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. A notorious liar, he 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.
At long last, justice seemed to prevail. In the immediate aftermath of the verdict, my blog (Lipstadt.blogspot.com) was flooded with expressions of delight. Most people assumed I was dancing the hora.
But I was not.
I fought this man’s libel charge against me for six years. For over three months I had to silently sit in court in London listening to him say the most horrible things about Jews, people of color and survivors. He made fun of those who talked about gas chambers and sneered at survivors’ accounts of what they endured. He was full of bluster about how he was going to demolish the myth of the Holocaust.
Quietly and meticulously, relying on the stellar work of a dream team of historians, we showed that every one — not many, not most, but all — of David Irving’s claims were complete rot. They were based on lies, 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.
Some people have argued that since he has written over 30 books on historical topics, he is a historian. If I wrote books on building bridges that would not make me a structural engineer. Irving has been dubbed by some people on the Internet as a “distorian. “
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 liars or psychopaths. And he called the judge — in a very telling slip, “ Mein Fuhrer . “
He suffered an overwhelming loss. When the judge, in a 350-page judgment, said he “perverts, ” “distorts, ” “lies, ” and that his conclusions are a “travesty,” Irving’s reputation was left in tatters. When two different 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 sitting in the shadow of the Vatican, 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. Various Jewish organizations have pointed out — and rightfully so — that the Islamic world, which is so vigorously protesting the insult they perceive in these cartoons, is ignoring its own double standard. It has lived quite comfortably for many years with a spate of anti-Semitic cartoons. Some are well nigh pornographic and worthy of what one might find 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 David 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 the David Irving-like distortions.
Jewish tradition teaches that the 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 is a winner of the National Jewish Book Award.