IN HER OFFICE
on a summer afternoon amid piles of court documents and newspaper
clippings from around the world, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish
and Holocaust Studies Deborah Lipstadt is relaxed and casual.
Its late in the day, and she sports tousled red hair,
shorts, and a T-shirt that reads, Shakespeares Insults,
No. 3027: You speak an infinite deal of nothing.
setting is a far cry from the London courtroom in which Lipstadt
played a critical role in a high-stakes global drama this past
spring. Sued for libel by once-respected historian David Irving,
Lipstadt was involved in a case that involved millions of dollars,
professional reputations, academic freedom, and the historical
record of perhaps the worst crime against humanity, the Nazi
the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,
Lipstadt had named Irving as one of a group of anti-Semites
who had devoted their careers to denying that the Holocaust
had taken place or who argued that historians had vastly overstated
the extent of its devastation.
the decision could not have been more clear if the bewigged
British judge had worn Lipstadts sardonic T-shirt while
addressing her accuser. The outcome was a ringing victory for
Lipstadt and her scholarship on Holocaust denialand a
stunning defeat for Irving and his colleagues, who seek to erase
the record of the Nazi execution of six million Jews.
sued Lipstadt for libel in London, where defendants bear the
burden of proof. In the U.S, plaintiffs must prove statements
made about them are false, but British courts dont honor
the U.S. Constitutions First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom
of the press. A recent New York Times article says British libel
laws make London a magnet for litigators.
libel law is a big problem for scholars, says Harvard
law professor Alan Dershowitz, who calls Lipstadts case
one of the first great international free speech cases.
believes Irving, whose revisionist writings had
already made him an outcast among serious historians, chose
to sue her specifically because he thought I wouldnt
fight back. Im a woman, an American, and a Jew. This was
his way of getting back not just at me, but all his critics.
had once gone so far as to heckle Lipstadt when she spoke at
DeKalb Community College in Atlanta, demanding that she provide
one scrap of evidence that Jews were gassed to death
in concentration camps. Lipstadt had always refused. As she
wrote in Denying the Holocaust, The Holocaust was not
a matter of debate. . . . To do so would give them [the deniers]
a stature they in no way deserve. Instead, her book systematically
destroys the deniers proof of Hitlers
innocence and of the giant hoax of the Holocaust.
like Irving had often cloaked their specious theories in the
robes of academic freedom, a guise that some used to place their
inflammatory advertisements in campus newspapers. After running
one such ad, the Georgetown Records editor wrote, The
issue of freedom of expression outweighed the issue of the offensive
nature of the advertisement.
this position, Lipstadt writes, one should logically
expect to find op-ed columns, letters to the editor, and advertisements
claiming that women should be kept barefoot and pregnant, that
individuals of African descent should be physically separated
from Americas European population, . . . and
a variety of other nonsensical positions that are held by some
portion of the population. . . .
she says, citing Hannah Arendt, must be grounded in fact.
trial commanded the worlds attention. With the support
of Jewish groups worldwide, Lipstadts publisher, Penguin,
hired Anthony Julius, Richard Rampton, and James Lipsom of the
renowned firm Mishcon de Reya. They knew that to prove Irving
a liar, their evidence had to be unimpeachable. Even a partial
vindication of Irving, however slight, would be seen as a complete
victory by the deniers.
defense team decided not to call Holocaust survivors to corroborate
their story. Elderly and fragile, many would have crumpled under
the stress. Nor would Lipstadt testify. The deniers would be
denied their debate. Instead, the lawyers relied
on such experts as Professor Richard Evans of Cambridge University,
a specialist in German history who testified that Irvings
sheer depth of duplicity shocked him.
Kornfeld 97C, a former student of Lipstadt and family
friend, went with his parents to London to support her and witness
the historic trial. While there, Kornfeld and his family had
dinner with Lipstadt and members of her legal team. Kornfeld
was something of a student of the Holocaust. Besides taking
Lipstadts course on Holocaust films, hed studied
Aviv University and read extensively on his own. When Lipstadts
legal researchers explained the strategy of using established
history to disprove Irvings claims rather than calling
Holocaust survivors to the stand, Kornfeld asked whether the
lawyers had considered admitting the diaries of Nazi Adolf Eichmann
into evidence. Eichmann admitted all of itthe camps,
the gassing, everything, Kornfeld says.
years after Eichmanns trial and execution in Jerusalem,
his diaries remained in Israels state archives while legal
issues were disentangled. Lipstadts researchers asked
if she could get access to them. She agreed to find out. To
do so, she would have to contact the attorney general of the
state of Israel, Elyakim Rubinstein. A friend who works in Israeli
Prime Minister Ehud Baraks office referred Lipstadt to
the attorney generals adviser. He told her he believed
Rubinstein would view the request favorably, and, indeed, Rubinstein
convened a meeting of special advisers to discuss the matter.
agreed to release them, says Lipstadt, and within
forty-eight hours, we had them.
the London judge would not admit the diaries into evidence,
saying Irving could not have used them to form his opinions,
Lipstadt lawyer Rampton was able to draw on the diaries for
his final cross-examination of Irving, pointing out that even
Hitlers closest advisers acknowledged the gassing at camps.
More importantly, after nearly four decades, the diaries are
now widely available to scholars.
the end, Justice Charles Gray agreed with Lipstadts evaluation
of Irving as a Hitler apologist, Holocaust denier, and liar.
Irving was instructed to bear the $3 million cost of her defense.
(He is said to be seeking an appeal.)
never thought she would lose, says Emory President William
M. Chace. My only worry, one many people harbored, was
that the judicial decision would be ambiguous, and that David
Irving would get something positive out of it. He did not. Deborah
David Irving won, says Lipstadt, the ability of
people to write about Holocaust denial would have been seriously
case would have been laughed out of any American court. But
we all aspire to publish internationally, Dershowitz says.
British courts must be very careful about which cases
they want to put in the hands of a jury, or a single judge.
Who knows who you might get? . . . Dr. Lipstadts victory
makes it a little easier for the rest of us.
York libel defense lawyer Floyd Abrams agrees. English
libel law can be used to stifle the very sort of speech which
is at the heart of academic freedom. . . . My own view is that
the English are far less tolerant of free speech than they should
be. . . . The decision sent a powerful message to scholars and
other writers of serious books intended for wider audiences.
A loss or mixed message would have had a truly disturbing impact
on continued exercise of free speech.
Maier, professor of European studies at Harvard, says, By
and large, historians and academics dont like it when
academic debate is carried on by lawsuit. Nevertheless,
he believes it was important to show that some arguments are
outside the bounds of normal debate.
Maier, In modern democracy, its become important
for each group to understand the suffering of others. Each has
its own pain. Theres a current effort not to come to terms
with peoples legaciesthe Holocaust for Jews, slavery
for African-Americans. No one wins the debate, but theres
an attempt to diminish the legitimacy of the others experience.
the effect of Lipstadts trial was the reverse: people
were reminded of the horrors of Nazi Germany and educated about
the dangers of resurgent anti-Semitism.
is already working on her next book, recounting her experiences
leading up to and including the trial. Its a book
only I can write, she says.
might have gone differently, but as Abrams says, She had
just one thing going for her: the truth.
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