The ancient meets the modern in the rabbit warren of a courthouse where the Holocaust is being debated in a trial between a self- defined revisionist and a professor.
The libel trial of David Irving against Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt is being held between walls that bear warning signs that one should walk carefully because the floors are uneven due to the age of the building.
But despite the old setting, this is very much a trial in which the Internet Age is a player.
The startling contrast struck me as I watched from my observer perch a judge wearing a wig preside over a debate about Internet hyperlinks.
Professor Richard Evans of Cambridge University, who wrote a 600-plus page evaluation of Irving’s work and who appeared as an expert witness for the defense, argued that Irving was associated with an organization called the Institute for Historical Review whose ideology includes denial of the Holocaust.
Evans showed that Irving had attended and lectured at several of their conferences and was therefore associated with them.
“Guilt by association,” said Irving, is not fair.
Then Evans pointed out that Irving has a hyperlink on his Web site so that readers can go directly to the materials on the Web site of the Institute for Historical Review.
A debate then ensued over whether providing a link to another group makes the owner of the Web site an associate of that group.
Irving pointed out that he has links to Nizkor and other Jewish groups on his Web site — surely, he said sarcastically, no one meant to imply that he was associated with those groups. What he failed to mention is that the Jewish groups are on his Web site as part of an “enemies list.”
There is a reason that Irving is so anxious to disassociate himself from groups of Holocaust deniers. Demonstrating that Irving is a denier is the key to the defense’s case.
He has sued for libel claiming that by calling him a denier — as opposed to a revisionist, or one who merely has another legitimate view of history – – Lipstadt has deprived him of his livelihood.
Under British law, the lawyers for Penguin and Lipstadt have to prove that what she wrote about Irving in “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory” is true.
Outside the courtroom, the Internet plays another role. Through numerous online discussion groups, such as HJudaic, the forum of professors of Jewish studies, various communities are briefed daily on the trial.
In addition to first-hand reports, Web addresses are provided for those who want detailed background on the issues. They, in turn, pass on this information to their colleagues and students.
Anyone around the world can access articles and background information about the trial.
When the Israeli government decided to release the Eichmann diaries to Lipstadt’s lawyers, the news was flashed around the world in a matter of minutes.
Irving’s friends and supporters are active as well. There are numerous Web sites spewing hate and putting their “spin” on the trial day by day. Some, contrary to the judges orders, have been printing the trial transcripts regularly.
Irving’s site is very professional and clever. It shows flattering pictures of him with his young daughter on his lap — the same daughter to whom he admitted he had taught the ditty, “I’m a baby Aryan, not Jewish or sectarian, I have no wish to marry an ape or Rastafarian.”
Everyone is so polite, the rhetoric so understated, that it is easy to forget what is at stake here in this dignified courtroom. Occasionally something so outrageous is said that everyone is jarred by it.
It seems that Irving has a prepared line for ending each session. Before the lunch break one day, he ended his questioning by turning to the judge and saying, “Your Lordship, you know that most of the criminals in the camps were lawyers.”
He goads Evans constantly with questions that end with comments like, “Let’s see what kind of a spin you can put on this one, Mr. Evans.”
Lipstadt, who is a friend and colleague, passes by my seat on her way out to the ladies room after several hours of cross-examination. As she walks by, she leans over and whispers — “Bruchim habaim l’veit meshugaim,” which I translate to myself as, “Welcome to the theater of the absurd.”
How can we be listening to someone argue in a serious court of law that Jews tattooed numbers on their arms to get money from the German government for Israel?
Could David Irving win a favorable judgment as a result of technicalities of British laws of libel? In a few weeks, we will all know the answer to that question.
Meanwhile, I’ve got my plane ticket to return for final arguments that are scheduled to begin on Monday. Though I could tune in through the Internet, I want to be there in person.
Still I can’t help but hope that tens of thousands of other supporters will be in the courtroom “virtually” rooting for truth and accurate memory.
(Rela Mintz Geffen is a professor of sociology at Gratz College in Melrose Park, Pa.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.