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An interview with Holocaust Historian Deborah Lipstadt

Rachel Weisz portrays Deborah Lipstadt in ‘Denial’

By Daniel Koren
Media Coordinator
B’nai Brith Canada

On Sept. 5, 1996, British author (and now infamous Holocaust denier) David Irving accused American historian Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin Books of libel following the publication of her book, Denying the Holocaust, where she charges Irving and several other suspected deniers of “purely antisemitic diatribe.” As English libel law puts the burden of proof on the defendant, Lipstadt and her legal team had to prove without reasonable doubt that her characterization of Irving as a Holocaust denier was warranted.

Lipstadt won the case after demonstrating in court that her accusations against Irving were historically true and valid, setting an important and historic precedent. Irving’s reputation as a historian has since been widely discredited.

Now, some 20 years later, Lipstadt’s ordeal is being brought to the big screen in Denial, starring Rachel Weisz and Tom Wilkinson, based on her 2005 book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier. At a time where global antisemitism and Holocaust denial continues to permeate society – particularly on social media – the film’s premise is as pertinent today as it was when Lipstadt first penned the book in 1993.

In a conversation with B’nai Brith Canada, Lipstadt elaborates on her experience and issues brought up in the film, including freedom of speech, antisemitism, and Holocaust denial.

“Holocaust denial has become both better and worse,” she says. “Hardcore deniers like David Irving are given far less credence than they used to have, and I think my trial exposed that and weakened them because it showed how they lie and manipulate. What we are seeing today is softcore denial, and also a rise in antisemitism because of the Holocaust,” and the Jewish people’s task to preserve its memory, she says.

Lipstadt notes that an uptick in anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric has also propelled the forces of antisemitism. “We see people calling out the IDF’s ‘Nazi policies,’ and you can disagree with Israel’s politics or strategies, but the idea that they’re like Nazi tactics is just ridiculous,” she says. “It denies what actual Nazi tactics were and makes the IDF far, far worse than anything they actually are.”

Ironically, Lipstadt,  a pursuer of justice who has called out deniers for falsifying history, does not agree that Holocaust denial should be illegal, citing her support of free speech. “We have the documents to prove that the Holocaust happened. We don’t need laws to say that you can’t say it, we have the proof. I don’t think politicians should get to determine what constitutes Holocaust denial, and what can and cannot be said.”

Instead, Lipstadt believes the course to educating so-called historians like Irving is through education rather than law. “They have to be taught and they have to be challenged,” she says. This, she notes, is why it’s important to offer films like Denial to the public in order to reiterate that age-old euphemism: having an opinion about something doesn’t always make it true.

“There are two sides to every opinion, certain things happened [in history] and not everything can be a debate,” she says. “There’s a difference between opinion and lies. We’re seeing a lot of that today where people read something on the Internet and believe it’s true even though facts say otherwise.”

Lipstadt’s hope is that Denial will promote awareness of this issue, and that film-goers will leave it with conviction and a passion to speak up when there’s a confrontation. “You can’t fight every battle,” she concludes, “but there are certain ones you can’t turn away from. If it’s one you think is really important, be willing to make the fight.”

To win two free tickets to the film at any Cineplex theatre across Canada, follow B’nai Brith Canada on Twitter. Denial opens Oct. 7, 2016.