Deborah Lipstadt has been nominated to be the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, a position where, if confirmed, she will have an official position as a Jewish activist, as opposed to her current position in which she masquerades as a “scholar.” Because I participated in David Irving’s lawsuit against Lipstadt, I wrote the following on her, excerpted from this general discussion of my participation in the trial. Yes, Lipstadt is yet another academic Jewish activist.
Despite the fact that David Irving contacted me because I had discussed the suppression of his book, I continued to be concerned that this issue was not really central to Irving’s case and that my purported expertise on Judaism was irrelevant. The link to the case was that Deborah Lipstadt had joined the effort at suppression despite her lack of scholarly expertise on Goebbels. The Washington Post of April 3, 1996 quoted Lipstadt as stating that “In the Passover Hagadah, it says in every generation there are those who rise up to destroy us. David Irving is not physically destroying us, but is trying to destroy the memory of those who have already perished at the hands of tyrants.” “They say they don’t publish reputations, they publish books…. But would they publish a book by Jeffrey Dahmer on man-boy relationships? Of course the reputation of the author counts. And no legitimate historian takes David Irving’s work seriously.” These comments were made in reaction to the St. Martin’s Press rescinding publication of Irving’s book, Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich, and were clearly intended to support that decision. The decision to sue Lipstadt came only after St. Martin’s Press had rescinded publication of the book, and only after Lipstadt’s public support for that decision (David Irving, personal communication; see also Guttenplan 2000, 53).
In the trial, the defense argued that my testimony was irrelevant and the judge seemed to agree but then changed his mind when the link with Lipstadt was made clear. Irving’s complaint goes beyond simple libel against him to the assertion of an organized campaign of suppression. Evolutionary theory did not enter into my testimony, and it only entered my written statement to the court in a general way—that I saw Jewish- gentile relations as being examples of competition between ethnic groups.
David Irving is in many ways not an ideal person. There is no doubt in my mind that he has strongly held political views — although the extent to which this is a reaction to his demonization by Jewish activist organizations is at least open to conjecture. Whenever a person has strong political views, it is reasonable to assume that these views may color one’s perception of reality. Since I am not a professional historian, I am in no position to judge the validity of his archival research. I am very impressed by the fact that Irving is a recognized expert on certain aspects of W.W.II— recognized by several noted authorities for having made original contributions to knowledge in the field — none of whom are Holocaust deniers or revisionists. These include Gordon Craig, A.J.P. Taylor, Hugh Trevor-Roper, and John Keegan. (A column by Keegan, written for the Daily Telegraph (UK) appears as Appendix 1 below. [Keegan concludes: “Prof Lipstadt, by contrast, seems as dull as only the self-righteously politically correct can be. Few other historians had ever heard of her before this case. Most will not want to hear from her again.”])
Post-trial comment: In his opinion, Justice Gray seems to concur with this evaluation:
As a military historian, Irving has much to commend him. For his works of military history Irving has undertaken thorough and painstaking research into the archives. He has discovered and disclosed to historians and others many documents which, but for his efforts, might have remained unnoticed for years. It was plain from the way in which he conducted his case and dealt with a sustained and penetrating cross-examination that his knowledge of World War 2 is unparalleled. His mastery of the detail of the historical documents is remarkable. He is beyond question able and intelligent. He was invariably quick to spot the significance of documents which he had not previously seen. Moreover he writes his military history in a clear and vivid style. I accept the favourable assessment by Professor Watt and Sir John Keegan of the calibre of Irving’s military history … and reject as too sweeping the negative assessment of Evans …. [Richard Evans, a historian who testified for the defense, had stated that Irving has had “a generally low reputation amongst professional historians since the end of the 1980s and at all times amongst those who have direct experience of researching in the areas with which he concerns himself”; although not noted by Judge Gray, Evans also reiterated Lipstadt’s charge that Irving was not a historian at all.] But the questions to which this action has given rise do not relate to the quality of Irving’s military history but rather to the manner in which he has written about the attitude adopted by Hitler towards the Jews and in particular his responsibility for the fate which befell them under the Nazi regime.
The judge is implicitly agreeing with me that Lipstadt libeled Irving by writing he was not a historian and by writing that “no legitimate historian takes David Irving’s work seriously.” I suppose that in the judge’s view this was far less serious than the accusation that he had manipulated data in order to exculpate Hitler, etc., and I have no objection to that judgment.
I also felt that Lipstadt exaggerated the extent to which Irving denied the Holocaust, since there are many places in his writings where Irving describes Nazis engaged in organized killing of Jews. I was also swayed by my knowledge that Irving’s Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich received a positive but critical review in The New York Review of Books (Sept. 19, 1996) by Stanford historian Gordon Craig who cautioned against censoring people like Irving. And finally, I had finished reading Goebbels myself and decided that, whatever faults a close analysis might reveal, it was highly informative on many points—an indispensable source of information on the man and the period. Obviously I would not trust only my own feelings on this issue; but in fact I had satisfied myself that indeed it was a major contribution to the field.
I was also swayed by finding that Lipstadt is a Jewish ethnic activist whose own writings have been criticized by a well-recognized historian as exaggerating the role of anti-Semitism in the Western response to the Holocaust during World War II [see below]. Lipstadt is thus part of a pattern discussed extensively in Separation And Its Discontents in which some (but by no means all) Jewish historians engage in ethnocentric interpretations of history. It is highly significant that Lipstadt’s book Denying the Holocaust was written with extensive aid from various Jewish activist organizations, including the ADL. Lipstadt’s book was commissioned and published by The Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In her acknowledgements, she credits the research department of the Anti-Defamation league, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Institute for Jewish Affairs (London), the Canadian Jewish Congress, and the American Jewish Committee’all activist organizations.
Lipstadt is the Chair of the Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University. Historian Jacob Katz finds that academic departments of Jewish studies are often linked to Jewish nationalism: “The inhibitions of traditionalism, on the one hand, and a tendency toward apologetics, on the other, can function as deterrents to scholarly objectivity” (p. 84). The work of Jewish historians exhibits “a defensiveness that continues to haunt so much of contemporary Jewish activity” (1986, 85). Similarly the preeminent scholar of the Jewish religion, Jacob Neusner, notes that “scholars drawn to the subject by ethnic affiliation’Jews studying and teaching Jewish things to Jews’ turn themselves into ethnic cheer-leaders. The Jewish Studies classroom is a place where Jews tell Jews why they should be Jewish (stressing “the Holocaust” as a powerful reason) or rehearse the self-evident virtue of being Jewish.” (Times Literary Supplement, March 5, 1999).
Perhaps the best indication of Lipstadt’s Jewish activism is that she serves as Senior Editorial Contributor at the Jewish Spectator, a Jewish publication for conservative, religiously observant Jews. Her column, Tomer Devorah (Hebrew: Under Deborah’s Palm Tree), appears in every issue and touches on a wide range of Jewish issues, including anti-Semitism, relations among Jews, and interpreting religious holidays. In her column she has advocated greater understanding and usage of Hebrew to promote Jewish identification, and, like many Jewish ethnic activists, she is strongly opposed to intermarriage. “We must say to young people ‘intermarriage is something that poses a dire threat to the future of the Jewish community.’ ” Lipstadt writes that Conservative Rabbi Jack Moline was “very brave” for saying that number one on a list of ten things Jewish parents should say to their children is “I expect you to marry a Jew.” She suggests a number of strategies to prevent intermarriage, including trips to Israel for teenagers and subsidizing tuition at Jewish day schools (Jewish Spectator, [Fall, 1991], 63).
In his recent book, The Holocaust in American Life, historian Peter Novick clearly thinks of Lipstadt as an activist, although not as extreme as some. He repeatedly cites her as an example of a Holocaust propagandizer. He notes that in her book Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust 1933-1945, Lipstadt says Allied policy “bordered on complicity” motivated by “deep antipathy” toward “contemptible Jews.” Novick says that while there is no scholarly consensus on the subject, “most professional historians agree that “the comfortable morality tale … is simply bad history: estimates of the number of those who might have been saved have been greatly inflated, and the moralistic version ignores real constraints at the time” (Novick, 1999, 48). Novick characterizes Lipstadt as attributing the failure of the press to emphasize Jewish suffering as motivated by “willful blindness, the result of inexcusable ignorance’or malice” (p. 65) despite the fact that the concentration camp survivors encountered by Western journalists (Dachau, Buchenwald) were 80% non-Jewish. Lipstadt is described as an implacable pursuer of Nazi war criminals, stating that she would “prosecute them if they had to be wheeled into the courtroom on a stretcher” (p. 229). In a discussion of the well-recognized unreliability of eye-witness testimony, Novick writes: “When evidence emerged that one Holocaust memoir, highly praised for its authenticity, might have been completely invented, Deborah Lipstadt, who used the memoir in her teaching of the Holocaust, acknowledged that if this turned out to be the case, it ‘might complicate matters somewhat,’ but insisted that it would still be ‘powerful as a novel.’ ” Truth is less important than the effectiveness of the message.
The intrusion of ethnocentrism into historical scholarship is a well-recognized problem in Jewish historiography, discussed at length in Separation and Its Discontents. Historians such as Jacob Katz (1986) and Albert Lindemann (1997) have noted that this type of behavior is commonplace in Jewish historiography. A central theme of Katz’s analysis—massively corroborated by Albert Lindemann’s recent work, Esau’s Tears‘is that historians of Judaism have often falsely portrayed the beliefs of gentiles as irrational fantasies while portraying the behavior of Jews as irrelevant to anti-Semitism. To quote the well-known political scientist, Michael Walzer: “Living so long in exile and so often in danger, we have cultivated a defensive and apologetic account, a censored story, of Jewish religion and culture” (Walzer 1994, 6).
The salient point for me is that Jewish historians who have been reasonably accused of bringing an ethnocentric bias to their writing nevertheless are able to publish their work with prestigious mainstream academic and commercial publishers, and they often obtain jobs at prestigious academic institutions. A good example is Daniel Goldhagen. In his written submission to the court on behalf of Deborah Lipstadt, historian Richard Evans, describes Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, as a book which argues “in a crude and dogmatic fashion that virtually all Germans had been murderous antisemites since the Middle Ages, had been longing to exterminate the Jews for decades before Hitler came to power, and actively enjoyed participating in the extermination when it began. The book has since been exposed as a tissue of misrepresentation and misinterpretation, written in shocking ignorance of the huge historical literature on the topic and making numerous elementary mistakes in its interpretation of the documents.”
These are exactly the types of accusations leveled by Lipstadt at Irving. Yet Goldhagen maintains a position at Harvard University; he is lionized in many quarters and his work has been massively promoted in the media while his critics have come under pressure from Jewish activist organizations (Guttenplan, 2000).