December 16, 2011 | 10:28 am
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
If there were a Congressional Medal of Honor for historians, I would bestow it upon Deborah Lipstadt. What other historian, living or dead, has stood up in open court and defended the truth of her scholarship, as Lipstadt did when she was sued for libel by Holocaust-denier David Irving? Lipstadt, in a real sense, was forced to put the truth of Holocaust scholarship on trial — and she won.
Now Lipstadt, whose book on the Eichmann trial I reviewed here earlier this year, has spoken truth to power in a frank interview with Israeli journalist Chemi Shalev in Haaretz. She denounced the rhetorical excesses of certain American politicians — including Newt Gingrich — who exploit the Holocaust and the conflicts of the modern Middle East to pander to Jewish voters in America.
“When you take these terrible moments in our history, and you use it for contemporary purposes, in order to fulfill your political objectives, you mangle history, you trample on it,” she told Shalev. “It’s a distortion of what Israel is all about, what Zionism is all about.”
She singled out Newt Gingrich’s notorious denial of Palestinian peoplehood as an example: “You listen to Newt Gingrich talking about the Palestinians as an ‘invented people’ – it’s out-AIPACing AIPAC, it’s out-Israeling Israel,” said Lipstadt. ”It’s not healthy.”
Lipstadt was just as harsh in criticizing radical settlers in Israel who characterize the soldiers of the IDF as “Nazis.” “t’s such an abuse of history,” said Lipstadt. “The people who started it know it’s not true, but the kids, the yeshiva kids, and the high school kids — they don’t know it’s not true. And so when real Nazism comes around — no one will recognize it.”
After many years of reading and writing about history, I came to realize that scholars are not afraid of a fight; indeed, there is nothing quite as nasty as a squabble between rival historians over some abstruse point in a journal article or monograph. The spectacle of Holocaust historians ganging up on Daniel Jonah Goldhagen over “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” — or Raul Hilberg’s snipes at Lucy Dawidowicz — are both good examples. But most of their tummeling is confined to the academy.
To her credit, Lipstadt is one historian who knows from first-hand experience that it is the moral duty of the scholar to come out and fight for what she knows to be true.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal and can be reached at email@example.com. His next book is “The Exterminating Angel,” a biography of an early figure in the Jewish armed resistance to Nazi Germany.
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