The great medieval rabbi-physician-philosopher Moses Maimonides wrote that the human mind is too limited to comprehend and express what God is; but it can make an approach to understanding by saying what God is not.
Scholar of Holocaust denial Deborah E. Lipstadt said Sunday that this via negativa (negative road) is how she would approach the question of how dangerous the Holocaust denial movement is at the beginning of the 21st century.
Lipstadt was the keynote speaker at the Ateret Cohn Holocaust Educators Symposium, held March 2-3 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The symposium’s theme was “Teaching the Holocaust: Lessons for the Future.”
Speaking to an audience of about 300 — the some 70 teachers and education students who participated in the symposium plus a general audience, Lipstadt said she can’t say how threatening Holocaust denial will be.
But she lauded the efforts of the symposium and the participants. “If not for these efforts, Holocaust denial will have an easier path” in the coming years, Lipstadt said.
“Your work is avodat kodesh, holy work,” Lipstadt said to the symposium participants.
Hard core, soft core
Lipstadt has become especially famous for having been sued in a British court for libel by Holocaust denying British historian David Irving. Her triumph in the case, which began in 1996 and concluded in 2000, decisively discredited Irving.
Lipstadt spent most of her presentation talking about the trial, showing how her advocates demonstrated that Irving in his works lied about events, distorted the evidence of documents, tried to “whitewash Hitler” by falsifying his statements; and proved that he himself is a white supremacist and racist.
She also called attention to the Web site “Holocaust Denial on Trial” (www.hdot.org) that contains full information about the trial, including the full text of the judge’s decision and transcripts of the testimony.
But while what Lipstadt calls “hard core denial” — the anti-Semitic claims that Jews have lied about the Holocaust to get money — in the West suffered a major setback from Irving v. Lipstadt, it remains “a growth industry” in the Arab-Muslim world, Lipstadt said.
To help counter this, Lipstadt said a project is underway to translate the “Holocaust Denial on Trial” site into Arabic and Farsi (the language of Iran).
Moreover, what she calls “soft core denial” — comparing Israel to the Nazis — “goes on” in the West.
In response to questions, Lipstadt said that there can be no doubt that the Armenians living in Ottoman Turkey endured a genocide during the World War I period.
But she also said she could understand how some Jews are trying to downplay this, given that the Turkish government has made some subtle and not-subtle threats about Turkey-Israel relations and the safety of Turkey’s Jewish community. “The Turks are playing with the lives of people,” she said.
She also said that “there’s nothing we can do about” Iran’s Holocaust denying president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But she said that friends of hers who have authoritative knowledge of Iran have told her that “he is not long for the political world.”
Lipstadt also sharply criticized Norman Finkelstein, a son of Holocaust survivors and an anti-Israel political scientist recently denied tenure at DePaul University in Chicago. He is the author of “The Holocaust Industry,” a purported critique of Jewish attempts to exploit the Holocaust for gain.
While Finkelstein is not a Holocaust denier, Lipstadt said that his book is “completely wrong,” and “filled with mistakes and misstatements,” including assertions about Lipstadt herself that “are not true.”
Lipstadt is director of the Rabbi Donald A. Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University in Atlanta. She is author of “Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust” (1993), “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory” (1994 and the book for which Irving sued her), and her account of the case “History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving” (2005).
The symposium, named for Milwaukee educator Ateret Cohn (1922-2005), was sponsored by the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of the Coalition for Jewish Learning, the education program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, in collaboration with the Milwaukee Jewish Council for Community Relations, the Wisconsin Society for Jewish Learning, the UWM Center for Jewish Studies, the UWM Cultures and Communities Program and the Hillel/Jewish Student Union at UWM.
It received support from the Jewish Community Foundation, the endowment development program of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, the Helen Bader Foundation and the Lucy and Jack Rosenberg Philanthropic Fund.