Full Interview With Holocaust Historian Deborah Lipstadt

Talking with Haaretz, prominent scholar discusses effect of Eichmann trial of perception of the Holocaust, as well as recent comments by U.S. envoy to Belgium Howard Gutman.

The Eichmann trial and Hannah Arendt

Q. 50 years later, what was the significance of the Eichmann trial, in your eyes?

Lipstadt: The Eichmann trial was a pivotal moment in the history of Israel, in the history of Zionism. One of the most striking things about it, for an Israeli audience - over and above his capture and over and above the trial itself - is the beginning of a change in the Israelis’ attitude towards Shoah survivors. I remember when I came to Israel in 1966 I still heard the word “sabonim” (soap) for survivors – today that’s inconceivable.

If you go online and you look at the tapes of the trial, you see young men and women who stood there and gave testimony bekavod (with honor). And it was clear that these were not “ghetto Jews”, they were not failures or somehow fatally flawed; these were people who were chronologically and geographically challenged – they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. And the irony of course is that in those years, Israelis forgot that these same people who were denigrated and called sabonim, when they got off the boats – they were told “Hello, now you’re an Israeli, here’s a rifle, go and fight in Latroun.”

But Haim Guri and Moshe Shamir and the editorial board of Davar – they all write about how shocked they were by what they had heard at the trial. Now, it’s not true that there hadn’t been any talk of the Holocaust – there had been a lot of talk in the fifties, there was [Israel] Kastner [the Hungarian Jewish leader who was accused of collaborating with the Nazis]- his trial, his appeal and his murder; there was a big Knesset debate and a public battle over the statute of Yad Vashem – the professors wanted it to be a research institute and the survivors wanted it to be a memorial; there was the 1950 law on the collaborators, the debates over reparations from, and the relations with, Germany. So why were they amazed? What is it that surprises them?

I think what happened at the trial was that it personalized the Shoah. If you sat there day after day, you heard personal stories that you hadn’t heard before. And I think that began to change things. I believe it’s Leora Bilsky of Tel Aviv University who said that in the wake of the trial there was more tolerance in Israel – maybe it’s not there anymore today, I don’t know.

Israel was a little less –maybe for the moment because I think it changes in 1967 - “כוחי ועוצם ידי עשה לי את החיל הזה" (“My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth”, Deuteronomy 8, 17). I’ve always liked that because it is said in the Torah as a negative, but people turn it around. I think that Gideon Hausner, after talking to survivors, understood that this “why didn’t they fight back kind of thing”, wasn’t legitimate.

There’s a powerful anecdote from the trial about Gabriel Bach, who later served on Israel’s Supreme Court, who was Hausner’s assistant but also the legal adviser of Bureau 06 that questioned Eichmann. He had a lot of contact with Eichmann, he saw him every day when they were questioning him and he saw him at the trial. Bach said that for him, the most powerful moment at the trial was not Eichmann’s testimony and not the cross-examination - but the first day of the trial when the bailiff shouts “Beit Hamishpat” and the three judges walk in and Eichmann stands at attention before three judges of Israel, with the symbol of Israel behind them. If you look at the clips that Yad Vashem has put on YouTube, when the judges walk in, and everybody is looking at the judges - Bach is looking at Eichmann.

Q. That was one of the positive things you said about Hanna Arendt, that she was the one who remarked that “for the first time since the year 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, Jews were able to sit in judgment on crimes committed against their own people."

Lipstadt: I read that, especially to audiences that are poised to hate her and I ask “do you know where I read that first”? I belong to an Orthodox synagogue in Atlanta, it’s very low key, and when I’m there on Tisha B’Av they ask me to give a talk in the afternoon, on the Shoah, because Rabbi Soloveichik said that this is the proper day to talk about the Shoah, which was also [Menachem] Begin’s view. So it’s usually 7 o’clock, because it’s August and it’s a long day, and these are people who on some level are truly mourning the destruction of the temple, they really feel it, and I gave a talk on Eichmann and the following year I gave a talk on Arendt, and I say: I’m going to give you this quote, and it’s really significant because you’re all mourning the loss of the Temple in 70A.D., and I ask – now guess who said it? Someone says Hausner and someone says Ben Gurion and I say – well, it’s Arendt. She was cruel, she was mean, but she also captured something.

And you know how I know I got Arendt right in my book? Because the people who love Arendt hate the chapter on her, and the people who hate Arendt think I was soft on her.

Q. I read in one of the reviews that you “damn her with praise”, but in the end you destroy her. You may be nicer about it…but the result is the same.

Lipstadt: Well, you know who I hate more than Arendt? There’s the [1999] movie “The Specialist” a French documentary by a former Israeli, Eyal Sivan, and it takes Arendt farther than she would have ever gone. They say - oh Eichmann, he was nothing, he just arranged the train schedules. But it turns out that they took a scene from here and voiceover there. They have Eichmann giving testimony and they show Landau arranging his books – but in reality it didn’t happen together.

But the truly annoying thing is how many people come up to me and say “Oh, I read about the trial, I know about the trial, I read “Eichmann in Jerusalem” [Arendt’s book]. That really annoys me.

"Holocaust abuse" and Jewish hysteria

Q. Let me take you up on that. You say that it’s a question of degree and that Israelis for the first time could identify with the survivors. So, now, 50 years have gone by and I ask you to consider the possibility that that Jews, Israelis specifically, may be taking identification with Holocaust victims too far, and integrating this identification into their daily lives.

Lipstadt: Yes, people say “we remember the Shoah and we won’t let this happen again.”

First of all - I'll tell you when it goes too far. When you say that because of anti-Semitism I’m going to be Jewish, or because of the Holocaust I’m going to support Israel. It shouldn’t be “mipnei” – (because) - it should be “af-al-pi” – (despite). If you let your support for Israel or your Jewishness become the result of the anti-Semites then you’ve ceded to the oppressor power over your identity. If the anti-Semites aren’t out there, I won’t do anything, I’ll go eat chazzer (pork), but if they’re out there – I’ll be on the barricades. And you’re turning your Jewish identity, your Israeli identity, whichever way you want to define it - culturally, politically, socially, religiously, or all of the above - you turn it into a defensive mechanism, as opposed to something that can nurture you, and strengthen you, and enrich you and open new vistas of thinking about things. If anti-Semitism becomes the reason through which your Jewish view of the world is refracted, if it becomes your prism, then it is very unhealthy. Jewish tradition never wanted that. It’s not because of, it’s in spite of.

Q. But what about the political use of the Shoah?

Lipstadt: And it has also become political. It’s a use and abuse of the Shoah. It’s a politicization of the Shoah. That doesn’t mean there aren’t political lessons to be learned from the Shoah – from anything – but it’s a use and abuse that I think is dangerous, just plain dangerous. Not only dangerous, because that can be debated, it’s a distortion of what Israel is all about, what Zionism is all about.

You listen to Newt Gingrich talking about the Palestinians as an “invented people” (there was a letter in the Times today saying that if the Palestinians are an invented people, please explain what are the Americans…). It’s out-Aipacking AIPAC, it’s out Israeling Israel, it means you’re against a two-state solution. Even Bibi Netanyahu is for a two-state solution, - I don’t think he really is, but he says he’s for a two-state solution.

I remember when Hillary Clinton spoke about a Palestinian state [in 1998] - the whole world went crazy. People go nuts here, they go nuts. I have friends in the Orthodox world, in the AIPAC world, they say I’m a leftie, and others who say I’m a rightie, because I want to call each side out and say – you’re wrong, you’re overstating the case. There’s no nuance, there’s no middle ground, it’s taking any shade of grey and stomping on it – and it’s dangerous, for your support of Israel to become a litmus test. It’s not for the two per cent of the US population who are Jews – they vote more, so maybe it’s equivalent to 6 per cent - it’s the Evangelicals. If you get the hechsher (kosher seal of approval) on this, you’re going to get a million Evangelicals to vote with you.

And it’s embarrassing. As a Jew who spends a lot of time in Israel, who could have lived in Israel if my life, you know, who happily identifies as a Jew – when I hear that, I cringe. We’re not a basket case. There’s something about it that’s so discomforting, it’s not healthy, it’s a distortion, This is the kind of thing that scares me: we’ve always been neurotic – I mean everyone’s neurotic, we just recognize it more – but we’ve raised our neuroses to a level that’s not healthy. We should eschew hysteria, but we don’t. Hysteria never is useful.

Someone told me that at the last AIPAC convention in May there was a group of Israeli officers and they said afterwards that it’s amazing to see all of this support for Israel. But, they asked – what on earth are these Jews so angry about? America is with us – what are they so angry about?

And there’s Ahmadinejad, I mean he’s a dangerous man, he’s a hater of Jews, if he had his hands on a nuclear weapon it would not be a good thing. But I question people about making too much of a fuss about Ahmadinejad, because one day the Ayatollahs are going to get rid of him, and then what – that solves our problem? From many points of view, including his Holocaust denial, Ahmadinejad is the gift that keeps on giving.

I was speaking to Saul Friedlander a while ago, and a really smart guy came to us and he said – do you feel that the situation is Europe today is similar to 1939? And after Saul answered him I said to Saul – this guy, he doesn’t what the Shoah is or he doesn’t understand what the situation in Europe is? I mean don’t get me wrong - the situation in Europe is not good, I wouldn’t want to send my kids to Jewish school in Belgium.

Q. What about the use of the word “appeasement” in the Republican debates and the use of the Holocaust in describing Israel’s present situation ? Is this a form of Holocaust denial?

Lipstadt: I wouldn’t call it that. I would call it a form of Holocaust abuse or instrumentalization of the Holocaust. That you take these terrible moments in our history, moments that deserve to be treated truthfully, and exactly, without exaggeration, in which the facts should speak for themselves. And you use it for contemporary purposes, and in so doing, in order to fulfill your political objectives, you mangle history, you trample on it. You’re doing that is akin to what the deniers do. I call it soft-core denial. It’s not the David Irvings, who deny the existence of the gas chambers. The soft deniers are those who say “the genocide of the Palestinians” or ‘the Nazi-like tactics of Zahal."

Q. What about the settler youth, who call the IDF soldiers Nazis?

Lipstadt: That’s another example. It’s despicable. And it’s so inaccurate. And it’s such an abuse of history. The people who start it know it’s not true, but the kids, the yeshiva kids, and the high school kids – they don’t know it’s not true. And so when real Nazism comes around no one will recognize it.

One of the results of dealing with deniers has been my absolute devotion to truth. I was at Yeshiva University and I mentioned the story, that’s been thoroughly discredited by now, which was spread by a Beis Yaakov rabbi of the 93 Beis Yaakov girls who committed suicide in Cracow rather than be raped by the Nazis. And one of the girls supposedly got a letter out to New York. Now you tell me how in 1943 a letter made its way from Cracow to New York. Even if you were living in Paris you couldn’t get a letter out. And I said – it doesn’t make sense. You don’t need this story. It’s as if to say that what they went through wasn’t bad enough.

Ambassador Gutman's remarks on the "new" anti-Semitism

Q. What is your opinion of what Ambassador Gutman said about the lack of resolution to the conflict fueling Muslim anti-Semitism?

Lipstadt: What he said was stupid. He was trying to be a political analyst, when he is an ambassador. He sounded as if he was rationalizing anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is a form of prejudice: if I see a black man walking down the street I think he’s lazy, if I see a Jew, I think he’s rich, if I see a pretty blond woman, I think she’s stupid. Prejudice is irrational. When you make a claim that Israelis are obnoxious, I mean we know some Israelis are obnoxious, but many are not. The minute you try to pin a rational explanation for prejudice, you say oh, it’s got a legitimate reason.

I’ll give you an example, a number of years ago I was giving a course about film in the Holocaust, together with a colleague who was an expert on film and religion and history. We agreed that we wouldn’t interrupt each other. So this was a week when they were seeing anti-Semitic propaganda films, “The Eternal Jew” and “Jud Suss” and so on, and so I’m talking about anti-Semitism, I’m talking about the irrationality of anti-Semitism and a student gets up and says - but weren’t all the bankers and lawyers in Germany Jews? So I said – there were 600,000 Jews in Germany, half of them were women, there were a whole bunch of children and I’m going on and on and suddenly my colleague, a former nun named Barbara DeConcini, a good Italian Catholic from Philadelphia, she suddenly interrupts me and she looks at the student and she says: “So what?” That was the right answer – So what? - and I was giving the wrong answer.

So I think that Gutman was trying to explain it. I think that some of these Muslims would hate Jews nonetheless, but the situation is definitely exacerbated by the conflict. I don’t think every Muslim hates Jews.

Is there a new anti-Semitism? In Europe and America, it comes more from the left than from the right. But a lot of it is the same. The situation in Israel gives the anti-Semites an opening, and then there are those people who aren’t necessarily anti-Semites but are willing to demonize Israel, as it says in the Finkler Question “this Jew discovered she was a Jew when she began to hate what Israel was doing the Middle East.” Is she an anti-Semite? No. But she buys into that picture.

But I also think the reaction to Gutman has been over the top, but that’s with everything, like we said before, with AIPAC, with everything. I think this kind of hysteria plays into it.

But you know there are no voices of calm, there are no voices of reason, not in this country, not in Israel. Obama was so flat-footed in the beginning you know like one Israeli said: you’re going to Cairo, you’re in the neighborhood and you don’t even come in for a cup of coffee? You stress the settlements, the settlements the settlements without making it a more even-handed kind of thing?

He just gave an opening to Republicans in America and to “Republicans” in Israel. I mean, it’s embarrassing. More and more Jews who are scared and here’s someone who is going to protect them. It’s so over the top irrational.

I teach in Queens College and a woman comes up to me and she says “first of all I love your book, I’m reading the Eichmann book” - so of course she’s an intelligent woman - and then she says: But I worry, aren’t we facing another Holocaust now? You’re in Queens, she said, and last year there were three cars that were torched near my synagogue and a swastika was painted on a doorstep. So I said – wait a minute, let’s talk about Rwanda, about Darfur, about the former Yugoslavia – do you see a government supporting that torching? Do you not see the police investigating that torching? So she just looked at me and said: “You don’t understand. Someone who’s written such a good book, but you don’t understand.”

Q. So that’s where we started, with the legacy of the Eichmann trial.

A. I think the legacy of the Eichmann trial is more positive than that. The fact that Israel could have killed him, and killed him in a way that everyone would know that Israel did it, but Ben Gurion said to bring him in. And [Judge] Moshe Landau tried to run a fair trial, which was difficult under the circumstances. So I think it was important, here were the victims who could have just thrown this guy overboard, trying to do a modicum of justice, trying to prove his guilt – it was clear that he was going to be found guilty, but really feeling obligated to prove it.

I don’t think what we’re seeing now is a legacy of the trial. I think what we’re seeing now is that there is a hysteria, a fear, certainly born out of real concern, born out of politics, it’s possibly a hysteria that is buttressed by a certain racism, that is leading people to instrumentalize the Holocaust, to instrumentalize anti-Semitism in the way of this pandering appeal at the Republican Jewish Coalition. It was unbelievable. I couldn’t watch it. And people say to me - what? Look how important we are. What’s wrong with you?