Celebrated Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, in Seattle to speak at Hadassah’s Gala for Giving, credited the cycle of weekly Torah readings and Jewish holidays with adding personal meaning to her recent experiences as defendant in a notorious British court case.
At the Seattle Sheraton on May 3, Lipstadt faced a friendly crowd, many familiar to her from years on the faculty of the University of Washington’s Jewish Studies Department.
She announced that her court challenger, Holocaust denier David Irving, is appealing the 1-year-old decision of a British judge who found Lipstadt innocent of Irving’s charges of libel against him. The court date for that appeal is June 18.
“This trial is like Shabbos in Alaska in June: Never over!” she quipped. But the trial is no joke, as Lipstadt’s recap of its progress made clear. “When my publisher told me Irving was considering suing, I laughed,” she admitted. But she soon learned that, unlike American libel law, British law puts the burden of proof in a libel suit on the person who claims he or she was defamed. (“That’s why he waited until my book came out in England to sue me and my British publisher, Penguin,” she explained.) She would have to prove to the court that she was telling the truth in her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, when she briefly described Irving as one of “the most dangerous of Holocaust deniers.”
Prove it she did, with the help of a powerful legal team headed by Anthony Julius, who had been attorney to Princess Diana, among others, and had written a book about anti-Semitism and T.S.Eliot. Julius insisted that the defense would not permit this to be a “Did the Holocaust happen?” trial.
“We decided that the defense we’d take was that what I wrote was the truth,” said Lipstadt, mapping out how her team used Irving’s own writings against him. No Holocaust survivors were called as witnesses. What Lipstadt referred to as a “dream team of historians” went thoroughly through Irving’s writings; among their assignments, she said, was to “analyze Irving as a historian: Follow the footnotes. Irving expects that nobody’s going to follow his footnotes, and look things up.” When her team did just that, they found abundant evidence of Irving’s having bent historical reports to fit his own motives.
The results of these analyses are available to the general public, Lipstadt said, on the Web site www.hdot.org (“holocaust denial on trial”). There, the reader will find answers to many frequently-asked questions not only about the trial itself but also about the Holocaust-denial movement, which Lipstadt described as an effort aimed not so much at changing the way 20th-century history is reported but at affecting 21st-century thought, giving respectability to those who would resurrect Nazi ideology for new generations. Her team documented Irving’s contacts and work with such right-wing American figures as David Duke and William Pierce, author of The Turner Diaries, a book cited as influential with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
“We had no problem convincing the judge that Irving was an anti-Semite and a racist,” said Lipstadt, “but our point was that being a [Holocaust] denier has an anti-Semitic and racist objective.”
On a more personal note, “For me,” she said, “the most profound impact was from the people around me, friends, family, and most important, survivors. To be thanked by survivors was almost incomprehensible. It overwhelmed me when I walked out from the first day of the courtroom, facing a sea of reporters whom my attorneys wouldn’t let me speak to at all – and suddenly this sea parted for this small, gray-haired woman. She had her arm outstretched, and I knew what was coming. She pulled up her sleeve, pointed to the number on her arm, and said, ‘You’re fighting for us.’” The same woman appeared on the day of the verdict, said Lipstadt, tapped her on the arm, and simply said, “Thank you.”
Another source of her strength to fight this battle, Lipstadt recognized, was her “good Jewish education. I was taught early on that one can always find meaning in the events of any particular week in the Torah portion of that week.” She recounted that the trial began the week of the portion called Parashat Bo, where Moses first tells Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” As it continued, the evidentiary stage ended at Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath before Purim, where we read, “Remember Amalek, do not forget” the enemy who ambushed the weakest of the People of Israel as they hurried away, ragged and drained, from slavery in Egypt. “Many people wanted me to settle,” Lipstadt recalled, “but how could I settle with this man? I listened to this parasha, and I understood that you can’t settle with evil; you have to fight it.”
A few days later, it was Purim, and Lipstadt clearly heard Mordechai’s speech to Esther as she hesitates at the prospect of risking her life by going uninvited to the king to plead for her people. “If you don’t go, someone else will,” Lipstadt recalled the verses, “and he also says to her, ‘Who knows whether you were born for just this moment?’ I always say to my students,” in the Holocaust studies classes she teaches at Atlanta’s Emory University, “You never know why you’re given the situation you’re given. You’ve got to be ready to stand up.”
Finally, Lipstadt recalled that the verdict exonerating her came down just before Passover, “truly a moment of liberation.”
“On some level, I did what I had to do. I defended myself,” Lipstadt acknowledged. “Also, according to Jewish tradition, you do acts of loving-kindness not because you hope somebody will do the same for you but because it’s right. When I have students over for meals, I tell them the best way they can pay me back is to invite others over when they have their own homes, and their own Sabbath and holiday tables.”
Finally, Lipstadt reminded the Hadassah audience that the ultimate act of loving- kindness in our tradition is “chesed shel emet — when we care for the dead. In some way I feel I had the opportunity to do this for those who either died or had no way to defend themselves. I feel incredibly blessed that if someone had to wage this battle, I was the one who did it.”