A second world war of words

January 21, 2000

The courtroom, says US academic Deborah Lipstadt, is no place to debate theHolocaust, but faced with a libel suit froma fellow historian, she has no choice but to fight her corner. Profile by Anne Sebba.

For most academics, used to pursuing a serenely protected life devoted to students, scholarship and research, being catapulted in front of a crowd of 30 paparazzi, with as many reporters tugging at your arm for quick quotes, would be a daunting experience.

Suddenly, the prized anonymity has vanished. Your picture is on the front of the newspapers, your clothes and hairstyle are a matter for public comment and you are recognised in the street.

This is what is happening to 51-year-old Deborah Lipstadt, Dorot professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Lipstadt is being sued for libel in London's Royal Courts of Justice by David Irving, the "revisionist" British historian. Irving has taken issue with Lipstadt's book Denying the Holocaust, The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, published in the United Kingdom in 1995 by Penguin. The publisher is co-defendant in the case.

Lipstadt was among the first in the Jewish community to abandon the long-standing practice of ignoring those who raised questions about the Holocaust, choosing instead to confront their arguments head on.

After the first week of the trial, which received international media coverage, Lipstadt appears to be shouldering the pressure well. There has been so much interest in the case that in the second week a bigger room had to be found. In court she sits in the row in front of Irving, of necessity with her back to him, close together but worlds apart. Perhaps, after nearly four years of intermittent stress since Irving first brought the action against her, the trial - expected to take three months - is almost cathartic.

Lipstadt has had to come often to London in the past few years for pre-trial hearings and to consult with lawyers. Although not an orthodox Jew - she describes herself as a traditionalist - she walked to synagogue on her first free Saturday morning, spent the afternoon jogging in London's parks and took in a theatre in the evening with some American colleagues who have flown over to lend her moral support.

Penguin describes Denying the Holocaust as "a scholarly work that presents a thorough examination of the Holocaust denial phenomenon and the methods used by deniers to publicise their message". The book, Penguin says, "names David Irving as such a denier who distorts history and this is the basis for his libel action".

Irving maintains that the book portrays him as "an Adolf Hitler partisan who wears blinkers and skews documents and misrepresents data in order to reach historically untenable conclusions". He says he disputes "the means, the scale, the dates and other minutiae" of the tragedy, but not that it happened. Lipstadt's defence is based on justification: she intends to prove the truth of her assertions.

Lipstadt was born in New York, the daughter of a German Jewish immigrant father - who left Hamburg in the 1920s Depression - and a Canadian mother. He was in business, she a lecturer in antique Judaica.

Lipstadt took a degree in modern Jewish history at Brandeis University, spent two years at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and five years as professor of modern Jewish history at the University of California, Los Angeles. By the time she went to Emory, a private, highly ranked university, she was already the acclaimed author of Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust 1933-45 and her book on Holocaust deniers was in its final stages.

The seeds for her second book were planted in the late 1980s when she began to realise that the handful of people denying that the Holocaust ever happened, who had been dismissed as harmless cranks operating on the lunatic fringe, were beginning to gain a hearing in respectable arenas.

She seems to have been particularly perturbed by advertisements published by campus newspapers at some of America's more prestigious universities claiming the Holocaust was a hoax. The advertisements generated fierce controversy and although several colleges refused them, occasionally the furore was picked up by the national press. "Students had become increasingly aware not only of the Holocaust but of the contemporary attempt to subvert history and spread anti-Semitism," she wrote.

In addition, friends say that she was concerned that the opportunity for those who wished to deny the Holocaust would be enhanced once all the survivors were dead.

By the early 1990s, writing the book became a necessity for Lipstadt. She asserts that there are many legitimate areas of the Holocaust on which she welcomes discussion with her students. A key question is whether the Final Solution was Hitler's decision alone or whether it was devised and proposed by lower level officials in response to war-related developments. Is the Holocaust the same as a variety of other acts of persecution and genocide, such as the massacre of native Americans? Could Jews have resisted the Nazis more forcefully?

There are others, but the one area she appears supremely reluctant to debate is whether it happened. "That," she argues, "would be equivalent to debating whether the Roman Empire existed."

She does not seem willing to debate with deniers on television talk shows. As she makes clear in her book: "The deniers want to be thought of as 'the other side'. Simply appearing with them on the same stage accords them that status."

She has been fiercely criticised for this approach by those who say her stance is inconsistent with the free pursuit of ideas.

"This reflects a failure to understand the ludicrousness of Holocaust denial," she counters. "It reflects the moral relativism prevalent on many campuses and in society at large. The misguided notion that everyone's view is of equal stature has created an atmosphere that allows Holocaust denial to flourish."

Lipstadt's refusal to be drawn into a debate with her opponents resulted in a vicious campus advertisement in 1993 that labelled her an "intellectual fascist". But she maintains that opinion must be grounded in fact and while any good university must be "a place where ideas can be vigorously explored, it must first be a place that differentiates between ideas with lasting quality and those with none".

Lipstadt remains convinced that what has happened to her has no bearing on whether there is an over-proliferation of Holocaust studies in US universities. On the contrary, she continues to believe study of the Holocaust is exceptionally important, but a major theme of her published work has always been that Jews should be wary of building a negative identity on the Holocaust.

She will not admit the extent to which preparing for this trial may have disrupted her life. The fact that she now walks with a limp and has back problems she blames, not on the stress of the case, but on living on aeroplanes in order to attend academic conferences. Far from relinquishing her teaching commitments she has added to them. She is director of a new Institute of Jewish Studies at Emory, sits on the executive committee of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and chairs its educational committee.

She knows she could not have got through the past few years without the support of both her university and her publisher. Emory, a Methodist institution, has given her not just emotional support, but release time to prepare the case and paid leave to attend the trial. She praises both Adam Bellow (son of Saul), her editor at The Free Press in the US, for "his sensitivity to the broader dangers of Holocaust denial", as well as Penguin, which is paying the lion's share of the costs. Penguin has always said it will "vigorously defend its right to publish this work" as part of its history of upholding freedom of speech. On the first day of the trial, managing director Anthony Forbes Watson walked into court with Lipstadt to symbolise what he called Penguin's shoulder-to-shoulder approach.

Lipstadt has made clear on several occasions that she does not believe the Holocaust is a matter for the courtroom. "I am the defendant, I didn't go and seek this out. If I hadn't contested this, then he (Irving) would have won by default and his definition of the Holocaust would have become a standard definition recognised by the High Court in London. So there was no option but to fight it," she said last year.

Colleagues attest to Lipstadt's drive and courage. It is unlikely she can devote time to writing another book at the moment, but those who know her say that the additional research she has been forced to do has reinforced her conviction that this area of study must be well taught.

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