Armenians get allies in genocide teachings

Group stands up 'against denial'

April 20, 2006
Source: The Boston Globe (Massachusetts)

By Yvonne Abraham

Leading politicians and groups from a range of communities are joining with Armenians in their battle to ensure that the Armenians' early-20th-century history be taught as genocide.

The Armenians are fighting a federal lawsuit that seeks to include opposing views of the genocide in teaching materials for Massachusetts high schools.

A new group, called kNOw Genocide, includes the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Irish Immigration Center, the Massachusetts Council of Churches, Rwanda Outlook, and the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, among others. Standing with them will be Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey -- both gubernatorial candidates -- and several state legislators.

A rally tomorrow at the State House is expected to draw representatives from the diverse coalition, in a testament to the political clout that the Armenian community has in Massachusetts.

"This allows our community, together with other communities, to stand together against denial," said Anthony Barsamian, a member of the Armenian Assembly of America board, based in Washington. "And those who try to deny genocide will be beaten back."

The coalition is being launched at a time of considerable debate over events in Ottoman Turkey early last century. Several PBS stations were criticized this week for airing a documentary called ''The Armenian Genocide" and declining to air an accompanying panel discussion that included scholars who have denied that a genocide took place.

Those who believe that both views should be heard accused PBS stations, including Boston's WGBH, of bowing to pressure from Armenians and their supporters.

Armenians and many historians have long maintained that the events of 1915 in Ottoman Turkey -- in which more than 1 million Armenians were killed and many more were driven from their homes -- constituted genocide.

In Massachusetts, home to about 30,000 Armenians, legislators established a day of remembrance for victims.

But the Turkish government, and some historians, say what happened should not be described as genocide because the deaths were part of a civil war that resulted in the murder of innocent people on both sides.

In the lawsuit, now pending at US District Court in Boston, a teacher and a student from Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, and the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, have demanded that the state Department of Education include dissenting views on the Armenian genocide in a curriculum guide on the topic.

A draft of that guide originally included the dissenting views, but did not mandate that they be taught in Massachusetts schools. The plaintiffs say the removal violates freedom of speech.
The attorney general, who is defending the state, argues that because the curriculum guide is a government document, it is not bound by free speech. Armenians and supporters say presenting opposing views of the 1915 events is like denying the Holocaust.

The struggle has drawn support from other groups who say they speak from their own painful histories of oppression.

"As members of the Jewish community, we identify with the Armenian community in terms of the Armenian genocide, and it's important to fight denial," said Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston. "We thought this was a battle that had been won long ago."

Harvey Silverglate, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the Department of Education suit, said his clients are not denying that a genocide took place. "We are not admitting it, we're not denying it, we're taking no position," he said. "We simply want to open up the avenues for honest debate and restore the censored articles to the Massachusetts curriculum."