Against the worrying backdrop of anti-Semitism that has surged since the Gaza crisis, Marc Shoffman talks to Holocaust historian Dr Deborah Lipstadt about the impending challenge facing Holocaust education. How will we remember when everyone who remembers has gone?
“When I first wanted to teach a class about the Holocaust I could take my pick about the type of survivor and what I wanted the students to hear, now I am just happy to get someone strong and willing enough to come to a class.”
That is Holocaust historian Dr Deborah Lipstadt’s somewhat bleak reflection as she ponders how we remember the Shoah when all those who do remember are gone.
This is the subject of a talk she is delivering for the Isaiah Berlin lecture at Hampstead Synagogue on 4 September.
She says: “I used to be able to decide if I wanted someone who was a survivor of the death camps or a resistance fighter. But ageing and time has taken its toll and now as a historian I have to think what does this passing mean.”
Her lecture comes at a poignant time as the Israel and Gaza conflict has led harsh critics and anti-Semites to draw parallels with the Holocaust or use Nazi imagery at protests.
Protests against Israel’s actions have been tainted by placards showing Nazi symbols while statements such as ‘Hitler was right’ have trended on Twitter.
This is what Dr Lipstadt calls “soft core” Holocaust denial, a different form to the denial she fought against disgraced historian David Irving when he unsuccessfully brought a libel trial against her in 1996 over allegations she made in a book about him being a Holocaust denier.
She says: “David Irving is a hasbeen now. His type of hardcore denial was dealt a sharp blow by my trial.
“It is soft core denial that is thriving right now, especially on social media. It is in phrases like ‘Gaza is genocide’ or that the Hamas tunnels are like the ones of the Warsaw Ghetto.
“It is not a denial of what happened, but a rewriting of history.”
Dr Lipstadt says it is important for Jews to stand up against these types of actions, but shouldn’t deal with hyperbole itself.
Her talk also coincides with attacks on the Jewish community from rising anti-Semitism, the Tricycle Theatre demanding that the UK Jewish Film Festival remove the Israeli Embassy as its sponsor and flash points such as Sainsbury’s removing kosher food during a boycott movement protests.
While recognising the tension that Jews feel as a result of rising anti-Semitism emerging from the conflict, she says its ‘hyperbole’ to draw comparisons with the early days of Nazi Germany when Jews were isolated from German life.
She explains: “I am deeply disturbed and deeply worried, does that mean I anticipate another Holocaust? That is far fetched.
“When I hear stories of being told don’t wear a kippah, be careful of going to a Jewish museum or kosher food being removed, then the lid has been lifted off of something.
“It is not a Holocaust I am anticipating, I think people who talk about it those terms are dealing in hyperbole.
“This is a moment where we don’t have the luxury of saying I am going to stay in the confines of north London and not venture out, we have to venture out and fight back with information, not just emotion.”
She says community and political leaders outside Anglo and US Jewry could help reduce the tensions by being more vocal about condemning Hamas actions, rather than concentrating solely on Israel’s actions.
One of her biggest worries is what the aftermath of the conflict means for teaching about the actual Holocaust.
She explains: “I think people will be nervous about Holocaust teaching in schools and may restructure it as a result of what has been happening.”
Education will be an important factor in years to come when there are no Holocaust survivors left, Dr Lipstadt argues.
She says: “If you have young children, when they are old enough to think about this seriously they wont know anybody who went through it.
“I don’t have the answers but I want people to start thinking about this and how we deal with our history.”
This is something the government-backed Holocaust Commission in the UK has been tasked with and is set to report on a way of establishing a permanent memorial by the end of the year.
She says: “I hope they do not just end up with a physical memorial, but that there is an educational piece to it.”
However, she wouldn’t go as far as legislating against Holocaust denial as a way of protecting its memory, arguing: “Such a law would turn deniers into martyrs.
“That is of course different to those who use it for incitement, but we have a tradition of free speech, particularly in the US, that gives you the right to be an arse.”
- Dr Lipstadt will be delivering the Isaiah Berlin lecture at Hampstead Synagogue on 4 September at 8 pm. To book, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org