October 18, 2016

Talking Facts, Hard Work and Rejoicing in Judaism: An Interview with Deborah E. Lipstadt

In 1996, British writer David Irving sued Holocaust scholar Deborah E. Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin Books for libel in an English court. Irving’s accusation was that in her book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, Lipstadt had described some of Irving’s work as Holocaust denial. Because English libel law places the burden of proof on the defendant rather than the plaintiff, Lipstadt and her winning British legal defense team were forced to prove that the Holocaust did indeed happen.

With the recent film opening of Denial, a 2016 British American drama based on Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier and starring Rachel WeiszTom Wilkinson and Timothy Spall, our national conscience is once again forced to consider the unthinkable: Today, truth and facts have somehow become negotiable.

Lipstadt, the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory, author of multiple books and member of the Board of Directors of The Covenant Foundation, has been waging the war against Holocaust denial for much of her career. In this brief conversation, she shares with us the danger of our current culture that has allowed facts to become fungible, how essential it is to be prepared with knowledge and why we must rejoice in our Jewish identity.

From left to right: Actor Rachel Weisz and Author Deborah E. Lipstadt on the set of the film DENIAL, a Bleecker Street release (photo: Liam Daniel/Bleecker Street)

In an interview with the Algemeiner newspaper, you talk about how while your book was optioned eight years ago, the timing of the film production surprised you, given this auspicious and fragile moment for Jewish people. Can we talk more about that?

Deborah Lipstadt: We live in a world where facts have become negotiable. There’s this anti-expertise view today. And Holocaust denial fits right into that.

I think that this film is about truth, opinions, and lies. Holocaust denial is certainly not a fact. Nor is it an opinion. It’s a lie.  Even if I believe something ardently that does not make it a viable opinion.  For example, I can have an opinion that the earth is flat, but it’s crazy.

To prove our case, we followed the footnotes back to the sources. From a legal strategy, we were proving that David Irving is a liar. And we showed, in virtually every case where he mentions the Holocaust in his work, that there was an invention of some sort:

a change of date; an instance where he put someone in a meeting who wasn’t there; the altering of a phrase. And for the British court, we had to bring in the original documents—so sometimes we had to go quite a few steps back.  But our researchers did precisely that.

It is important to understand that we weren’t proving what happened, but that what this man said happened, didn’t happen. We were proving that this man is pushing a basket of lies.  For example, when he says that “only” 64,000 Jews “died” at Auschwitz and he has the documents to prove it, my lawyer did not try to prove precisely how many Jews were killed at Auschwitz but rather than Irving’s claim to have evidence about 64,000 was false.

Today it is common for people to believe that if they ardently believe something it must have historical validity. We read in the paper that vaccines cause Autism, people say September 11 was a CIA act, or a Mossad act, that 3,000 Jews got a phone call the night before September 11 warning them of the attack, allowing them to escape. This implies that there’s some central authority that knows where all Jews live—it’s preposterous. When you look at the facts, that 12-13% of the victims of September 11 were Jewish, which aligns perfectly with the percentage of Jews in the population of New York, when you recall the families that you know, from your own synagogue, who lost people on September 11, you know how preposterous this claim is, and yet 9/11 deniers insist it is true.

There’s Sandy Hook denial—a whole group of people who claim that Sandy Hook was all an act staged by gun control advocates. Facts have become malleable. 

And there’s more denial now than there was 25 years ago because today, all you have to do is throw an idea out on the Internet. The Internet is a neutral item. The question is how one uses the Internet—don’t get me wrong. I need the Internet for my work. The problem is what happens when the power of that network is in the hands of the wrong person.

What were your chief concerns about the making of this film? And how involved were you, in the process?

DL: When I had the pen in my hand and was about to sign the agreement to option my book to be made into a film, I said to one of the producers and said, “you have to understand that this is about truth.” They got that. And I know that David Hare [who wrote the screenplay] got that. Virtually everything that comes out of Timothy Spall’s mouth [the actor who plays David Irving] or any other aspect of the courtroom scenes is from transcripts.

When Rachel Weisz [the actress who plays Deborah] came on to the project, I spent two days with her in New York City, in her kitchen, drinking tea and telling stories. She wanted raw material that she could work with, material that would help inform her portrayal of me. We talked a lot. She would call me in the evenings, or send me emails, or ask me to record lines so she could listen over and over to the sound of my voice and make sure she got it down right.

What do you tell your students, when you talk to them about the uphill challenge of fighting anti-Semitism and defending the truth?

DL: When I came home from Europe after the trial, I told my students, you can’t fight every fight, but there are certain fights you also cannot turn away from. When you face unmitigated evil, you can’t turn away from it. But at the same time, if you’re going to fight it, you must be prepared. It takes sitzfleisch, or, basically, the idea of keeping your bottom in the chair, of sitting down and doing the hard work. We defeated this suit and Irving’s claims because we showed that he was a liar, a complete charlatan; that his arguments weren’t based in fact, that he lied over and over and over again. You cannot stand up to liars with righteous indignation. You need facts. That’s how we did it. We boxed him in with the truth.

Now that we’re in the aftermath, many years later, there are those in the Jewish community who have called me a hero. But I’m not a hero. I’d like to think there are lots of people I know who would have fought this battle had they been given the chance.

There’s some debate about whether young children should be taught about the Holocaust and the degree of emphasis we should place on the Holocaust in Jewish education. What are your thoughts?

DL: We should never let the teaching of this tragedy—or any tragedy—become the raison d’etre for our existence. We should never say it’s important to be Jewish and that’s why we remember the Holocaust. On the old road up to Haifa, there’s an exodus ship, called the Af Al Pi Chen. Af Al Pi Chen means “nevertheless,” and to me, that’s how what the study of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism should factor in to building a healthy Jewish identity. Not because of, but despite. Despite the best efforts of much of the world to destroy us and do us harm, we are still here. Despite the fact that one out of our every three Jews was murdered, we thrive.

If you think about the chagim, about Pesach, about how we teach that Jews moved from avdut l’cherut, from slavery to freedom, if you think about the story of Purim, about how we narrowly avoided another Jewish destruction at the hands of Haman, and then we rejoiced, you recognize that there’s a continuum. We experience tragedy and then we rejoice.

Jewish experience should not be one of suffering—and this is coming from someone who spends her life writing and teaching about the Holocaust. But the Holocaust is not the reason for my Jewish existence. Rather, we must find a balance, we must be as comfortable in seeing what destruction the Holocaust wrought, experiencing that, learning and teaching and remembering that, and then, we must also be comfortable rejoicing. Dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah, revel in it, and rejoice in your Jewish identity, whatever it looks like for you, despite all else.

By Adina Kay-Gross, for The Covenant Foundation