As an historian of the Holocaust, the idea of legislating historical truth does not sit well with me. History is a subject of academic inquiry in which there are often divergent opinions. Having and expressing different ideas lie at the heart of academic freedom. What is being said by a scholar of history can really only be measured by one criteria – is it anchored in the documentation and is the interpretation being offered as unbiased as possible? As far as the members of the general public are concerned, when they are discussing history, a similar rule of thumb should apply – do they know what they are talking about?
In a perfect world, one who denies a clearly proven historical fact, like the perpetration of the Holocaust, should be considered a laughing stock. He should be no less an object of scorn than one who insists that the earth is flat or the sun revolves around the moon. The denier need not be fined or jailed for being ridiculous. Rather people should make him feel so mortified that he should want to hide in a deep, dark cave, and for a very long time be too ashamed to show his face in the light of day. But we don’t live in a perfect world, or anywhere near one.
The denial of the Holocaust is outlawed in about a dozen countries, among them places where almost the entire Jewish community was wiped out during the Nazi onslaught. Often members of the local population collaborated in the murder of the Jews. In some of these countries and others, antisemitism still exists and has become more pronounced of late, and the denial of the Holocaust often finds fertile ground.
Holocaust denial is a form of antisemitism, and antisemitism in our time still frequently incites to violence against individual Jews and against Jews in general. An extreme example of the how Holocaust denial is actually incitement to violence can be heard in Iran today.
Incitement to racial, ethnic or religious hatred, and incitement to violence are against the law in many countries. The denial of the Holocaust really falls under these categories. It is not a matter of legislating historical truth so as to cut off legitimate academic debate. Nor is it a matter of legislating against denial of a historical fact to prevent someone from being offended. It is a matter of society making an effort to prevent acts of violence, and even genocide. Whether or not the veracity of other events similar to the Holocaust requires legislation depends on a simple litmus test: Does their denial feed incitement to violence against a group of people?
When it is deemed that the denial of a given incident of genocide, ethnic cleansing or other form of crimes against humanity does not constitute incitement to violence, this does not mean that we as a society should ignore the problems posed by denying that event. Clearly, teaching the history of man’s glaring inhumanity to man has importance well beyond immediate cause and effect. From our experience in teaching about the Holocaust, we know that education does not automatically inoculate people against committing appalling acts. Still, we also know that through education on all levels and in all modes, we can make inroads against hatred. Widespread awareness, based on knowledge of past crimes against humanity, clearly makes it much harder for the purveyors of the ideologies of hatred and violence to sell their wares and gain adherents.
Education and laws are two important tools in our arsenal against violence spawned by hate. There cannot be too much education, but the laws that restrict what people say must be our last recourse and used with extreme prudence. It is sad, but true that for the time being, in many places such laws are necessary.
Dr. Robert Rozett is the Director of the Yad Vashem Libraries, author of Approaching the Holocaust, Texts and Contexts, Vallentine Mitchell, 2005 and co-editor of The Holocaust Frequently Asked Questions, Yad Vashem, 2005
Wednesday, December 06, 2006