Fighting Prejudice, Stereotyping, Hatred
On June 2, 2014, Professor Deborah E. Lipstadt, Ph.D., who has served as a faculty member for all three Wexner leadership programs, spoke at the Dedication of the Holocaust Memorial at the Ohio Statehouse. Deborah was introduced by Leslie H. Wexner; other speakers included Governor John R. Kasich and architect of the memorial, Daniel Libeskind. Here are her remarks:
Thank you to my friend and compatriot Les Wexner for that gracious introduction. My fight against hard-core Holocaust deniers – particularly my court case in London – would not have been possible without the support of Les and Abigail. For that and for their friendship, I am very grateful.
I stand before you today to help commemorate the State of Ohio’s recognition of one of the worst acts of human barbarity the world has ever known. But I come before you not just to give you a sense of satisfaction about this important moment. I come with the intention to leave you a bit discomforted, troubled, and most of all challenged.
For it is what you – those of you gathered here and all Ohioans who care about fighting hatred and prejudice – will do in the future which will determine whether what we do here today will be a moment of great significance on just a blip on the horizon.
First let me tell you about something that recently happened in the Rialto, California school district. Two thousand 8th grade students were given an assignment to write an essay on whether the Holocaust happened. It is worthwhile to read the text of the assignment in full.
When tragic events occur in history, there is often debate about their actual existence. For example, some people claim the Holocaust is not an actual event, but instead is a propaganda tool that was used for political and monetary gain. You will read and discuss multiple, credible articles on this issue, and write an argumentative essay, based upon cited textual evidence, in which you explain whether or not you believe this was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain wealth
The students were given three internet based sources from which to draw their evidence. Two were trustworthy, straightforward historical sources. The other entitled Bible Believers, masked itself as a Christian site. In fact it was a Holocaust denial site.
What did the students find there? They found references to the so-called execution technology “expert” Fred Leuchter who, in fact ,is a leading denier. They found arguments positing that Anne Frank’s diary was forged, gas chambers were a myth, and so forth. And they found the claim that these conniving Jews made this all up so that they could get money from Germany and support for Israel.
Unbelievably, at first district officials defended the assignment as something that will help students test their positions and defend them. But the Holocaust is not a position it’s a fact. Administrators subsequently backtracked and said the assignment would not be repeated.
I was horrified. And after decades spent in the sewers of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, I don’t horrify easily. Simply put, this is the greatest victory for Holocaust denial in well over a decade if not more than that.
I say this as someone for the past decade has stressed the fact that Holocaust denial is not a clear and present danger. I have repeatedly pointed out that there are far more people engaged in study of the Holocaust than those engaged in or attracted to Holocaust denial.
Instead, I believed, as I said in a speech I gave at Cambridge University the night before I learned of the Rialto assignment, that denial is a future danger. It aimed to enter the historical conversation as a legitimate “other side of a debate.” I was wrong. It is a present danger.
Now here is the real shocker: It has been firmly determined that there were no surreptitious deniers among the ranks of the teachers. In truth, I would feel much much better if we discovered that there were Holocaust deniers among them. Then we could attribute this to their nefarious motives. But there aren’t. This means that to these naïve teachers, Holocaust denial is “another” side of the argument. And the Holocaust is something to be debated.
When the school district apologized its spokesperson said: “The Holocaust should be taught … with sensitivity and profound consideration for the victims who endured the atrocities.” This well-meaning sentiment is wrong. The Holocaust must be taught as historical fact. We must know precisely what happened.
The teachers who created this assignment and the administrators who passed on it inadvertently helped fulfill exactly what deniers have been trying to achieve for the past 30 years. At one time deniers openly acknowledged being neo-Nazis. Their publications were plastered with swastikas and Third Reich imagery. Then in the late 1970s deniers, scheming to find way to be taken seriously, shed anything that smacked of sympathy for Hitler and his cohorts. Wolves in sheep’s clothing, their aim was to appear as if they were scholars anxious to “revise” any mistakes in history. That’s why they called themselves “revisionists.” In fact, they were nothing more than anti-Semites and neo-Nazis who use Holocaust denial as a tool. That’s why I call them “deniers.”
I do not debate Holocaust deniers just as I do not expect scientists to debate flat earth theorists. There is much to debate about the Holocaust. In fact, this is what scholars do all the time: whose idea was it to murder European Jewry? Hitler’s? His underlings? Could the Holocaust have originated only in Germany or was any European country capable of doing so? There are a myriad of other questions which scholars study.
What they do not debate is whether the Holocaust happened. Similarly we do not debate whether World War II, Korea or Vietnam happened. We might ask why they happened and how they might have been prevented but not if they happened.
The teachers and so-called educators in Rialto had been duped into thinking that there is a legitimate debate about whether the Holocaust happened. They did so despite the fact that Holocaust deniers, in the words of Judge Charles Grey, who presided in my trial, “distort,” “pervert,” and “mislead.” Their findings are, he insisted, “unjustified,” a “travesty,” and “unreal.”
The school district is planning to give the teachers sensitivity training. [It’s California after all.] They don’t need sensitivity training. What they need are history lessons. Sensitivity is not what was missing here. The teachers were not insensitive. They were wrong. Critical thinking and history were in very short supply.
Why do I share this story with you today? Because it would be easy for us to sit here feeling very self-assured that Ohio has seen fit to place a memorial to this horrific genocide in such a prominent place.
We could be reassured by the fact the USHMM, situated on the mall in DC, is one of the most visited museum in our nation.
We could be complacent because so many states, including this one, mandate the teaching of the Holocaust.
But as the incident in Rialto demonstrates: complacency and self-satisfaction are not the answer. You have placed this impressive memorial on the grounds of this historic statehouse. You should feel a sense of purposeful accomplishment but you should not. No, you can not stop here.
After the Holocaust it became common to intone the phrase “Never Again.” Truth be told, what we should say in the shadow of the tragedies and genocides of Cambodia, Yugoslavia, Darfur, Congo, Rwanda, is “Again and Again and Again.” This memorial is but a way station in the process of trying to change “Never Again” from a comfortable aphorism that easily flows from our mouths to a reality.
May this memorial give all those who care about preventing such barbarities in the future a newfound sense of responsibility and purpose: to fight prejudice, stereotyping, and hatred against any group or people irrespective of whether we like or approve of them.
Two thousand years ago a Jewish teacher in Israel observed: Hayom katzar v’hamelacha merubeh. The day is short, the work is great, it is not upon you to complete the task but neither are you free to turn away from it.
Today the State of Ohio dedicates a significant monument. It is step – but only a step – towards completing the work of eradicating prejudice and hatred. The remaining steps are our responsibility to take.
I ask you: Are you; are we up to the task?
Deborah E. Lipstadt is Director of the Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University. She is the author of History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving. She blogs at www.lipstadt.blogspot.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been teaching for the Wexner Foundation since 1990.
You can view the entire ceremony here. (Leslie H. Wexner speaks around 26:05 and Deborah E. Lipstadt speaks around 31:20 (directly following Mr. Wexner’s comments).