New Jersey Jewish News
Author recalls how courtroom defense revealed a Holocaust deniers lies
What does a prominent historian of the Holocaust do when she learns that she is being sued by a Holocaust denier for libel?
I laughed, said Deborah Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies and director of the Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University in Atlanta. This is meshuga.
But as she was soon to find out, it was no laughing matter: In Great Britain, the person charged with libel has the onus of proving that the writing in question is true. In 1993, one year after Lipstadts book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory was printed in England, David Irving, a British citizen and author of widely respected books on World War II, sued her.
Last week Lipstadt shared her story as a defendant in a speech before 370 women, a handful of men, and 12 students from a modern Jewish history course at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston. The sold-out Feb. 9 talk at the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany was the featured program for Womens Awareness Day, sponsored by the Womens Department of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest New Jersey.
As she did in her 1993 book, History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving, Lipstadt described the nonacademic historian as the most dangerous of deniers. Because unlike other deniers who are known only for being deniers, he has this independent reputation. His books were getting reviewed in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Times literary supplement, Lipstadt told the audience. And unlike those who simply repeat others claims about the Holocaust, she said, hes at the heart of it because he knows the documents. Hes the one who twisted the documents to make up his own story.
Revealing how much distorting Irving actually did in his books became the main strategy her team of lawyers led by solicitor Anthony Julius, a partner at the law firm Mishcon de Reya undertook to defeat him.
Lipstadt recalled that many people suggested she simply not respond, but because of the way the law was written, she explained, that would have meant he would win by default. And then he could say, The Royal High Court in London found that Deborah Lipstadt indeed libeled me when she called me a Holocaust denier. Ipso facto, my version of the Holocaust is a legitimate version. To those who encouraged settling, she recalled her lawyers responding, What should be her bottom line? Two million Jews? Three million? One gas chamber ? Theres no settling with this kind of evil.
As it became clear that the case would proceed to trial, her lawyers worked on their approach to the case. We would make this not a Did the Holocaust happen? trial but rather a Deborah Lipstadt told the truth trial, which is what a libel trial should be . In essence, we would flip the tables and have him defend his work, which we would subject to this very close analysis, she said.
For that analysis, Julius hired a team of experts internationally known historians, architectural experts, and political scientists. Because of the claims in Lipstadts book, the team would have to prove not only that Irving distorted historical facts for his books, but also that he did so to promote a racist and anti-Semitic agenda. Lipstadts talk at the Aidekman campus focused on what the team discovered as they followed the trail of footnotes, looking for traces of twisted truths.
According to Lipstadt, problematic footnotes abounded, although it took the efforts of scholars to track down the errors. After combing through Irvings work , every footnote they followed, every source they looked at, they found fabrications, inventions, lies, some sort of distortion, some sort of invention.
In the end, they would submit 35 such instances at trial to prove they were not random mistakes but a pattern of distortion intended to exonerate Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.
But as the case, which Julius had taken on pro bono, wound its way through the British legal system, the bills began to pile up and the case became the firms biggest. One day, Julius broke the news to Lipstadt that they could no longer proceed pro bono. The firm submitted a budget, at Lipstadts request, of $1.6 million. She quietly sought supporters, including Ohio philanthropist Leslie Wexner. I could fund this myself, she said Wexner told her, but when the history is written, it wont look good that one Jew from Columbus helped one Jew in Atlanta.
Fund-raising for her legal expenses became an organized, if quiet, arrangement, with support coming from the American Jewish Committee, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and other organizations. Support also came from outside the Jewish community, including her own university, which gave her $30,000 for travel and other expenses.
When it came time for the four-month trial to begin, she had to figure out how to manage her responsibilities at Emory. She considered taking a sabbatical or a leave of absence. The university had a different idea. The provost, she said, told her, Well treat it as if you are teaching. Your classroom is the courtroom, and we will all learn from you from afar. Additionally, they hired someone to teach her classes. For us to support you and not provide for the students who would be learning from you is to give David Irving a victory. And we do not want to do that, she said, repeating what she was told.
The trial began in January 2000 and concluded in April. The judges ruling was an overwhelming victory for Lipstadt, describing Irvings writing with such words as travesty, misleading, distorts, unjustified, and perverts. The judge also found Irving to be anti-Semitic and a racist, which was required to prove that Lipstadt had told the truth in her book.
After the trial, there was bedlam outside, she recalled.
But she remembers being tapped on the shoulder in the courtroom by a woman she had seen earlier in the trial, a woman who had rolled up her sleeve on the first day to show the number tattooed on her arm. Lipstadt said the woman had first said, Youre fighting for us, but what I heard was, Youre fighting for us. This is really important. Dont screw it up. When she saw the woman again after the verdict, Lipstadt recalled, she said, Thank you.
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