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Jewish Journal

Challenging Evil

Deborah Lipstadt talks about her historic trial at LA's Annual ADL Meeting.

by Michael Aushenker

June 29, 2000 | 8:00 pm

Left to right: Steve Gold, Cecelia E. Katz, Bernard S.Kamine, Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, David A. Lehrer

Left to right: Steve Gold, Cecelia E. Katz, Bernard S.Kamine, Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, David A. Lehrer

It was the case of David Irving vs. Deborah Lipstadt. Or, as the British docket officially labled it, "David Irving v. Penguin Books and Another."

With a firsthand perspective and ample touches of wit and humor, Deborah Lipstadt delineated her experience as the subject of a vicious libel suit when she made a featured appearance in Los Angeles at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)'s Regional Board Annual Meeting recently. Conducted in the British court system, the trial, which wrapped up in April, was the culmination of a tortured five-year ordeal in which Lipstadt and Penguin Books became the target of a lawsuit brought by the British Irving. Irving was responding to a book by Lipstadt that Penguin had published in which Lipstadt deemed him a Holocaust denier and accused him of maligning the Jews and Holocaust history in his writings.

"This battle came and found me," said Lipstadt. "Had I not fought, he would have won by default. He then would have been able to say that he was correct. I decided to fight it with all my strength and all my might. Not fighting was never an option, to let evil go unchallenged."

While Lipstadt said that she was not sure why Irving had singled her out - she says others were more outspoken against Irving, and only six of her book's 300 pages dealt with Irving - the Emory University Dorot professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies had her theories. Chief among them was her close connection with the Jewish community.

"He probably thought that as an American and as a woman I would not fight," said Lipstadt, who also believes that, part and parcel with Irving's anti-Semitic and racist mindset, he had a streak of misogyny. In fact, Lipstadt said that the crux of her defense during the 12-week trial was to prove that anti-Semitism, racism and misogyny were alive and well within Irving, and then "showing how he lied and how he continuously lied" and how he would "twist the evidence as to fit his purpose" in fabricating revisionist history.

"This was not a trial on whether the Holocaust happened," said Lipstadt. "This is a trial on whether David Irving is a historian."

Irving himself had referred to Lipstadt as the "gold-tipped spearhead of the enemies of truth." Lipstadt believes "enemies" served as a euphemism for Jewish organizations. The Englishman had twice attempted to reach a settlement before the trial; the first time with Penguin Books, the second time with Penguin and Lipstadt, but neither Lipstadt nor Penguin entertained Irving's offer, which was a demand of £500,000 for his charity of choice, and a validation of his credentials as a historian. Lipstadt had much praise for her barrister, a man of Scottish descent named Richard Ramton, who advised her not to settle or, as she quoted him as saying, "none of us will be safe in our beds." She also exalted her publishing house, which picked up two-thirds of the defense's $3 million in legal expenses.

With Ramton's help, Lipstadt and her defense team set out to dismantle Irving's credibility as a historian. They researched the sources footnoted in Irving's book, unearthing example after example of instances where he would fudge statistical information, historical chronology and quotes to suit his agenda. One such item regarded a skeptical comment expressed by a Nuremburg judge regarding a line of testimony made by a Holocaust survivor. Irving took the judge's comment and blew it out of proportion, making it appear as if the judge had discounted the survivor's entire account.

The British magistrate granted Lipstadt's team access to Irving's entire collection of audio and video documenting his appearances. The court also allowed the defense to seize Irving's personal diaries, to verify whether, as Irving had claimed, his personal life was irreparably damaged by Lipstadt's allegations. When all was said and done, Lipstadt's side found, indeed, numerous statements made by Irving injurious to Jews, Arabs and Blacks, often couched in smirky, off-the-cuff comments.
"It was a lesson even for me," said Lipstadt, "listening to him try to justify it."
Ultimately, when the British court ruled against Irving, the judge's 355-page verdict proved "far more stronger than anything I wrote about Irving," said Lipstadt (Penguin Books will publish the judge's journal in August).

In addition to the trial itself, Lipstadt had plenty to say on the aftermath. Addressing her famous thumbs-up sign of victory, she quipped, "Someone said it was the wrong finger." And when an audience member at the ADL gathering asked her to comment on media coverage of her case, Lipstadt complimented the Chicago Tribune for an "excellent" job and The New York Times for "okay" reporting on the trial's beginning and end, then added that "the L.A. Times covered it, but got it wrong," singling out an article on Irving where writer Kim Murphy portrayed the Holocaust revisionist as a legitimate historian.

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