Taking on the liars and deniers: Deborah Lipstadt on Holocaust deniers, and her book about the Eichmann trial


Renowned Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt called the AJW from New York City last week, and the conversation began with a discussion of The Good Wife, the TV series about law, politics and sexual affairs in Chicago.

The Oct. 2 episode of the show included a story line about a mountain climber who sues an author for libel; he contends that he is defamed in a book alleging some egregiously bad behavior while climbing to the summit.

The case is thrown out by the judge in Chicago; then the plaintiff brings another libel suit — in the United Kingdom, where the rules are reversed: the defendant in a libel action has the burden to prove that he or she did not commit libel.

The plot somewhat resembled the situation, in 1996, when World War II historian David Irving sued Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, after the British publication of Lipstadt’s Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.

Lipstadt and Penguin ultimately prevailed in the British court. Irving’s reputation as a historian was seriously battered; he was exposed as a vile Jew-hater; and he was forced to the brink of bankruptcy by the $3.2 million judgment to cover the publisher’s legal bills.

Although many associated her British libel trial with the story unspooled in the recent episode of The Good Wife, Lipstadt, the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., said it actually was based on the case of Rachel Ehrenfeld, the author of Funding Evil, a book that made the case against a Saudi billionaire for allegedly funding al-Qaida through his bank and charities.

Ehrenfeld did not publish her book in the United Kingdom; but, Lipstadt explains, “exactly as portrayed on The Good Wife, the British lawyer for the [Saudi] sheikh, who does not live in London, bought 24 copies of the book over Amazon UK.”

The British court ruled that because her book was available in the U.K., Ehrenfeld would have to defend herself in the British court, under their peculiar application of libel law.

Lipstadt will visit Minnesota from Oct. 26-29. She will speak at the University of Minnesota, Temple Israel in Minneapolis and at St. Cloud State University (see details below).

Lipstadt mentioned that she had just met with her editor and publisher, and discussed her publicity tour for Eichmann on Trial, her most recent book (3-18-11 AJW).

“The reception of the book has been above and beyond what any of us expected,” she said.

Getting back to the popular TV show, Lipstadt noted that her book, which accused Irving of being a Holocaust denier and knowingly falsifying historical documents, “was actually published in the U.K. and sold in the U.K. So, it was shades of The Good Wife, but not precisely the story on The Good Wife.”

She allowed, however, that both in her case and in the Ehrenfeld lawsuit, the TV drama exposed “the nature of British libel, how tough British libel law is.”

In her upcoming talk at Temple Israel, Lipstadt will unpack the various elements her lawyers had to prove to defend against the David Irving lawsuit. I asked Lipstadt if the British court case had a chilling effect on her writing and speaking.

“No, not all,” she emphatically responded. “I felt quite liberated, because I had proven my case and I could say what I want.”

In the end, “the big mistake was David Irving suing me,” she added. The fascist British author’s comeuppance in court dealt a big blow to the Holocaust denial movement, according to Lipstadt.

“But, I’ll tell you where it did have a chilling effect,” Lipstadt said. “When I went to England to try to sell my book on the trial [History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier]… no one would touch it, because they were afraid of being sued. That was quite troubling.”

On the topic of Holocaust denial, which Lipstadt will address in her Oct. 26 talk at the U of M, she differentiates between “hardcore denial and softcore denial.”

The “hardcore” category covers those like Irving, who distort the historical record in their attempts to minimize the destruction of European Jewry in the Shoah. The “softcore” form, according to Lipstadt, involves calling “Israelis Nazis,” and similar unapt comparisons.

The dynamics of the Middle East conflict play out on U.S. college and university campuses, where tensions between Jewish and Arab American students sometimes come to the fore. However, Lipstadt said that she finds “a very positive mood” on the Emory campus.

In a discussion about shifting American Jewish attitudes toward Israel — the emergence of J Street, for example — the Holocaust historian allows that, of course, there is “a difference between criticism [of Israeli policies] and being anti-Israel.”

And sometimes it’s hard to define exactly where critical views of Israel become something else.

“It’s a tricky dividing line,” Lipstadt concluded.

Lipstadt appearances

  • The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota presents the Bernard and Fern Badzin Lecture, featuring Deborah Lipstadt, who will speak on “Holocaust Denial: A New Form of Anti-Semitism,” and about her recent book, The Eichmann Trial, 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26 at Coffman Theater, Coffman Memorial Union, U of M East Bank. This event is free and open to the community; however, reservations are required. For ticket reservations, go to: chgs.umn.edu, or call 612-626-2587. The St. Paul JCC is publicizing this event as part of the upcoming 2011 Twin Cities Jewish Book Fair.
  • The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Education at St. Cloud State University will present a lecture by Lipstadt: “Anti-Semitism: How New? How Bad?” She will speak 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 27 at the Kimberly Ritsche Auditorium in Stewart Hall.
  • Lipstadt also will speak at Temple Israel’s Annual Holocaust Remembrance Program. She will speak from the bima at 6 p.m. Shabbat services on Friday, Oct. 28, followed by dinner and a lecture, “History on Trial: My Day in Court with Holocaust Denier David Irving,” 7:30 p.m. For information and reservations, call Wendy Schwartz at 612-374-0344 or e-mail: wschwartz@templeisrael.com. Also, Lipstadt will participate in a 9 a.m. Torah study, which is free and open to the community. Temple Israel is at 2324 Emerson Ave. S., Minneapolis.