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Tuesday, June 6 2000

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No Denying Her Now

By Elli Wohlgelernter

Still elated by her triumph over David Irving, Deborah Lipstadt reflects on her moment in history. -- "Awake, awake, Deborah -- sing a song" -- Judges 5:12

THE night before the verdict was to be announced in the libel trial against Deborah Lipstadt, she received a phone call from a survivor in the US. "Devorah, don't worry," he told her. "You can sleep, because we're not sleeping."

Seven weeks later, Lipstadt still sheds tears telling the story. She had no idea it would turn out like this, but as a religious Jew, she understood well how some things are bashert; how destiny can tap you on the shoulder one day and change not only your life, but that of many others as well. Six months ago she was an anonymous person; now she's a heroine to thousands of Holocaust survivors.

"On the first day of the trial, as I'm walking in, a small woman with a number on her arm throws her arms around me and says, 'We're counting on you.' I knew I would be representing survivors still alive today, but I couldn't keep my mind on it because if I would have, it would have paralyzed me. It's too overwhelming a thought."

Observing the spirited redhead being pursued this week by the press and honored by the public, one can see that Lipstadt has become a heroine, not only to survivors but to all Jews.

And she is still stunned by it all.

"You don't know me well, but I'm not a modest person. I'm not a humble person. False modesty is a waste of time. But I can't relate to [being a heroine]. I did what I had to do. It's not modesty. It was my duty, my responsibility."

The case started in 1993, after the publication of Lipstadt's second book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, a study of the history and current campaign conducted by antisemitic racists to deny the Shoah.

One of the many proponents of that campaign whom she exposed was David Irving, an author who had built up a reputation -- falsely, it turns out -- as a reputable historian.

  

 

 You don't know me well, but I'm not a modest person. I'm not a humble person. False modesty is a waste of time. But I can't relate to [being a heroine]. I did what I had to do. It's not modesty. It was my duty, my responsibility.

When Penguin published her book in 1994 in Britain, Irving sued for libel, figuring he had half a chance because libel laws in England put the onus of proof on the defendant.

But Irving, it turned out, had no chance. Lipstadt hired as her attorney Anthony Julius, author of a book on T.S. Eliot and antisemitism, but better known as the lawyer of Diana, Princess of Wales.

"Very quickly, Anthony's high profile by being the princess's lawyer meant very little to me," Lipstadt says, sitting in the courtyard of the Laromme Hotel in Jerusalem. "At the beginning it sort of made it interesting. But the thing about Anthony Julius is that he has a mind like a razor blade -- double sided. One of the smartest people I know. And [he had] a commitment to fighting this case. He said: 'I want to smash him [Irving] in court.'"

Assembling a 20-man team of five lawyers, including James Libson and Richard Rampton, as well as paralegals and secretaries, Julius and his staff -- together with Lipstadt, who flew to London periodically to join them -- started preparing three years ago to smash Irving.

"Anthony Julius and James Libson decided early on that the way to fight this was to fight as they would the most complex commercial case: You're going into a case; big business is riding on it; $50 million, $100 million, you don't leave any stone unturned. You make sure every 'i' is dotted, every 't' is crossed. You are neurotic. And this is how they decided to fight. They weren't going to fight this on a wing and a prayer, and say it's enough [to] show the judge the terrible things Irving says about Jews, about the Holocaust, and the judge will understand it's a lie."

Inevitably, it began consuming her life. Not all at once, but slowly.

Other people were carrying the burden of the work, she says, like the experts sitting every day and writing the reports, or the lawyers gathering evidence. But then she'd suddenly get a call from London, telling her they needed a list of all the books she had used, all the documents on this or that, and she had to go back to her files and check.

There was always the possibility that Irving would drop out, and some of the pre-trial strategy was designed to keep pressure on him, in the hope that he would give up.

One tactic used by the defense team, for example, was submitting questions about evidence during interrogatories for Irving to answer, questions that he couldn't answer truthfully -- he either had to lie, or admit to the court that he lied when he used the evidence. It was a deft move that left the 62-year-old plaintiff little room in which to maneuver.

"Now a normal person -- I don't want to say a sane person, that's not something I want to get into -- but a normal person, a person who isn't motivated by this incredibly deep-seated antisemitism, and a person who isn't so wrapped up in his own ego, would have looked at this and said, 'I'm getting out of this while the gettin' is good.' I'm going to say, 'I couldn't fight the "power of the international Jewish conspiracy." I couldn't fight Penguin Books with its millions of dollars. What can I do? Poor me, the Jews have prevented me from having my day in court.' And he would have been the victim once again.

"But he's not a normal person -- he's an antisemite. But he's also wrapped up in this huge ego. He was his own lawyer because he wanted the platform. It wasn't even so much about winning. It was about having that platform.

"At some point, about six months before the trial [began], instead of hoping that one day [my lawyers] would call and say he's folded, and he's leaving the table, I became convinced that I wanted to go to trial. [It was] when I began to see the expert [witnesses'] reports -- what they had put together -- because then I knew we had him."

The defense team knew it "had" Irving on history, because it wasn't going to fight him on the veracity of the Shoah. The trial was about Irving's misuse of facts -- his absolute distortion of primary sources -- by adding and subtracting words to further his antisemitic cause.

It was thus that neither survivors nor Lipstadt herself were ever called to testify.

"We didn't call survivors," says Lipstadt, "because first of all we didn't want to subject them to cross-examination by this guy. He would have destroyed them."

Lipstadt was eager to take the stand, but her lawyers felt that her book spoke for itself, and they were there to defend the truth of what she said.

Instead, she sat every day in court and watched with admiration how her legal team dissected Irving's life; and with disbelief at how unprepared he was for the trial.

"Yes, we were very surprised. You can see in the transcripts -- he would spend days on the same page of a report because he wasn't prepared to ask questions. Then he would come in the next day prepared with the questions. We think his hassidim [followers] would send him the questions to ask. It was all ego, full of ego, full of bluff."

It was also painful, she says, listening to Irving disparage survivors by saying that they had had numbers tattooed on their arms, by pointing to the money they supposedly were making off the Holocaust, and by claiming that they were fantasizing their memories.

What surprised her most "was his attempt to justify his antisemitism and his racism, [though] I shouldn't have been surprised by that."

There was also a bizarre moment in the proceedings, during Irving's four-and-a-half hour closing argument.

During the trial, the defense had shown a tape of Irving at a neo-Nazi rally in Germany, where after he spoke, the crowd began to yell, "Sieg heil, Sieg heil."

"In the video you see him put his hand up to silence them, and ironically, he puts up his hand in the same way you do a Nazi salute. I don't think he was mimicking them. He does, when he speaks, mimic Hitler; he's got the same hand motion; he sounds incredibly like Hitler.

"So in his closing speech, he wanted to remind the judge, 'but you know, when the crowd began to use the 'Sieg heil slogan,' and he meant to say 'your lordship,' [but instead] he looked at him and said 'mein Führer.' He didn't know what he was saying. He didn't do it on purpose. He lost his mind for a moment. Everyone stopped. I had my eyes fixed on Irving. He looked sort of confused, like 'what happened here?' And then everyone stopped breathing, and started to laugh. Even his supporters were laughing, because they knew this was too crazy."

History was made a week prior to closing arguments when the diaries of Adolf Eichmann, kept in archives for 39 years, were released by the State of Israel at the request of the defense. Ironically, they were not used because the judge felt they weren't relevant, as Irving had not had them when he was writing his books.

"So a judge who you already feel is simpatico to you, and you know is anxious to get this trial [finished] in a certain time [frame] -- it's British taxpayers' money, and he's fighting to move this along -- if he says to you, 'I'm not sure these are relevant,' you don't go and use them.

"We did use them a little bit, the last days. [Eichmann] talks about gassing camps, and Rampton used that in his final cross-examination of Irving: 'Look, you even have here Adolf Eichmann talking about gassing camps.' He used it more as a way of acknowledging them. We were very appreciative.

"That night I go back to the hotel and there's a big box sitting on the dining-room table. What's this box? We're in the last week of evidence, who's sending me something? Mail from home? I'm going to be home in two to three weeks. I look at the return address, it's 'Archives of the State of Israel.' It was the diaries, the physical copies of the diaries. I called up the paralegals, and I said, 'Get someone over here and get it out of here. I have no desire to have this here.' It was eerie. To go to sleep with the Eichmann diaries sitting in the next room? Feh."

Deborah Lipstadt, 52, grew up with her older sister, Helene, and younger brother, Nat, in a modern Orthodox home in Manhattan and Long Island, where she attended the Hebrew Institute of Long Island. Her father's parents came from Germany; her maternal grandparents from Cracow and Lodz. Her father ran a gravestone business, Lipstadt Memorial, on Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan. "You nab 'em, we'll slab 'em," she says with a wide grin (a bit ironic, since she would come to "bury" Irving so many years later).

She can be glib with a quip, like describing her inherited trait of being a Yekke (German Jew). "Yeah, a certain deal of obsessive-compulsiveness of the Yekke -- I get to places on time, but I get there out of breath. If I were a pure Yekke, I would get there just on time."

But these facile one-liners are uttered between comments of substance. "My friends always say if I'm missing one body part, it's the synapse between my head and my mouth. But since this trial, I've learned to be a little bit more self-censoring [of my speech]."

She defines herself today as a traditional Jew, who feels most comfortable praying in a traditional egalitarian minyan. But she moves easily in both Orthodox and non-Orthodox worlds, and defends them equally.

"If someone will sit there and say, 'I can't stand these haredim; they're disgusting; they're terrible; they're dirty,' I say, 'Wait a minute. I know haredim who are wonderful people. They really take care of their community. If God forbid you were to get sick, get sick in a haredi community, because they'll take care of you.'

"And then I'll sit with a haredi, and he'll say, 'Oh, those secular [Jews]; they hate Judaism,' I'll say, 'What are you talking about? I know Reform Jews who are more loving of Judaism [than other Jews].'

"I know both sides. I move in a lot of different circles. I love people. But I don't suffer fools gladly."

Lipstadt's interest in the Holocaust started in college, when she spent two memorable years (1966-1968) at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. During the first year, she interacted with "survivors of the Shoah in a way I hadn't experienced them before. It was being here in Israel that year before [the '67 war], when I began to study about it. Certainly the Six Day War had a big impact on me. I was here in Jerusalem till the day before the war; then I went down to work in a children's home between Bnei Brak and Petah Tikva." Earlier that spring, she took a tour of Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.

"I came through the Mandelbaum Gate in April 1967. I still have the passport that [confirms] it. I had to get a new passport, and when I applied for a visa to get into Jordan, I had to leave the line where it says 'religion' blank. I didn't lie about it, but it was clear to them what I was doing.

"The first time I was at the Kotel [Western Wall] occurred when it was [in] Jordan. A guide came by with a group of British tourists, and he said, 'This is the holiest place for Jews. They used to come here and cry and scratch their heads' -- he made some kind of derogatory statement -- 'on Mondays and Thursdays, but since 1948 they don't come anymore. OK, if you'll follow me, we'll go up this way to the Dome of the Rock.' I wanted to say, excuse me, why did they stop coming?'

"Then I went up to the Mount of Olives, walked past the entrance to Mount Scopus, and there I stood and saw the YMCA, and I saw the King David [Hotel], and I saw the Knesset, and I said, you know what, you have enough stories, go home. Ironically, it was the week before Pessah -- it was exactly 33 years ago to the day of the verdict [in the Irving trial].

"So I came down, packed up my stuff, and went through the Mandelbaum Gate. I came back to the university, and within an hour the word spread -- 'She went to Jordan? She did what? She was in Syria, by herself? Is she nuts?'"

After the war, she decided to stay another year, before going back to finish her degree at City College in New York. She received her MA and PhD from Brandeis in Massachusetts and taught at UCLA in California. She also later returned to the Hebrew University to study at the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, where the idea for Denying the Holocaust was suggested to her by Prof. Yehuda Bauer and Prof. Yisrael Gutman. Lipstadt is now the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta. She is also a member of the executive committee of the US Holocaust Memorial Council, which oversees the Holocaust Museum.

Her first book, Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, examined how the American media covered the news of the persecution of European Jewry as it unfolded. Of the two books, she says, Denying the Holocaust was much harder to write.

"I hated every page of it, because of the disgusting articles about the deniers -- they were killing the Jews a second time. Though Beyond Belief was also hard [to write] -- because you were writing about what was going to happen ('rumor has it') and you knew what the end of the story was, and you were reading the beginning of the story. "

What she was unprepared for was the life in the spotlight that she's now experiencing. It follows her everywhere, from the hundreds of letters and e-mails she has received from around the world, to the dozens of well-wishers who approach her at gatherings such as this week's visit to the Hebrew University and Yad Vashem. People want to shake her hand and say "thanks"; some even handed her pieces of paper with the names of their grandparents who were killed in the Shoah.

Lipstadt's "new life" began on judgment day. According to English law, lawyers representing both sides of a case are informed of the judge's decision a day before the verdict is read in court. Their clients are told an hour before.

"I was in a taxi. I called and said, 'I'm on the way. I'll be there right away. Are you going to wait till I get there to tell me?" And Anthony said, 'No, it was a smashing victory.' Then I got on the phone. It was probably illegal, but I called very good friends in the States and told them. It was four o'clock in the morning, and they were going to wait another hour. Then I called my mother, and my other good friends, and sort of sent out the word."

As she strode out of the courtroom following the verdict, she was captured on film with a contorted facial expression and a raised thumb that screamed out, "We beat the bastard!" That now-famous picture appeared on the front page of the following day's newspapers around the world.

"I walked out [of the courtroom], and there was this great crowd of reporters. I had walked out many times [before] and there were a lot of reporters, but I never said anything. This time I walked out, and I still wasn't going to talk to them because we had arranged a press conference [for this purpose].

"But they wanted something, and I just felt so good. I had gone into court knowing we had won. [Historian] Martin Gilbert waved to me from the balcony as I walked in, and I went like this to him [thumbs up]. I don't know, I don't do the thumbs. But they wanted something, and I just went [gestures] 'We did it!' It was a look of satisfaction, but it wasn't a smile. This wasn't something to smile about. It was instinctive. It was mir zeinen du [We are here]."

In a world desperate for heroes, and a Jewish world desperate to rally around one unifying theme, this slayer of a Holocaust-denying beast perfectly becomes a "woman of the year." But Lipstadt will have none of that, neither as heroine, nor as star.

"People at lectures ask me to sign autographs. I won't just sign, give stam [just] an autograph. Some of them have brought me the trial decision, or ask me to sign my book. That I'll do certainly. But stam [just] to give an autograph? That's for the movie stars; that's for the rock stars."

She doesn't consider herself a heroine, either. Her heroes of the Shoah, she says, are the rescuers, "who didn't have to do what they did, but knew they had to do what they did. I have tremendous respect for a man like Primo Levi, alav hashalom [may he rest in peace], and what he's written. I think Elie [Wiesel] has used his status incredibly well, and I give him great credit for that. I don't know, but I'm sure there are others. And the pashut [average] survivor, who doesn't get greeted at the door of the Laromme [Hotel], who came to Israel maybe once, or lives in Israel, the plain person who got up each morning and ran his or her life, and went to work, or did business, and raised children and built a family, and regained his or her life, and dignity. Those are heroes, those are heroes."

Instead, Lipstadt considers herself very blessed and very lucky to have been able to stand up not just for Jewish history and for those who can no longer stand up for themselves, but for truth and memory. And she acknowledges that maybe the finger of fate had something to do with it.

Her trial ended on a Tuesday, and that Saturday was Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim when Jews read the portion of the Torah that calls for the blotting out of the tribe of Amalek, which had attacked the people of Israel when they left Egypt.

"I missed a lot of Shabbatot in shul [during the trial], because I was so exhausted. It was the one day I could sleep late. Sundays, I usually had things going, so I didn't get to shul that often, and it was a [long] walk, but I decided 'This Shabbat, no question, I'm going to be in shul.'

"I cried. Timhe et zecher Amalek mitahat hashamayim [blot out the name of Amalek from under the heavens]. There's no compromise with this kind of evil. And I understood the pasuk [verse] differently -- I always thought it was sort of cruel. So here you have a trial ending erev Shabbat Zachor, then you go into Purim.

"Sitting and listening to the Megilla, 'Umi yodea im la'ayt kazot higa'at lamalchut,' [who knows if not for this reason you became the queen]. I heard that, and it made me think: Who knows if not for this very reason I got the education I got, I got the upbringing I got, my job -- maybe we're all meant to do one something really significant. And some of us do it on the public stage, and some do it by helping a child. Nobody knows of it, nobody sees it, but we're all meant to do something. And maybe this is the something I was meant to do.

"But the Megilla gives us different messages: Lest I think it was my destiny to do this, what does it say? 'Al tidami benafshech' [Don't think of yourself], because if you don't do it, 'revah v'hatzala ya'amod layehudim mimakom aher -- If you don't do this, salvation shall come to the Jews from someplace else.' It really contextualized [things] for me, because who knows if this wasn't what I had to do or what I was supposed to do or what I choose to do, if this was ordained outside my life. There was a bashert there on some level. But I also know that I have many colleagues and many friends who in the same situation would have done the same thing. Not all of them, but many of them; and they would have been proud and happy to do it.

"So I feel blessed to have had this opportunity, especially the way it [resolved itself]. It's a battle I didn't pick, it's a battle that came [to] me. And now I'm getting these kudos."

Like at the recent ceremony in Washington. Lipstadt was there with Cantor Isaac and Betty Goodfriend from Atlanta, Holocaust survivors and her good friends. Suddenly, Betty grabbed Lipstadt's face in her hands and cried: "'Mamale, mamale, mamale' -- five minutes of 'mamale' in the rotunda of the capital. 'You're our Devorah. God sent you to us and you're our Devorah.'"

Lipstadt stops to compose herself: "That's overwhelming."

© 1995-2000, The Jerusalem Post
The Jerusalem Post May 29, 2000

See too Jerusalem Post story on May 29, 2000: Indyk, Lipstadt, other luminaries attend HU peace symposium by Greer Fay Cashman.

Excerpt: "Deborah Lipstadt, who recently became an international household name when she emerged victorious from an unsuccessful libel suit filed against her by Holocaust denier David Irving, spoke to the symposium and underscored the need for American Jews to reorient themselves with regard to Middle East events."

flagWebsite fact: The stamina of the defence team was aided by a six million dollar fund provided by Stephen Spielberg, Edgar J Bronfman, and the American Jewish Committee, which enabled them to shower money on their 21 lawyers and "experts"; the experts like Evans, Longerich were paid up to $200,000 each to testify as they did (while the defence's star legal team was paid considerably more).

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