Deborah Lipstadt Discusses Anti-Semitism in the Modern Era

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Deborah Lipstadt spoke at Drexel University. Her discussion, titled “Anti-Semitism, Holocaust Denial and the 21st Century,” was about her work and experiences with Holocaust studies.

 

There’s no denying Deborah Lipstadt — mainly because she’s an expert on denial.
 
Lipstadt is an American historian famous for her leading research on the Holocaust and its denial. She also is the author of Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory and her more recent The Eichmann Trial.
 
She has taught Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta for 23 years, although she has been teaching for almost 40 years altogether. 
 
Lipstadt spoke at Drexel University on April 6 — her discussion, titled “Anti-Semitism, Holocaust Denial and the 21st Century,” was about her work and experiences with Holocaust studies and how it impacts history today.
 
Lipstadt became an international figure in 1996 when prominent Holocaust denier David Irving sued Lipstadt for libel. Lipstadt referenced Irving in her first book and claimed him as a Holocaust denier. 
 
After six years in court, Lipstadt and her publisher won the case.
 
It’s been some time since her trial and, at the discussion, she looked back on it and analyzed the nuances — such as what the impact was, how it affected change and how the Holocaust denial that she fought against differs from other types of denial today.
 
And despite her experiences with Irving’s petulant history, Lipstadt has been known to oppose prison sentences for Holocaust denial.
 
She spoke in January at the Oxford Union Society, saying, “I am convinced that freedom of speech means nothing unless it includes the freedom for offensive people to be offensive.
 
“I am a fierce defender of the right to free speech,” she continued. “The limiting of ideas, including the most obnoxious hate-inspired ideas, is not an activity we should allocate to the government.”
 
Though her life may have been affected differently by such felonious laws, Lipstadt opposes the criminalization because of the greater effects on a free Democratic society. 
 
“I think it’s wrong because of free speech; I think it’s wrong because it makes Holocaust denial a forbidden fruit and therefore tempting, and I don’t want politicians deciding what we can and cannot say,” she added.
 
But Lipstadt’s introduction to the Holocaust had humble beginnings.
 
A young researcher at the time, she initially took on a research task from a senior professor about the Holocaust.
 
“I thought it would be a one-time thing, and I sort of stuck with it ever since,” she said.
 
As time went on, she dealt with horrible people who had dark ideas revering the Nazis.
 
“I tried very hard not to allow them to get under my skin because they’re not worth it,” she said, specifically of Irving.
 
A film based on her book History on Trial: My Day in Court With a Holocaust Denier, called Denial, will premiere in 2016. British-Jewish actress Rachel Weisz will portray Lipstadt as she goes through this courtroom drama.
 
Overall, Lipstadt said they fought a good fight in court. 
 
“I enjoyed making a small bit of difference certainly in terms of hardcore Holocaust deniers,” she said. “Those denying gas chambers, the final solution, etc. — that ironically because David Irving came after me to sue me, it gave me a chance to strip him of his veneer of being a scholar. I think that’s important.”
 
The event was sponsored by the Good Idea Fund at Drexel, and several Hillel student leaders helped coordinate it.
 
Rabbi Isabel de Koninck, Drexel Hillel director and campus rabbi, said she hopes both Jews and non-Jews attended to learn about anti-Semitism from Lipstadt in a broader and more modern way.
 
“She is an incredibly dynamic teacher, and she has a lot to offer our students,” de Koninck said. “Our students are in an environment now where we’ve had our own [anti-Semitic] incidents over the years. As small and isolated as they may be, we know they’re thinking about anti-Semitism in their broader lives.”
 
She added that she hopes students learned how to construct their community and stand up as activists for education and religious bigotry, while  bridging the gap of how to deal with anti-Semitism then and now. 
 
“Hopefully [she’s] going to inspire students to think in forward-looking ways in their relationship with anti-Semitism and the ways in which they understand history and the future,” de Koninck said.
 
Lipstadt echoed those ideas, saying that she hopes Drexel students learned to think critically and analytically after hearing her discussion, and that they try to understand what’s going on in the world and what they can do about it.
 
“I hope they get enough information to be more responsible for this in the 21st century,” she said. 
 
Contact: rkurland@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0737

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