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 May 5, 2000

LipstadtVindication has lit a fire under Deborah Lipstadt

"I was silent during the trial on advice of counsel and that was a miracle," she told a crowd of 1,500 at Temple Beth Am Sunday night. The Emory University professor, part of the synagogue's Library Minyan while she taught at UCLA, will not be silent again.

Lipstadt roared out her story last weekend in the first public assessment of her five-year legal fight which ended April 11 in victory in a British court when Judge Charles Gray threw out a spurious libel case brought against her by notorious Holocaust-denier David Irving. In her 1994 book "Denying the Holocaust," Lipstadt had called him "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial;" he sued her for ruining his reputation as a historian.

In recounting the verdict, her voice, serene only while reading the emotion-laden letters of gratitude from survivors around the world, is the inflamed voice of the Witness. Otherwise, she imbues her story with a rapid, breathless barrage of detail, filling her audience with all the circumstance, consequence and connection regarding the verdict that you can bear. It is something to hear.

As one who has known Lipstadt over the years, I was struck by the physical toll the trial has taken on her. She appears weakened and shrunk, her black silk pantsuit several sizes too big. Now I understand the dreadful news photos of her victory; despite her thumbs-up victory, it is the hollowed eyes of a Dinah that tells the tale.

In her ashen pallor, her inadvertent interior monologues (as if addressing history) as well as a body ravaged by stress, Lipstadt reminds me of no one so much as Elie Wiesel, in the first years when he was called to testify. Just as Wiesel, too, at first left his audiences behind, it will take years for others of us to catch up.

Pointing to the 355-page decision by Judge Gray, which she carries in a shiny red plastic binder, Lipstadt declares, "We won decisively."

By "we" of course she means:



Lipstadt reminds me of no one so much as Elie Wiesel, in the first years when he was called to testify. . .

  • The victims of the Shoah, both the dead and the survivors.
  • The innocent non-Jewish bystanders and witnesses, shamed by and needing atonement from the 20th century's cruelest outrages.
  • Those legion of legitimate historians who serve both truth and memory by cataloguing the past.

"He sued me," she says, "because I was a woman, a Jewish woman, an American Jewish woman. He thought I would crumple and fold and give up."

He didn't know who he was dealing with. In 1983, long before publication of "Beyond Belief" and "Denying the Holocaust" would establish her career as a moral conscience of American Jewish memory, Lipstadt, then an assistant professor at UCLA in Jewish Studies, foreshadowed her role in the community. She contributed "And Deborah Made Ten" to Susannah Heschel's anthology, "On Being a Jewish Feminist," in which she described her pain and pleasure in finally being counted in the minyan for her father's yahrtzeit. "You see, they needed me for the minyan," she wrote. "Yes, they needed me."

And they -- we -- need her now.

Let us talk about what Lipstadt's verdict against David Irving is not about. As Lipstadt herself told me, "It is not a victory to prove the Holocaust happened."

Dresden victims 1945"The Holocaust is a fact. There are not two sides to the evidence." Lipstadt is still burning over the Los Angeles Times Page One story about her trial last winter which gave Irving's view of the Shoah numbers equal status.

"He danced on the graves of victims," Lipstadt said. "He inflated numbers and made immoral equivalencies," comparing those who died in the air war on Dresden (right) to those who died in death camps.

Moreover, the trial was "not a victory over hate."

"Every generation has its haters," she said. "You can win the victory but never the war."

Finally, hers is not necessarily a victory for free speech. It is a victory for free, responsible speech, for the capacity of sane, scientific argument to trump lies.

Lipstadt laid out the Perry Mason-style trap she and her litigators laid for Irving. By analyzing his writings on non-Jewish subjects over 30 years, including tracing his empty and misleading footnotes, they were able to trap Irving in his own methods. Hoist, as they say, on his own petard.

In such a painstaking way, at great personal cost, was justice done.

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