Thursday, March 24, 2005

History on Trial reviewed in The Jewish Week

New York's The Jewish Week combines a review of History on Trial with the C-SPAN storm story:

No Denying This Victory

Deborah Lipstadt’s new book tells the story of refuting a libel accusation by a Holocaust denier — but you won’t see her on C-SPAN.
Sandee Brawarsky - Jewish Week Book Critic

Deborah Lipstadt did something few authors of new books would dare: She rejected an invitation to discuss her work on national television on a show geared to serious book lovers.

Lipstadt, the author of “History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving” (Ecco), was scheduled to appear last week on C-SPAN’s “Book TV,” but later refused to let the network tape her appearance at the Harvard Hillel when she learned that the show was planning to feature a talk by David Irving with her remarks.

“This is a man who is a Holocaust denier, who was found to be a liar and a falsifier of history,” she said last weekend in an interview on the Upper West Side.

Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, explained that she would have no problem debating someone with a position diametrically opposed to her own, but this is a case where she had been asked to speak to someone with no grounding in truth.

“The producers would never ask Skip [Henry Louis] Gates to debate someone who said that slavery never happened. They wouldn’t dignify that position,” she said.

For Lipstadt and the more than 200 historians who signed a petition protesting C-SPAN’s decision, the notion of editorial “balance” doesn’t apply here.

“Falsehoods cannot balance the truth,” states the document, spearheaded by the David S. Wyman Institute of Holocaust Studies. The signatures were gathered in less than 48 hours; others have signed on since the petition was submitted.

“History on Trial” is an account of Lipstadt’s 2000 trial before the British High Court of Justice, where she was accused by Irving of libel in her previous book, “Denying the Holocaust.” In that book she identified Irving, a prolific writer on World War II-related subjects, as a Holocaust denier who repeatedly misrepresented history.

Unlike the American court system, where the accuser has to prove the charges false, British law places the burden on the accused, who must demonstrate that the statements considered libelous are in fact true.

Lipstadt had the options of trying to settle with Irving or going to trial. Given the nature of the accusations, however, she said there was no choice. Lipstadt ultimately raised $1.5 million for her defense.

The case received international press coverage. Irving served as his own lawyer, while Lipstadt did not speak at all. Her witnesses were historians and other experts involved in documenting Nazi genocide. Lipstadt’s legal team wanted to rely on documents, so it did not call any survivors to testify.

For the five years before the case went to trial and during the trial itself, Lipstadt kept a journal of developments and also her impressions. About six months before the trial, she realized that there was a book to be written. At first she thought about a joint venture, where members of her legal team would contribute a chapter. But Lipstadt realized later that she had a lot to say, especially since she would not be speaking at the trial or to the press.

“It’s my medium,” she said of writing. The director of Emory’s Institute for Jewish Studies, Lipstadt is also the author of “Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust 1933-1945” and many articles.

A compelling book, “History on Trial” is memoir and courtroom drama, a work of historical and legal import. Lipstadt succeeds in drawing textured portraits of the lawyers working on her case, as well as the historians, the judge and Irving, who comes across more as a clown than one to be taken seriously. Her narrative powerfully details the trial, weaving forensic and historical details and noting when a certain barrister would tug at his wig.

As a memoir, there are scant personal details, and Lipstadt admittedly is a very private person, even though she is frequently in the limelight. She is not, as many might assume, the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Her father left Germany before the Third Reich and her mother, whose family came from Poland, was born in Canada.

Her feisty, determined personality comes through in the few stories she tells of her years growing up in Manhattan and Far Rockaway, at summer camps and at college. In early 1967, while studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, she was upset that Jews could not visit the holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem, so she took a circuitous route to do so, traveling to Greece to obtain a new passport, then to Beirut, Damascus and Jordan, to the Old City and then through the Mandelbaum Gate back to Israel.

A person Lipstadt credits as being the seminal influence on her life, after her parents, is Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, who led the Far Rockaway synagogue where her family belonged, before he became chancellor of Bar-Ilan University. She was impressed with his knowledge of Judaism and the contemporary world, and of his efforts to reach out in intra- and inter-religious dialogue.

“Long before I knew precisely what a role model was, I knew that I wanted to be like him,” she wrote.

Featured in the book are two brief essays by outspoken defenders of free speech: an introduction by Anthony Lewis and an afterword by Alan Dershowitz. Although these two might often hold opposing viewpoints, here they provide affirming bookends.

Throughout the trial, Lipstadt remained anxious and cautious in her attitudes about potential outcomes; she was “living on the edge” with raw emotions.

“Not losing was critical,” she said. “If we lost it would have been a disaster, even if we said it was a legal fluke.”

For the two weeks between the closing arguments and the announcement of the judge’s decision, Lipstadt returned home to Atlanta, where she did what she did every year –– prepared for Passover and made a seder.

Ultimately she was confident that she would win, but was worried that the judge might have tried to be evenhanded in his decision or been unclear in a way that enabled Irving to further twist the truth. But the decision was clear-cut: The judge declared it “incontrovertible that Irving qualifies as a Holocaust denier” and that he “repeatedly crossed the divide between legitimate criticism and prejudiced vilification of the Jewish race and people.”

In conversation, Lipstadt plays down the heroism attributed to her by Holocaust survivors and other observers of the trial. Many survivors thanked her profusely for protecting their history.

“It all made me very uncomfortable,” she said. “I’m not a person who’s averse to being thanked. I’m not so humble.”

The trial ended at just about this time of year on the Jewish calendar. The following Shabbat, she attended synagogue in London, the week of Parashat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance. Lipstadt says she stood instinctively when the additional reading, recalling the acts of Amalek, was read.

“I felt like I had really fought for that memory,” she said.

A few days later, back in synagogue for the reading of the Megillah for Purim, Lipstadt was struck by the lines in the text when Mordechai tells Esther that perhaps she has attained her royal position for just the crisis they faced.

“I heard that ringing in my ears. I don’t know for what reason people are put anywhere, and a lot of people do bigger chesed [acts of compassion and lovingkindness] that we don’t hear about,” she said. “I got a chance to do a thing that touched a lot of people. I didn’t seek it but I feel privileged, and now I have a voice and a responsibility to use that voice.”

In January, Lipstadt traveled to Poland as part of the presidential delegation for the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. She recalled looking out at the survivors and realizing that the vast majority won’t be around for the 70th anniversary.

“The torch of memory, or witness, is being passed from the survivors to the historians,” she said.

Since January, she has been an active blogger (, posting notes and recording impressions of the Poland trip as well as, more recently, the C-SPAN controversy. Until this week, readers were able to post their responses, but she halted that because the site was attracting a number of Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites. Lipstadt didn’t want to afford them a platform.

About blogging she said, “There’s always something going on to keep things interesting.”

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