Words do not kill. So there is no statement for which it is permissible to send a person to prison. Freedom of speech is absolute, even when that which is spoken is as despicable and ridiculous as Holocaust denial. Those who start to doubt that principle will not know where to stop. Is denial of the Jewish Holocaust deserving of punishment while denial of the Armenian Holocaust, perpetrated by the Turks, is not? And why not? Because "only" a million and a half people were destroyed there?
And what about the world's racist indifference to the destruction of a million Tutsi in Rwanda or the mass murder of 4 million people in the Congo? After all, the world ignores those holocausts even if it does not deny their existence explicitly, and nobody thinks about punishing someone for that outrageous apathy and indifference. The Danish cartoons, which also hurt millions of people, are not deserving of punishment and neither is the denial of the criminal activities of Israel in the territories, even if they are incomparable, of course, to any holocaust. The Jews had a Holocaust, it was the most horrifying crime in the history of mankind, there is nothing similar to it in its evil, and those who dare deny this deserve to be made pariahs, excommunicated and boycotted, even expelled, but not and never jailed.
British historian David Irving delivered two insignificantly marginal lectures in Austria in 1989. In November he told an audience of 300 that gathered in a small auditorium in Luben that Hitler never ordered the destruction of the Jews; in a back room in a Viennese pub he claimed a few days later that "Auschwitz was a legend." This demonic curiosity should have been ignored. It's pathetic, shocking, crazed and particularly severe when such things are told to Austrians, but under no circumstances does that make them worthy of arrest.
At an international conference in Brussels a few weeks ago I heard some of the disciples of the various conspiracies about how the Mossad was responsible for the terror attacks on the Twin Towers. So what? Should those fruitcakes be locked up for what they said? Will Irving and his handful of followers stop believing in his doctrines because he's been thrown in jail? Did the Prisoners of Zion stop believing in Zionism because they were locked up? Or the followers of the Falun Gong movement in China? Locking up Irving won't bring an end to the ugly - but let's face it, marginal - wave of Holocaust denial, in an era when there is unprecedented commemoration of the Holocaust. In the U.S., where the principle of freedom of speech is sanctified and therefore there is no law against Holocaust denial, the issue of the Holocaust only grows in its interest to the public. There is practically no important city in America without a museum about the Holocaust.
The fact that Irving was sent to prison by Austria, perhaps one of the greatest of the deniers of the Holocaust, is one of the ironies of history. For years, Austria denied any responsibility for the destruction committed by its own son, Adolf Hitler, and the man who grew up in Austria, Adolf Eichmann. Austria, whose people welcomed Hitler with cheers, refused for years to pay compensation to its victims. Only in recent years has it retreated a bit from that position, after it felt it paid a heavy political price for its behavior after the war, when it became an international outcast in the wake of the election to the presidency of Kurt Waldheim, who had a Nazi past, and the success of the racist Jurg Haider.
Now Austria is sending Irving to a spectacular prison sentence, both because that's what the Austrian law calls for but also to minimize the damage done in the past and to please the world and Israel, which was behind the pressure to boycott it. But are the Austrians themselves convinced their court did justice, or do many of them regard the sentence as just another surrender to the Jews and Zionism?
And the question should also be asked why it is so important for Israel to chase after every Holocaust denier, when it is such a small cult, particularly when the world is honoring the memory of the Holocaust with ever more anniversaries, monuments, etc. Is our confidence in our righteousness so shaken? Israel's right to exist, as a birthright of the Holocaust, is stronger than all its deniers, including the president of Iran. Israel must not try to win petty profits from the memory of the Holocaust, and it should not use it over and over for emotional blackmail, as it has done for years. Israel has the right and duty to lead the world's campaign against racism and anti-Semitism, but it must take care to avoid any manipulation in the spirit of Golda Meir's terrible comments to Shulamit Aloni, "After the Holocaust, Jews are allowed to do anything."
Instead of fighting Holocaust deniers, we should focus on learning the proper lessons from them. One of the important lessons is that racism is racism whether it is directed against Jews and expressed in their systematic destruction or whether it is directed against Palestinians and expressed in their ruthless imprisonment in their own villages behind fences and walls. Ignoring this lesson is also a form of Holocaust denial, with far graver and ruthless consequences than another lecture by Irving.