Emory University Jewish Studies professor Deborah Lipstadt's triumph over Holocaust denier David Irving, who sued her and her publisher for libel in London, is "one of those great moments in legal history when truth, justice, and freedom of speech are all simultaneously served," writes lawyer Alan Dershowitz in the afterward to Ms. Lipstadt's new book, "My Day in Court With David Irving: History on Trial" (Ecco).The book describes the momentous 10-week trial in 2000 under British libel law, which (unlike its American counterpart) places the burden of proof on the defendant. At a celebration held in her honor at the American Jewish Committee this Tuesday, Ms. Lipstadt discussed the case, which stemmed from assertions made in her book "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory" (Free Press).
The event marked a return to New York for Ms. Lipstadt, who grew up on the Upper West Side and Far Rockaway, where her rabbis included Norman Lamm and Emanuel Rackman. AJC Executive Director David Harris, introducing the evening's program, spoke of the effort to raise money for her legal costs: "Good lawyers do not come cheap - in London or in New York." He said: "what was going to be on trial was not Deborah Lipstadt per se but the Holocaust. For generations it would shape the way people view the Holocaust. This was not her battle alone." They asked themselves "what we could do, not only as friends of Deborah but as friends of the truth."
Mr. Harris pointed to the conference room next door, where Rabbi Herb Friedman, Michael Berenbaum, Robert Goodkind, Miles Lerman, Ernest Michel, and others spoke by phone with her attorney, Anthony Julius, best known for having represented Princess Diana in her divorce from Prince Charles. ("She did very well," Mr. Harris said, in an aside.)
Ms. Lipstadt spoke next, discussing the case. She said an overall challenge was how to fight Holocaust deniers without building them up and turning them into significant people. She said she aimed to show how ridiculous Mr. Irving's arguments were, and did. She spoke of flying to London, experiencing jet lag, shuttling from her unglamorous hotel to the lawyer's office, reading documents, and even sleeping through one of the plays she attended during her stay.
Ms. Lipstadt talked about the book's themes, including the legal and forensic one: "how we managed to fight the battle." She and her legal team did not want it to be a "did-the-Holocaust-happen case." They turned the tables on Mr. Irving by making the case about what a credible historian would have done with the facts before him at the time he was writing.
She said she was pleased when her lawyer said the firm would litigate the case as though it were the most important commercial case that ever crossed its desk. It assembled a "dream team" of historians and experts, including Richard Evans, Christopher Browning, Peter Longerich, Robert Jan van Pelt, and Hajo Funke, who looked at different pieces from Mr. Irving's historical writings to his relations with extremists, to demonstrate he was a liar and Holocaust denier.
The book offers insight into the intricacies of the British legal system (with its solicitors and barristers, for example), as well as unexpected incidents, such as when Mr. Irving inadvertently referred to the judge as "mein Fuhrer" instead of "my Lord." Ms. Lipstadt spoke about some tactical decisions in the case, such as going beyond the Holocaust to discuss Churchill and Dresden. The point was to show that even when he was not talking about the Jews, Mr. Irving intentionally distorted facts to show that the Nazis were not so bad. At one point, the book describes, he told an audience in Calgary that more people died in Senator Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
Another tactical decision was not to call Holocaust survivors as witnesses. One reason was that Mr. Irving's only objective would have been to humiliate them in cross-examination, Ms. Lipstadt said. The author said she has been asked by Holocaust survivors, "Who is going to protect us from deniers when we have gone?" Ms. Lipstadt reminded the audience, "This is the best documented genocide in history" involving a confluence of evidence including architectural drawings, documents, testimony, and artifacts.
During the question-and-answer session, Mr. Michel, a survivor of Auschwitz, said that if Ms. Lipstadt had not won that suit, "it would have been a catastrophe for the survivors." Ms. Lipstadt said she always insisted in encounters with survivors, "Please don't thank me." She added: "It makes me very uncomfortable. I fought a trial. It's nothing - gornicht - compared to someone who went through the Holocaust or lost family in it."
She described one woman who, on her way into the courthouse, gave her a piece of paper containing the names of two groups of people - both sides of her family murdered in the Holocaust. Each name had a date of birth but some had a date of death while others had a question mark. "This," the woman said, "is my evidence." After Ms. Lipstadt looked at it and gave it back, the woman insisted, "No, take my evidence." Words, Ms. Lipstadt said, pale in those situations.
"The trial that was thrust upon her," AJC expert on anti-Semitism, Kenneth Stern, told The New York Sun, "was an important step in combating anti-Semitism." He said in the book one can learn not only "a profile in courage" but a message about fighting hatred both smartly and courageously.
"Deborah was the most reluctant author I ever published," said Adam Bellow, editor at large at Doubleday, who edited "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory" when he was editorial director at the Free Press. He said she wisely chose not to debate Holocaust deniers or appear on a program with them. "People in the press think of it as the 'other side,'" he said. "But there's truth and there are lies. She ran up against the relativism of the age."
"It's not a question of choosing sides - there's really no other side," said her agent, Gary Morris, who described "History on Trial" as both a legal and personal story. Ms. Lipstadt earlier this year declined to have C-Span cover a talk of hers, since it planned to pair it with coverage of Mr. Irving. Mr. Stern told the Sun, "It's like doing a program on child-rearing and bringing in Michael Jackson as balance. It's nuts."
Ms. Lipstadt closed by reading the book's dedication to the victims of the Shoah and those who enabled her in many ways to "fight the attempt to ravage their history and memory."
Ms. Lipstadt thanked Emory University not only for granting her paid leave but also, without her asking, for its president and board allocating funds to help pay her expenses in mounting her defense. She asked the audience to note how rare this kind of university support is: "cold hard cash."
Ms. Lipstadt's thanked her current editor at HarperCollins, Julia Serebrinsky, as well as her former one, Mr. Bellow. Mr. Bellow told the Sun how gratifying it was to have worked with Ms. Lipstadt. He said hers was one of a handful of books he has worked on "that have really done good in the world. Most books don't do anything."