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Truth is best weapon against Shoah denial
March 3rd, 2006
Rome (JTA) - David Irving’s arrest and three-year jail sentence for having denied the Holocaust has been met with a chorus of cheers in the Jewish community. At long last, justice seemed to prevail.
This notorious liar was once considered a prominent historian. Many people were delighted that prison would now house a man who has called Jews cockroaches, believes black newscasters should be relegated to reading news of criminals and drug busts, and asked a survivor how much money she had made from having a number tattooed on her arm.
After the verdict, my blog (Lipstadt.blogspot.com) was flooded with expressions of delight. Most people assumed I was dancing the hora.
I fought this man’s libel charge against me for six years. For over three months, I had to sit silently in court in London listening to him say the most horrible things about Jews, people of color and survivors.
Quietly and meticulously, relying on a dream team of historians, we showed that all — not many, not most, but all — of Irving’s claims were based on distortions and fabrications.
They were, as the prominent historian Richard Evans and the leader of our research team, said, “A tissue of lies.” In no way, Evans continued, could this man even be thought of as a historian.
During my trial, Irving kept trying to introduce evidence of a world Jewish cabal or global conspiracy against him. He described me as “the gold-tipped spearhead of the enemies of truth,” his euphemism for the Jews.
He laughed at survivors, declaring them l iars or psychopaths. And he called the judge — in a very telling slip — “Mein Fuhrer.”
Irving suffered an overwhelming loss. When the judge, in a 350-page judgment, said he “perverts,” “distorts,” “lies,” and that his conclusions are a “travesty,” his reputation was left in tatters. When two courts of appeal concurred, he faced financial ruin.
Why then was I not delighted with the court sentence handed down in Vienna on Feb. 20?
I am writing this in Rome, where I am preparing to teach a course on the Holocaust at the Pontifical Gregorian University, the Jesuit university affiliated with the Vatican.
For centuries the church censored Jewish books, forcing Jews to remove anything the church authorities deemed objectionable to Christianity. Even prayers were censored. We Jews, who have suffered from censorship, should not be supporting it.
Moreover, I don’t believe censorship is efficacious. It renders the censored item into forbidden fruit, making it more appealing, not less so.
Here in Europe, as in many quarters in the United States, this discussion has been joined with the debate over the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed.
Various Jewish organizations have pointed out — rightly — that the Muslims so vigorously protesting the insult they perceive in these cartoons have lived comfortably for many years with anti-Semitic cartoons. Some are worthy of what one found in Der Sturmer, the Nazi anti-Semitic newspaper.
While it is legitimate to argue that there is a difference between cartoons and the murder of millions of people, it is hard to argue for laws against Holocaust denial but demand that the Danish cartoonists’ freedom of speech be protected. It suggests a double standard.
More importantly, there is a far better way to fight Holocaust denial than to rely on the transitory force of law. When Irving forced me to go to court to defend my freedom of expression, my most important weapon was the historical truth.
We have truth and history on our side. From both an ideological and strategic perspective, those are far more powerful weapons than laws, especially laws that seem to counter the ideal of freedom of expression.
The best way to counter Holocaust deniers is to teach as many people as possible this history. That is why courses on history of the Holocaust have proven so popular and important. Students who take those courses will never fall prey to such distortions.
Jewish tradition teaches that the Hebrew word emet, truth, composed as it is from the first, middle and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, encompasses everything. The truth of the Holocaust is terrible and painful, but it is the truth and that is the most potent weapon anyone could want.
Deborah Lipstadt teaches at Emory University and is the author of “History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving” (Ecco, 2005) which won a National Jewish Book Award.