A Paris Court of Justice has criticized statements made by historian Bernard Lewis about Armenians in an interview with the French daily Le Monde.
In the November 1993 interview, Lewis said he would not label the massacres of Armenians by the Turks in 1915 “genocide.” His comments led to an outcry in the Armenian community here – as well as a legal controversy.
The court recently ordered Lewis to pay for his lack of prudence.
Lewis, whose area of study is the Islamic Near East, refused to comment.
A Princeton University professor, Lewis’ scholarly work has dealt with Arab and Turkish history, and he has written numerous books, including “The Emergence of Modern Turkey” and “Istanbul and the Civilization of the Ottoman Empire.” In 1986, he wrote “Semites and Anti-Semites.”
Lewis’ comments came after he was asked by Le Monde why the Turks still refuse to recognize an Armenian genocide.
Part of the historian’s lengthy answer included, “There is no doubt that terrible things did take place, that numerous Armenians – and Turks – did perish. But one will perhaps never know the exact circumstances and the number of victims.
“During their deportation to Syria, hundreds of thousands of Armenians died of hunger and of cold. But if one speaks of genocide, this implies that there was a deliberate policy, a decision to systematically annihilate the Armenian nation. This is very doubtful, Turkish documents prove a will to deport, not to exterminate.”
Ten days later, Le Monde published an appeal signed by some 30 French intellectuals, mostly on the political left and Jewish, accusing Lewis of “betraying the truth and offending the victims.”
In a response to the appeal in the newspaper, the historian said there was no serious proof of an organized Ottoman plan to eradicate the Armenian nation.
This statement infuriated several Armenian associations in France, which, together with the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, decided to sue Lewis on various counts.
An extreme right-wing French association, Against Racism and for the Respect of the French and Christian Identity, an offshoot of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, sued Lewis for “anti-Christian racism.” That suit was thrown out of court.
Apparently, a total of four lawsuits were filed.
The case brought by the Armenian groups and the international league was heard.
In their decision, three Paris judges said it was not the court’s role to say whether the massacres of Armenians were genocide.
“The courts haven’t got a mission to arbitrate and to decide about polemics of controversies triggered by events of history,” the court said, adding, “A historian enjoys, by principle, a total freedom to expose, according to his personal views, the facts, the acts and the attitudes of the men or groups of men having taken part in the events he chooses to research.”
But the judges also ruled that “the historian cannot escape the common law linking a certain freedom to a necessary responsibility.”
With that in mind, they ruled that Lewis erred when he said that the Armenian genocide was only a matter of Armenian imagination.
“His declarations, likely to unjustly reactivate the pain of the Armenian community, are faulty and justify a compensation,” the court said.
The court ordered Lewis to pay one symbolic franc, which is about one-fifth of a dollar, as damages. Lewis also has to compensate the groups that brought the suit against him, the court ruled, adding that the judgment has to be printed in Le Monde.
Lewis will not appeal the case, his French lawyer said.