justice Teaching Fellow by the Supreme Court of Florida and received a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship to study Islam and Europe. She was a Fulbright-Hays scholar in Mexico, where she studied education and culture.
She is very familiar with genocide education, both from her professional experience and her family history, being a descendant of Armenian Genocide and having lost extended family in the Holocaust. As a research fellow for Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center she published her first piece on the Armenian Genocide.
Sara Cohan has written articles for journals and magazines, and created educational materials for a variety of organizations, including The Genocide Education Project, the National Council for the Social Studies, POV (a production of American Documentary, Inc.), and the ACLU. Recently, she authored an essay entitled "My Grandfather's Testimony" which is included in the book Evoking Genocide: Scholars and Activists Describe the Works that Shaped their Lives edited by Adam Jones.