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Jewish Journal

Deborah Lipstadt’s Trial and Us

January 27, 2000 | 7:00 pm

Every once in a while someone I know comes forward with an idea that is so right, so simple and so obvious, that I find myself clapping hand to head and saying, "Why didn't I think of it?" In this instance the person with the idea is Anita Hirsh of Studio City.

She has suggested that those of us who know Deborah Lipstadt, as well as those who have only read about her recently, send a message of encouragement, support and, in general, thanks for her present stand. Deborah Lipstadt, a historian and Holocaust scholar, is in London today, where she is being sued for libel by British historian and Holocaust revisionist and denier David Irving in what looks to be a landmark trial.

While she is now a professor of Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, many Angelenos remember her from the days when she was a professor of history at UCLA; she subsequently served as director at Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley during the mid and late 1980s.

The charge of libel revolves around Irving's claim that Lipstadt defamed him, ruined his reputation, and, beyond that, is leading an international Jewish conspiracy to destroy him. The defamation occurred, he says, in Lipstadt's 1993 book, "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory" published by Penguin Books. According to Irving, Lipstadt charged him with "praising the internment of Jews in Nazi concentration camps" and with skewing historical accounts as well as misrepresenting "data in order to reach untenable conclusions."

In essence she accused him of falsifying history in order to deny that gas chambers existed in Auschwitz, or that Hitler and the German government systematically murdered Europe's Jews during the Second World War.

The suit is taking place in England (where Irving resides) because libel laws are quite strict there, with the burden of proof placed upon the defendant. Lipstadt must prove that the British historian deliberately lied and falsified information in his books (about 30 of them on World War II). Otherwise she will be found guilty of libel and she and her publisher ordered to pay damages to Irving. One other concern is that Irving will then claim the courts, in England at least, support his contention the Holocaust may have been in large measure a Jewish fabrication.

During the past two weeks as the trial has gotten underway, Irving has been freely quoted in the press (he is functioning as his own lawyer). Meanwhile Lipstadt has been silent, even impassive. She is under orders from her attorney, barrister Richard Rampton, not to speak to the press.

Anyone who knows her from the years in Los Angeles will find it difficult to imagine Deborah Lipstadt sitting quietly, not responding, while statements and arguments swirl about her. One of her more characteristic qualities was the speed at which she processed information and ideas and, almost before the processing was complete, began to articulate an opinion or argument in the most forceful and cogent terms.

She is not allowed to speak today -- which, perhaps, is all the more reason for us to speak to her. The trial, as she well knows, reaches beyond Deborah Lipstadt. Hers is a battle to keep the memory of history and truth alive, so that it will be part of the human record long after the last survivor and his or her family is able to render testimony. In that regard her charges, and defense, are ours as well.

Anita Hirsh proposes that we write Deborah, that we e-mail her, that we speak out -- for and to an old friend. Under the present circumstances, most of her focus is on the trial and responding to messages from friends and acquaintances may not necessarily serve her well. However we -- The Jewish Journal -- can function as bulletin board and messenger. So please write her or send along e-mail greetings via us. We will publish some -- the emphasis is on the word some -- of the correspondence. And, more to the point, will collect all the incoming mail and forward it to her via her attorney in London.

Please address all correspondence: Deborah Lipstadt, c/o The Jewish Journal, 3660 Wilshire Blvd, LA 90010. If you prefer e-mail, send it to: thejjla@aol.com.

We have never actually tried this before; but on our side of the transom, it feels like the right thing to do. -- Gene Lichtenstein

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