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‘The government shouldn’t be deciding or legislating historical truth. It should be done by scholars, teachers, and students.’ -- Ted Griswold
‘The government shouldn’t be deciding or legislating historical truth. It should be done by scholars, teachers, and students.’ -- Ted Griswold
‘It is not something that should be decided by the students. It happened. It has been decided.’ -- Armine Dedekian
‘It is not something that should be decided by the students. It happened. It has been decided.’ -- Armine Dedekian (Photos by David Kamerman/ Globe Staff)

Suit opens old wounds

Teacher, student seek all views in 1915 deaths of 1m Armenians

History teacher Bill Schechter and high school senior Ted Griswold believe their lawsuit is about a worthy and innocent educational principle: presenting different views of a tricky and disputed historical topic. The Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School teacher and his student believe that when Massachusetts high school students learn about the deaths of at least 1 million Armenians in Turkey during the early part of the 20th century, they should be taught that, while many historians call it a genocide, there are some who disagree.

But to the Armenians caught up in those horrific events and their descendants, the lawsuit dishonors the people who died in massacres and forced deportations committed by the Turks. They say presenting opposing views of those events is like denying the Holocaust or saying the earth is flat. And they say the case has reopened a battle many Armenians in Massachusetts thought they had already won.

''It is a major insult to those who died during the genocide, and for those survivors who are now listening to this being questioned," said Aram Chobanian, president emeritus of Boston University, whose grandfather and great-grandfather were killed during that period. ''You bring back these memories to these people, the trauma and the horrible experiences. . . . There is no dispute in terms of whether it is a genocide or not. It is an affront that it's still being questioned."

At issue are events in the Ottoman Empire in 1915, in which more than 1 million Armenians died and many more were driven from their homes in what is now Turkey. Armenians have long maintained that the deaths and deportations were the results of a concerted effort by the Turks to eradicate them -- genocide. Many historians, and some European nations, agree with them.

Although the US government has stopped short of calling the events of 1915 genocide, Massachusetts lawmakers have been far friendlier to the Armenian position. In the Commonwealth, home to about 30,000 Armenians, state legislators established a day of remembrance for victims of the Armenian genocide. The Globe once prohibited the use of the word genocide to describe the 1915 events, but now allows the use of the term.

But the Turkish government, and some US historians, say the Armenian deaths and deportations should not be labeled genocide. They argue that the violence and upheavals came in the context of a war that brought great loss of life on all sides, and that the killings were a response to a massive armed rebellion by Armenians that began before the war broke out.

''There was killing on both sides and both sides have suffered. . . . But what happened does not fit the definition of genocide," said Narguiz Abbaszade, executive director of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations.

In the suit, Schechter, Griswold and the other plaintiffs, which include the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, argue that those views should be made available to the state's high school students. Central to their case is the claim that the Department of Education had included other viewpoints on the Armenian genocide in its 1999 curriculum guide, then removed them under political pressure from Armenians and their supporters on Beacon Hill, including Senator Steven A. Tolman, who represents Watertown, home to many Armenians. That amounts to censorship, said Harvey Silverglate, the attorney who represents the plaintiffs.

''After having decided it was educationally suitable to include both sides, the Department of Education succumbed to political pressure from a legislator and censored it out," Silverglate said. ''That is unconstitutional."

But Schechter, Griswold, and the other plaintiffs say they are not trying to take a position on how the events should be classified, much less add to Armenians' suffering.

''This is a censorship case, not a historical controversy," Silverglate said.

They say their aim is merely to protect students' right to understand that what happened to Armenians is still a matter of historical dispute.

''There are a great majority of people who consider it a genocide, but a small minority do not think of it as genocide," Griswold said. ''The government shouldn't be deciding or legislating historical truth. It should be done by scholars, teachers, and students."

The removal of dissenting viewpoints on the Armenian genocide from the curriculum guide is an example of the government ''arrogating to itself the right to determine what is true and what is not true," Schechter said. ''We can give students different points of view, and certainly not remove one point of view because of political pressure. [Otherwise], it's a slippery slope."

Omitting dissenting views on the Armenian genocide, he said, is something the Communist regime of the former Soviet Union might have done.

But Erwin Chemerinsky, a lawyer for the Department of Education, says that under state and federal law the government decides what is taught in state schools.

''If the government wants to teach the Holocaust happened, Holocaust deniers don't get to go to court and say it didn't," said Chemerinsky, who is also a professor of law at Duke University. ''If the government wants to teach the earth is round, the flat earth society doesn't get to go to court and say it isn't. . . . If a group that doesn't like a curriculum can challenge it like this, then there are no limits to the lawsuits that can be brought."

Schechter counters that neither Holocaust deniers nor flat-earthers have any credibility, while several respected historians, including Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, believe the suffering of the Armenians does not qualify as genocide.

Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, who is fighting the suit on behalf of the Department of Education, filed a motion Friday to have the case dismissed. His lawyers argue that the First Amendment cannot be applied to statements by the government, including curriculum guidelines. Also, they say, the statute of limitations on the case has expired.

Earlier last week, Chemerinsky filed a motion to have Armenian survivors and their supporters added as defendants in the case. Among them is John Kasparian, 98, who lived through those years, and says he narrowly escaped death when his family fled his village hours before Turks gathered all of the Armenians in a barn and set it alight.

For Kasparian, the dispute comes down to something more fundamental than such philosophical considerations as the first amendment and who should be deciding historical truth.

Kasparian said he is living proof that the Turkish version of the genocide is false.

''I am here," he said. ''It's a genocide. We've got proof it happened, black and white."

Griswold, Schechter, and Silverglate have repeatedly said they take no position on whether the Armenian deaths constitute genocide.

Settling the historical record is irrelevant, they say, and their only concern is protecting free speech.

''We do not deny it was a genocide," Silverglate said. ''We don't get to that point. The whole point is to allow students and teachers to discuss whether it is or it isn't."

Survivors say even debating whether genocide took place is an affront.

''It is not something that should be decided by the students," said Armine Dedekian, whose family fled the Turks three times, and who lost many family members to the violence and chaos. ''I was 1 year old when they killed my father. I have never seen him. It happened. It has been decided."

Yvonne Abraham can be reached at abraham@globe.com.

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