What Can Be Done about Holocaust Deniers?

by Edward I. Koch and Dr. Rafael Medoff

The recent conference of Holocaust-deniers in Teheran and the jailing earlier this year of British author David Irving in Austria for denying the Holocaust have stirred debate over what can be done to combat the deniers.

While Austria, Germany, France and some other European countries have enacted legislation outlawing Holocaust-denial, the United States has not. Countries on whose soil the Holocaust took place understandably feel a need to act against attempts to whitewash the Nazis’ crimes. The United States, with its very different past and its stricter constitutional interpretation of free speech, has not taken such action, although many states ban or restrict either cross-burning or wearing Ku Klux Klan-style hoods.

But just because Holocaust-denial is legal in the U.S. does not mean that Americans are helpless to combat it. There are many steps that the government, media, and general public can take to show America’s contempt for deniers and reduce their influence.

* Recognize that Holocaust-denial is bigotry. Holocaust-denial expert Prof. Deborah Lipstadt has described deniers as “anti-Semites in three-piece suits” and the State Department’s 2005 report on global anti-Semitism listed instances of Holocaust-denial as examples of anti-Semitic activity. They’re right. It’s old-fashioned anti-Semitism in a new guise. Holocaust-denial is not a legitimate part of public discourse. Deniers are not “revisionists,” although they have tried to appropriate that term to give themselves a veneer of credibility. The Chronicle of Higher Education, the leading newspaper of the academic world, should be applauded for its recently-adopted policy of refraining from characterizing deniers as “revisionists.”

* Don’t give deniers a platform. No newspaper or magazine is legally required to accept every advertisement that is submitted. In 1992, the newsletter of the Organization of American Historians declared it would not accept ads from deniers. The political weekly “The Nation” adopted a similar policy in 2004. C-Span’s plan, last year, to “balance” a speech by Prof. Lipstadt by broadcasting one by denier David Irving was wrongheaded and, fortunately, was reversed after public protests. One presumes C-Span would not “balance” a speech by a geologist with one by someone claiming the earth is flat.

* Don’t give celebrities a pass. Soon after the controversy over the drunken anti-Semitic tirade by actor-director Mel Gibson last summer, there were two important but little-noticed reports (one in the Melbourne Herald Sun, the other in the New York Post) of his involvement with the Australian League of Rights (ALR), a group that denies the Holocaust. According to these accounts, Gibson backed the candidacy of the ALR’s Rob Taylor when he ran for local office in 1987, and in recent years Gibson attended an ALR dinner, together with his father Hutton, an avowed Holocaust-denier. The group’s newsletter described the Gibsons’ attendance as the “sensation” of the event.

Yet there has been no serious investigation of this new evidence. Already there are reports that Gibson’s new movie may win an Academy Award, and many in Hollywood seem ready to forgive and forget. Until Gibson comes clean about his ties to the ALR, there is reason to doubt the sincerity of his recent apologies.

* Put pressure on regimes that sponsor denial. Some governments that the U.S. considers friendly, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, include Holocaust-denial material in government-controlled news media and other publications. These regimes are recipients of significant amounts of U.S. military and economic assistance. U.S. taxpayer money should not be subsidizing such hate. The implicit threat of losing Western aid can work wonders. International pressure forced the United Arab Emirates in 2004 to shut down the Zayed Center, which had been promoting Holocaust-denial. (Unfortunately, the State Department sent mixed messages–while the U.S. ambassador in the UAE protested Zayed’s activities, a State Department report listed the closure as an example of suppressing free speech.) That same year, U.S. pressure brought about the first-ever public disavowal of Holocaust-denial by an Egyptian government official. Now there must be follow-up.

Openly anti-American regimes such as Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be less susceptible to foreign pressure, but an end to Holocaust-denial propaganda should be on the list of changes the West would require of Teheran to shed its pariah status.

* Insist that leaders behave responsibly. Presidents and prime ministers set the tone for what is acceptable in public discourse. Leaders who dabble in Holocaust-denial should be held accountable, not excused in the name of realpolitik. In 1994, international criticism compelled then-Croatian President Franjo Tudjman to publicly apologize for a book he wrote that called the Holocaust an exaggeration. Croatians got the message. Last month the new Croatian leadership opened a museum on the site of the Jasenovac concentration camp, where the Nazis’ puppet Croatian regime murdered more than 90,000 Jews and Gypsies during the Holocaust.

Similarly, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas should be urged to publicly disavow his 1982 book, which claimed less than one million Jews were killed by the Nazis and accused David Ben-Gurion of “provoking” Hitler. As Israeli cabinet minister Isaac Herzog has written, Abbas’s book “is not a matter that can be brushed under the carpet, because at issue is a moral question whose importance cannot be overstated.”

Yes, the Holocaust-denial conference in Teheran was an outrage. But it was also a test of the free world’s resolve.

Edward I. Koch, mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989, and Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, are co-authors of the forthcoming book, “Confronting Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.”

(As published in the Jerusalem Report – Jan 8, 2007)

January 2007