Deborah Lipstadt: A historian’s real-life drama unfolds on the big screen

#21 on The Jerusalem Post's 50 Influential Jews Of 2017.

September 22, 2017 06:51
4 minute read.
Deborah Lipstadt

Deborah Lipstadt. (photo credit: Courtesy Emory University)


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According to family lore, Deborah Lipstadt has always been a independent self-starter. From the strong-willed toddler who would utter, “Me do it,” to the ambitious acclaimed historian she became, Lipstadt was her own woman.

It is ironic then, in the film about her life, the movie centers around a time when she was most vulnerable: an arduous seven-year libel trail against Holocaust denier David Irving. Ostensibly, the film Denial, in which she is played by Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz, is about that dramatic showdown between her and Irving. But it also tells the story of an independent woman’s blind faith in her representation and our obligation as a society to respect and defend the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust.

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“I don’t like to cede authority to others,” the professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University told The Jerusalem Post in an interview. “I’m very much someone who likes to be in control of her own life. To cede authority to the lawyers and realize that they knew what was best was very difficult.”

It was a gamble that paid off and resulted in one of the strongest libel verdicts in British history. It was a victory not only for Lipstadt, but for Holocaust survivors and their descendents everywhere.

But as any historian can attest, history has a nasty habit of repeating itself or, the very least, regurgitating the same themes.

Which is why Lipstadt wasn’t very surprised by the neo-Nazi extremists who marched in Charlottesville in August, but that didn’t lessen her dismay.


“I was struck by the protesters. They were not “fine” people. I saw nobody there that I would relate to. I was struck by their chanting that Jews will not replace us and their open and unambiguous antisemitism,” she said, referring to President Donald Trump’s remarks after the event that, some say, defended the protesters. For Lipstadt though, the biggest failure wasn’t that this kind of outright hatred is happening in the United States in 2017, but that its leadership is seemingly turning a blind eye to it.

“The biggest tragedy was how President Donald J. Trump responded, which was a moral and strategic failure of the largest proportions,” she asserted. “He gave comfort to these people.”

Which begs the question – is Trump an antisemite? Lipstadt doesn’t have a clear-cut answer for that, explaining that bigotry, unfortunately, can come all shapes and sizes.

“I think he is what I call an enabling antisemite. I have no reason to think that he’s an antisemite in intent,” she said carefully. “The people that were marching were antisemites in intent. But this was giving comfort to antisemitism in an unprecedented way.”

Lipstadt, though, has an equal-opportunity zero tolerance policy for antisemites on both sides of the political spectrum. As such, she believes, that British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn fits the same antisemitism-enabling mold.

“I had a professor at Brandeis who used to say, “The one place that the far Right and far Left meet is on antisemitism,” she said wryly.

But as Elie Wiesel stated, hatred begins with Jews, but never ends with Jews. Thus, she believes the onus is on Jews especially to speak out against antisemitism or prejudice of any kind.

She has particularly harsh words for Trump Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin for his support of Trump’s handling of the Charlottesville debacle.

“You had people marching saying, ‘Blood and soil.’ What does ‘blood and soil’ mean? That if you are not Aryan in your blood, you are not connected to the soil. When people were chanting it, that meant Jews, Blacks, Latinos – they don’t belong here,” she began. “And for Jews to fail to see that, for Mnuchin to say, ‘Oh the president was absolutely clear in his condemnation,’ it gives new meaning to the term ‘court Jew.’” It is unfortunate then, that movies like Denial continue to be prescient as the message of the Holocaust continues to remain relevant.

But despite having her story immortalized on the big screen, Lipstadt doesn’t see this as extra vindication against Irving.

“I don’t feel vindication, but I’m pleased that [the film has] gotten such wide attention and people now know about it. It’s very affirming to me,” she said.

As for Irving himself, Lipstadt is relieved that this chapter in her life is officially closed.

“David Irving stole six or seven years of my life. I was totally consumed,” she said. “I don’t expect to hear from him and I have nothing to say to David Irving. I have nothing to say to the marchers in Charlottesville.”

Lipstadt, though, doesn’t see herself as a victim and, more importantly, doesn’t think we as Jews should be so consumed by the awful atrocities that befell us.

“We’re far more than victims. If we only think of ourselves as victims, then we’re shortchanging ourselves,” she said. “We’re presenting a distorted picture to the world. We have been victims, we are often the target of terrorism, but we’re much more than that. That’s not who we are. We should not let those who perform tragedies upon us be the ones who define us.”

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