Since the publication of Denying the Holocaust in 1993, Deborah Lipstadt, a professor at Emory University, has refused to take part in debates with deniers. To do so, she argues, gives them the legitimacy they crave as “another viewpoint.” The fact that the Holocaust occurred is not a matter of opinion and should not be put on trial. Yet that’s precisely what happened when Lipstadt was sued for libel by British writer David Irving in April of this year. Irving claimed he was not a denier because his claims — that the mass murder of Jews in gas chambers is a myth and that Jews were not singled out for extermination — are “true.” Under British law, the defendant in a libel suit is required to prove her case; hence, the Holocaust itself was on trial. The case was decided in Lipstadt’s favor. The judge found that she was “substantially justified” when she described Irving as “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial.”
Lipstadt is deeply concerned about the penetration of Holocaust denial into the universities. Since the 1990s, Holocaust deniers have changed their tactics in order to insinuate themselves into university life — and amazingly, are getting a hearing there. Student newspapers are regularly approached by Bradley Smith’s group, the “Committee for Open Discussion on the Holocaust,” decrying the Holocaust as a hoax — and student editors feel compelled to run these paid ads under the impression that First Amendment rights are involved. Few seem to understand that the First Amendment refers to government censorship of free speech; newspapers refuse to print material all the time that they consider offensive, sexist, racist, or pornographic. “There is a qualitative difference between barring someone’s right to speech,” she asserts, “and providing him or her with a platform from which to deliver a message.”
Holocaust denial is always linked to a hateful antisemitic agenda, but its real purpose is not always apparent when presented in a pseudo-scholarly guise. Lipstadt cites the example of a history professor who taught that “the worst thing about Hitler is that without him there would not be an Israel,” and that “the whole Holocaust story was a ploy to allow Jews to accumulate vast amounts of wealth.” Yet when he was fired, some students complained that he had been unfairly treated, claiming that he brought articles to class that “proved his point” or that “he let us think.” Lipstadt comments: “Most sobering was the failure of many of these student leaders and opinion makers to recognize Holocaust denial for what it was. This failure suggests that, correctly cast and properly camouflaged, Holocaust denial has a good chance of finding a foothold among coming generations.”
In 1980, the late historian Lucy Dawidowicz also wrote about the presence of Holocaust deniers on college faculties (“Lies About the Holocaust,” Commentary, 1980). What especially irked her was the response of university administrators who seemed to regard the affair merely as “an unfortunate incident affecting Jewish sensibilities” as opposed to “an offense against historical truth-a matter supposedly of concern to an intellectual and academic community.” This observation echoes throughout Lipstadt’s trenchant and well-researched study.
(Reprinted from Reform Judaism Magazine with permission.)
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