History professor Deborah Lipstadt was relatively well known before being portrayed by superstar actor Rachel Weisz in last year’s Hollywood feature film “Denial.” The movie was based on Lipstadt’s experiences in a landmark British legal case in which she fought a libel suit brought by Holocaust denier David Irving.
The film has kicked her notoriety up a notch, leading to more opportunities to publicly speak her mind — and she has plenty to say about a perceived assault on facts and truth in the United States under the Trump Administration.
One such opportunity was a TED Talk titled, “Behind the Lies of Holocaust Denial,” that Lipstadt gave in the UK earlier this spring. In the 15-minute clip posted last month, she warned about those who dress lies up as opinions to encroach on facts. Lipstadt spoke mainly of Holocaust deniers, but she left no doubt she was also talking about contemporary Twitter-friendly political leaders playing fast and loose with the truth.
“Today, as we well know, truth and facts are under assault. Social media, for all the gifts it has given us, has also allowed the difference between facts — established facts — and lies to be flattened,” she said in the TED Talk.
‘We live in an age where truth is on the defensive’
“We live in an age where truth is on the defensive… Truth is not relative. Many of us have grown up in the world of the academy and enlightened liberal thought, where we’re taught everything is open to debate. But that’s not the case. There are certain things that are true. There are indisputable facts — objective truths… The Earth is not flat. The climate is changing. Elvis is not alive,” she said.
The viral reach of the TED Talk was on Lipstadt’s mind when she sat down for an interview with The Times of Israel this week in Jerusalem, where she had come to participate in an author event at the Jerusalem International Book Fair. The Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Lipstadt was also in Israel to receive an honorary doctor of philosophy degree from the University of Haifa on June 6.
“It’s up to more than 540,000 views. I checked right before meeting with you, since I thought you might ask about it,” Lipstadt, 70, said about the TED Talk video.
In a broad-ranging interview, the popular professor spoke on a variety of topics, including what she said was the White House’s flirtation with softcore Holocaust denial, free speech on college campuses, and the pitfalls of making analogies between the Holocaust and current atrocities like the war in Syria.
What has it been like for you since “Denial” was made and released?
It’s been an out-of-body experience. I look at the film and I see my story, but it’s not like I’m walking around thinking I was depicted on the screen. It’s been very weird and a lot of fun, but the hoopla ends very quickly. What’s more important are the increased opportunities I have had to speak and write. It happened as a result of the trial, but even more so as a result of the movie.
‘We all want to be heard beyond the echo chamber’
I’m getting invitations to write, to speak, to participate in things that are not Jewish. I’m saying the same thing. My views haven’t changed, but my megaphone is a bit larger. For instance, I was at West Point right after Pesach [Passover] to talk to the cadet corps — not just an event in the Jewish chapel.
When Sean Spicer made that statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day [that omitted mention of Jews and anti-Semitism], I got a call within 15 minutes of it happening from The New York Times for comment, and then from the Atlantic to write about it. It’s happening now on a really regular basis. I’m very gratified by this because we all want to be heard beyond the echo chamber. It’s not that I didn’t have that access before, but that access has expanded.
In that Atlantic piece published January 30, you accused the Trump Administration of softcore Holocaust denial.
I still stand by that. I’m standing by the statement that the way that the administration handled that January 27 statement was an example of softcore Holocaust denial. I’m not saying that Donald Trump is a softcore Holocaust denier, but that was an example of softcore denial. And as I said in the article, I was [initially] sure it was a mistake. But the way they doubled and tripled and down on it… I wrote the article before [National Security Advisor Sebastian] Gorka made his statement. He made it worse.
There has never been any explanation or apology. And you couple that with the president’s reluctance through much of the beginning of his administration to condemn anti-Semitism. It was a disturbing trend. Eventually, in his State of the Union [address] he condemned the anti-Semitism, and then he condemned it in a speech at the Museum of African History.
But when you put it together with Bannon’s record on alt-right and Gorka and some of the others… Again I am not saying they are anti-Semites. I have no proof of that. But for that incident it was disturbing and I stand by it.
As a historian, do you think it is helpful to draw analogies between today’s Syrian refugee crisis and the Holocaust, as many in the Jewish community are doing?
‘Assad is a horrible man who gasses his own people, but what he’s doing is not considered by scholars of genocide to be genocide’
At the beginning of the Trump Administration, you were hearing, “It’s fascism! It’s just like Hitler!” Or you heard it on the right about the left. The analogies were all over the place. I hate those analogies. That doesn’t mean that thoughtful comparisons are not in place. What I hate are the glib comparisons, so I am very careful with analogies, because I think too often they are used glibly and in utilitarian fashion.
Assad is a horrible man who gasses his own people, but what he’s doing is not considered by scholars of genocide to be genocide. Genocide is a unique crime. I’m calling for careful differentiation.
So what should be the response to Assad?
We condemn. I don’t know what to do. The guy is horrible. Given my druthers I would have liked to have seen him overthrown four years ago. I have nothing good at all to say about Assad, but what he is doing is not a Holocaust.
‘I’m not engaging in comparative pain’
Why I feel so passionately about these comparisons is that I am not saying that it’s okay or that it’s not as bad. I’m not engaging in comparative pain. I hate comparative pain. I think it’s useless. It doesn’t take us anywhere.
There is room for analogies, but I hate the glib, easy comparisons. They start with Israel and the “Nazi-like” tactics of the IDF. You can be against the IDF’s policies, you can be against Israel’s policies vis à vis the Palestinians, you can think they are wrong or immoral, but it’s not a genocide — but that’s what’s been used.
Can any comparison be made between the Jews who fled Nazi persecution and faced American anti-immigration policies and the Syrian refugees facing Trump’s attempted Muslim ban?
[The analogy] works to a certain extent, because they didn’t want Jews there. But the people being banned [today] are not facing genocide. They are living in terrible situations, but I still think it is different when the country from which you are coming from is out to destroy you.
‘Anybody who ignores the fact that ISIS et al will use this refugee situation to try to get people in is problematic’
I think the US should let in more refugees. The country has greatly benefited from refugees. Anybody who ignores the fact that opposition to refugees coming to this country has possibly until the last 15 years included inherent anti-Semitism is blind. I also know that anybody who ignores the fact that ISIS et al will use this refugee situation to try to get people in is also problematic.
I think [German Chancellor] Merkel made a big mistake when she said two years ago, “We can let a million people in.” They just walked in. It was crazy.
What is your take on free speech issues on American college campuses these days? Students are demanding “safe spaces,” conservatives claim they are being discriminated against, and invitations to speakers are being rescinded due to pressure and security concerns.
I’m very disturbed from all perspectives. I think this idea that we can’t have voices to campus with which we disagree because campus has to be a safe space is antithetical to what the campus is all about. The campus should be a place where you encounter all sorts of ideas. Does that mean that someone who preaches racism, anti-Semitism, or bigotry should be invited? No, of course not.
So where do you draw the line?
Where do you draw the line? Wherever you draw the line it’s not for an official body to say, “He comes and she doesn’t, or she comes and he doesn’t.” First of all, I would expect the students would have sechel (common sense) as to who was invited. If it was someone who has a track record of every place they go violence follows, then think twice about inviting them.
Do you find that people are reluctant these days to speak out against anti-Semitism within their own political camps?
‘Progressive Jews feel they are being forced to make a choice’
When Trump came into office, especially in the first few couple of months with the [Holocaust Remembrance Day] statement and his refusing to condemn anti-Semtism, the left was having a heyday. And I said to a lot of my friends on the left, “Excuse me, where were you when the left was engaging in anti-Semitism?” And the right defend Breitbart and attack the left, but don’t criticize the right. If you’re going to criticize Trump, Bannon and others for the anti-Semitism and you have’t spoken out on Corbyn or Ken Livingstone or BDS or Linda Sarsour, you have no credibility in my eyes. We’ve got to criticize those whose outlooks we generally share.
Students in progressive groups, like at Oberlin or the No Red Tape group at Columbia are chanting “Free Palestine” at protests. Progressive Jews feel they are being forced to make a choice.
It’s the intersectionality issue.
Intersectionality started out as a good thing. African American women auto workers brought a law suit claiming they were discriminated against as women on the assembly line and as blacks regarding front office jobs. It started out as a very legitimate thing as a way of staying that sometimes people straddle more than one pigeon hole, but now it’s used to bring together a geo-political fight with a racial fight.
Moreover, the way it’s being used, it degrades the African American experience, because African Americans who have been stopped by police officers who engaged in racist behavior and shot them, were shot for being black. Here [in Israel and the Palestinian Territories], maybe you shouldn’t be shot for throwing a stone, but you’ve done something, you’ve thrown a stone, you’ve pulled a knife. It degrades the experience of the discrimination directed against African Americans.
At the end of your TED Talk you urge people to go on the offensive and to act now, because truth and facts are under assault. How do you suggest this be done?
‘Cry out, but responsibly, not emotionally’
Little things. You see something on Facebook and it agrees with you; Trump did this awful thing. Before you repost it, check if it’s true. Check your sources. The internet is a great gift, but you’ve got to use it wisely. Investigate and ask questions. Ask: Is this possible? We have to be much more careful in things we repeat. We’ve got to educate ourselves on the facts. We can’t be beguiled by appearances. Somebody looks very good, sounds very good and sounds rational, but think about what they’re saying. It calls for setting up more barriers. Show me the evidence, who says it? Where did you get that information? I don’t know what else we can do. Those of us who have media access have to be part of it. Cry out, but responsibly, not emotionally.
Do you recommend engaging an anti-Semite or Holocaust denier directly?
I don’t engage them because at the heart they are anti-Semites, but I engage what they say because I have to disprove it to others who might be influenced by it. That’s why I don’t debate David Irving. It’s a waste of time, but in my trial we proved that what he said was a load of falsehoods and lies. That’s a different kind of thing.
Holocaust denial, and by extension anti-Semitism, is not a cognitive error. It’s not like they miss one fact. It’s that they’re looking at the world through the prism of an anti-Semite. They’re conspiracy theorists.