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Commentary: Beware, David Irving

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LONDON, March 21 (JTA) — It is the Ides of March and the week before Purim. We know who Agag, King of Amalek — the enemy of the Jews — is, but are not sure who should beware.

As an FOD (Friend of Deborah Lipstadt) I sit in the British courtroom on March 15 and watch the expressions on her face as her career and her scholarship are taken apart by David Irving.

She is described both as a powerful Queen Bee manipulating drones all over the world — including JTA, the ADL, the Board of Deputies of British Jewry and the governments of several countries — and in the next moment as a little lamb who was “led astray” by Yehuda Bauer, director of Yad Vashem.

I have checked, and David Irving is mentioned on just 16 of the 278 pages of Lipstadt’s “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory,” the book that prompted his lawsuit. If one never looked at the book and just listened to his ranting, one would think that a personal critique of his oeuvre and the destruction of his livelihood is the main focus of Lipstadt’s endeavors.

Deborah is by turns incredulous, amused, angry and impassive. From time to time, she taps the keys of her laptop, eyes intent on the small screen. As always during the formal proceedings, she is silent. Her voice is not heard and her name is not mentioned in the official trial listings.

The case is labeled Irving vs. Penguin & anr. She has been reduced to “another” or, at other times, “the second defendant.” This silence is very difficult for her and it is infuriating to Irving, who constantly berates her for not appearing in the witness box in her own defense.

But Deborah will not even give the appearance of debating a denier. Cross-examination by Irving would have put her in the position of responding to him on a one-to-one basis, suggesting that they have differing but equally legitimate versions of history. Her scholarship will have to stand on its own.

Richard Rampton, Deborah’s attorney, speaks eloquently for just about an hour before midday. Then, before the lunch break, Irving begins what is to be a nearly five-hour presentation.

The break is spent by most of the non-press spectators standing in line to assure entrance for the afternoon session. They discuss the trial. An attractive middle-aged blond woman whispers to me, “Who are you for? Irving?” Then quickly, “You don’t have to say.”

I reply, “I am Deborah’s friend.”

“Oh good,” she replies. “I’m behind her too — and so are the old soldiers, they were there, they saw the camps and can’t believe the case was even accepted for trial!” I’m not as sanguine that so many are behind Deborah.

With the exception of the judge, all of the principal participants — the attorneys, the clerks, the researchers and the parties to the case — have to pass through the throng to enter the courtroom. So we see them all “up close and personal.”

Asking someone to save my place, I go to the Ladies Room just as Mr. Irving is coming out of the “Gents.” I am silent. What could I say?

Court resumes. David Irving continues reading his 100-plus page closing argument. The judge had urged him to summarize, but Irving hews closely to the text that was distributed — only skipping a paragraph here and there.

Then, nearly two hours into Irving’s presentation comes the most dramatic moment of the day. Irving departs from his prepared speech. In the midst of refuting the defense contention that he is a neo-Nazi, illustrated early on in the trial by a video in which he is shown addressing a rally where young men begin to chant “Sieg Heil,” Irving turns to the judge, addressing him directly.

He says, “They shouted, ‘Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil’ ” — and then instead of saying “my Lord,” he calls the judge “Mein Fuhrer.”

There is a collective gasp, then a ripple of laughter. Someone tells us later that the judge laughed out loud. I happened to be watching Rampton, Deborah’s attorney. His face rapidly registered incredulity, astonishment, wry amusement and finally satisfaction.

No one could believe what had just happened. Had we imagined it? Could he actually have addressed a British judge as “Mein Fuhrer?” Without a pause or change of inflection, Irving goes on with his speech as though nothing untoward has happened.

Later, Anthony Julius, Deborah’s brilliant solicitor, believes that either Irving wasn’t even aware of what he had said or just held himself under rigid control.

Irving has contended all along that he does not deny the Holocaust. But he spends the last hour and a half of his peroration “proving” in excruciating detail that the gas chambers at Auschwitz were air raid shelters for the SS that happened to be built over a mortuary. He even repeats his horrifying statement that more women died in the back seat of Kennedy’s car at Chappaquidick than in gas chambers at Auschwitz. In other words, he repeats the denial in its crudist form. Doesn’t he realize what he is saying?

It is over. I agree to meet Deborah and close friends of hers from Atlanta at a dinner sponsored by a Jewish organization at a kosher restaurant in Golders Green where Anthony Julius will speak about Holocaust denial. Feeling like a very official FOD, I find myself at a table with Deborah, Anthony Julius and his family, and others.

Asked about the importance of the trial, Anthony Julius declines to speculate on the view of history. After all, he notes, if one had asked about the most difficult place for Jews at the end of the 19th century, one would have cited France after Alfred Dreyfus, the military officer wrongly convicted of treason.

As to more immediate gains, he clearly takes pride in having defended Deborah Lipstadt and her work; the honor of historians from those who besmirch it; and litigating the Holocaust for the first time in England as first generation witnesses fade away and there is a resurgence of neo-Nazi activity in Europe.

Finally, he says, it shows a side of British Jewry that is often hidden. As he puts it, “We don’t look for a fight but if it comes to us, we will do it.”

The whole extraordinary defense team has “done it” for four years. Now their work is completed and the decision is up to the judge, who has promised a speedy opinion. Deborah Lipstadt’s work reminds us, as the Torah does in its passage about Amalek, of the importance of memory.

In my opinion, it is David Irving and his ilk who should beware.

Rela Mintz Geffen, a professor of sociology at Gratz College in Melrose Park, Pa, attended much of the London trial as a show of support for her friend.

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