Lipstadt Respect as a Teacher; for Standing Up to Holocaust Deniers

That Emory University professor and author Deborah Lipstadt is widely heralded for winning the court battle in England when David Irving sued her for libel for calling him a Holocaust denier is an indisputable fact. That she is an excellent and popular teacher is borne out by the full classrooms for every course she teaches.

But when she came to Keneseth Israel Congregation in Louisville on Thursday, November 10, to speak about her experiences during the trial, the full extent of her impact on students became evident to all. Three Louisvillians, Debbie Atlas, Aaron Pedowitz and Scott Weinberg, hold her in such high regard that all three wanted to introduce her, and rather than agreeing to let one of them do the honors, each of the recounted how Lipstadt and her classes changed the course of their lives.

In fact, Lipstadt only agreed to come when Weinberg, now president of KI, reached out to her. He had been in her class when she was served with Irving’s lawsuit. Her appearance also coincided with the release of the movie Denial, based on her book with the same title that details her legal battle with David Irving.

In the United States, she explained, if a person sues another for libel, the burden of proving the charges falls on the accuser. British law, she continued “is the mirror image of American law.” If a person sues another for libel, the burden of disproving the charges falls on the accused. So when David Irving sued Deborah Lipstadt for libel, she had to go to England and find a way to prove in court that David Irving is a Holocaust denier.

There is, of course, extensive documentation of the horrors of the Holocaust, from survivors’ testimony to meticulous records kept by the Nazis detailing what they did to whom when and where. Irving twisted the documentation to provide a differing perspective.

And Irving was a formidable adversary, because he had already established a reputation as a respected writer of history books. It was only when he wrote about the Holocaust that he twisted the facts to suit his own purposes rather than documenting them for what they were.

Lipstadt and her legal team decided to use Irving’s own writings on the Holocaust against him rather than relying on other sources. They also decided not to call on Holocaust survivors to testify because they did not want subject victims of Hitler’s persecution to reliving the horrors under oath or cross examination by Irving.

By comparing what Irving wrote to original documentation, they were able to generate 100 linear feet of documentation to prove Irving twisted and distorted the facts to suit his own theories through omission of details, reporting events out of sequence and other maneuvers.

One example Lipstadt cited was Irving’s account of Kristallnacht, the anniversary of which was observed the day before she spoke in Louisville. In his writings, Lipstadt said, Irving made Hitler out to be a defender of Jews in the face of unplanned, unprovoked violence.

As evidence, Irving said a telex communication Hitler sent called for rioters to stop the violence against the Jews, therefore, he was protecting them.

In that telex, Lipstadt explained, Hitler called for an end to arson against the Jews. He issued that call because the fires were getting out of hand. When the synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes burned, the flames quickly outpaced the fire departments’ ability to control them. That meant that fires intended to destroy Jewish property spread to non-Jewish homes and businesses. Hitler never called for an end to the violence, only an end to the arson in order to protect Aryan property.

Score one for Lipstadt and her team. The work was painstakingly meticulous, but Lipstadt and her team traced back the sources Irving cited and documented case after case where Irving altered the timeline of occurrences, twisted the meaning when documentation didn’t match his narrative and omitted details or lied in his writings.

The detail they presented in their overwhelming evidence enabled them to prove in court that Lipstadt had not libeled Irving because when Lipstadt wrote that Irving was a Holocaust denier, she was merely stating a verifiable fact.

After she was exonerated and she began speaking about her experiences, Lipstadt found the survivors would seek her out and thank her for taking on David Irving. She found this disconcerting. After all, while her battle with David Irving was difficult and she suffered throughout its five year duration, it was nothing compared to what the survivors had experienced.

It was only after he cousin explained to her that for many survivors, it seemed that no one cared about what had happened to them until she stepped up to challenge the bad guys. So even though she felt she could never repay the survivors for thanking her, she had to let them.

The evening started with a VIP meet and greet at which patrons received a copy of Denial, which Lipstadt signed for them, and concluded with a question and answer session and a dessert reception.

As a token of appreciation for Lipstadt coming to Louisville, Weinberg presented her with a personalized Louisville Slugger bat and promised to have it shipped to her home so she would not have the hassle of trying to figure out how to board a plane with it.

Keneseth Israel hosted the program. It was made possible by a grant from the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence and the Jewish Federation of Louisville.

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