“Unzere Devora,” our Deborah, “you do not know what you did for us,” murmured a Holocaust survivor before Yom ha-Sho’ah observances in the U.S. Capitol in April 2000. The comment stunned Deborah E. Lipstadt. An historian of American Jews, she had not sought the grueling libel trial that transformed her into a public personality. But she proved in a British court the historical truth of Hitler’s genocidal murder of six million European Jews during World War II to justify her characterization of David Irving as a Holocaust denier.
Prior to the 1993 publication of Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, Deborah Lipstadt’s career resembled that of other successful academics. The middle child of Erwin H. (1903–1972) and Miriam Peiman Lipstadt (b. 1915), Deborah Esther was born in New York City on March 18, 1947. Her immigrant parents, he from Germany and she from Canada, met in synagogue. Their observant Jewish home included Helene, the oldest child, and Nathaniel, the youngest. Deborah grew up in Far Rockaway, New York. Lipstadt traces her activism back to her parents and Rabbi Emanuel Rackman of the Shaarey Tefila Synagogue in New York. She attended the Hebrew Institute of Long Island, a modern-orthodox Zionist school that integrated boys and girls in the elementary grades but separated them in high school. Summers at Masad Aleph, a Hebrew-speaking camp, inspired her to go to Israel. At City College, Lipstadt majored in political science and history. Intent on aliyah, she spent 1966–1967, her junior year, in Israel. The Six-Day war interrupted her studies and she remained a second year as an undergraduate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she studied literature with Shulamith Nardi and history with Uriel Tal.
Lipstadt graduated from CCNY in June 1969 and immediately entered Brandeis University’s Near Eastern and Judaic Studies program, where her teachers included noted Jewish scholars such as Alexander Altmann, Nahum Glatzer, Ben Halpern, Leon Jick and Nahum Sarna. In 1976 Lipstadt was the hundredth person to receive her Ph.D. from Brandeis. Her initial visiting appointment in history and religion at the University of Washington extended from 1974 to 1979. The first to teach Jewish Studies there, she shaped the curriculum, encouraging peripheral faculty to join the program. In 1979 she moved to the University of California in Los Angeles as Assistant Professor. Dissension plagued her department of Near Eastern Studies. Although her dissertation, The Zionist Career of Louis Lipsky 1900–1921, appeared in print in 1981, Lipstadt was denied tenure. She left UCLA in 1985. The following year her book Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust 1933–1945 was published. The book analyzed journalism on the Holocaust and examined what Americans knew about the Nazi extermination of European Jews.
Lipstadt remained in Los Angeles, part of a vibrant, eclectic, multi-denominational Jewish community that included Reform rabbis David Ellenson and Karen Fox, Conservative rabbi Elliot Dorff, the poet Marcia Falk, and feminists Rachel Adler and Isa Aron. Activists and intellectuals, they understood the importance of public scholarship and practiced Judaism in non-traditional ways. In 1983 Lipstadt contributed “And Deborah Made Ten” to Susannah Heschel’s anthology, On Being a Jewish Feminist, in which she described her pain and pleasure in finally being counted in the minyan for her father’s yahrtzeit. “You see, they needed me for the minyan,” she wrote. “Yes, they needed me.” From 1985–1987 Lipstadt directed the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, an independent, innovative Jewish educational organization. She wrote a monthly column for The Jewish Spectator. Then she accepted a research fellowship from the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University to explore Holocaust denial and took a part-time teaching position at Occidental College. Lipstadt found Holocaust denial to be a potent blend of sophisticated antisemitism, corrupt deconstructionism, and anti-Zionism.
In January 1993 Lipstadt moved to Atlanta as Associate Professor of Religion at Emory University. Denying the Holocaust appeared in June 1993 and garnered simultaneous front-page favorable reviews in the Sunday New York Times and Washington Post. That fall Emory promoted Lipstadt to Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies. In 1994 Lipstadt received the National Jewish Book Honor Award for Denying the Holocaust, and President Clinton appointed her to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. Previously she had served as a consultant for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. At Emory Lipstadt helped establish and direct an Institute for Jewish Studies.
In 1995 Lipstadt learned that David Irving was threatening to sue her and her British publisher for calling him a Holocaust denier. Thus began the transformation of her academic career. Initially nonplussed, by spring 1996 Lipstadt realized the threat’s significance and decided to fight. While in the United States, a public figure like Irving would have to show that Lipstadt had acted “in reckless disregard” of the truth, under British libel law, the burden of proof lay on Lipstadt, the defendant, to demonstrate the accuracy of what she had written. “In England, I had to prove that what I wrote was not libel,” Lipstadt wrote. “I wanted a trial that proved [I] was right when [I] called David Irving a denier.” Determined to prove the truth of her characterization of Irving, she engaged the respected British jurist Anthony Julius and a stellar team of historians, herself remaining silent throughout the trial. She could add nothing to what she had written. Approximately three thousand pages of testimony were submitted by Lipstadt’s attorneys during the course of the legal battle, which went on for five years. The case was regarded as so significant that to aid Lipstadt’s case, the Israeli government released Adolf Eichmann’s journals, which it had kept under lock and key for twenty-eight years, and delivered a copy to Lipstadt’s legal defense team.
The trial exposed Irving’s lies, distortions of history, and racism. On April 11, 2000, the British Royal High Court of Justice ruled in favor of Lipstadt. The judge hearing the case, Justice Charles Gray, concluded his verdict by declaring that “Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-semitic and racist and that he associates with right wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.” In 2001 the courts rejected an appeal.
After the trial, Lipstadt spoke to enthusiastic audiences throughout the United States and Israel about her ordeal. In February 2005 she published a book, History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving, describing her experiences. The book itself became the catalyst for a second chapter in the Lipstadt-Irving conflict, when television station C-Span, which sought to broadcast a speech by Lipstadt about her new book, announced that it would also feature a talk by Irving to “balance” their coverage of the story. Lipstadt, who has maintained a consistent policy against appearing with or debating holocaust deniers, insisted that C-Span either reverse their decision or cancel their programming of her March 2005 lecture at Harvard University. When C-Span’s intentions became known, five hundred historians signed a petition in support of Lipstadt’s ultimatum, stating that “Falsifiers of history cannot ‘balance’ histories. Falsehoods cannot ‘balance’ the truth.” C-Span refused to cancel their planned coverage of Irving, and Lipstadt refused to appear on their Book-TV program. The controversy spurred renewed analysis of the original court case and focused attention once more on Lipstadt’s battle against Holocaust denial.
History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving. New York: 2005; Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. New York: 1993; Translated into German (1994) and Japanese (1995); Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust 1933–1945. New York: 1986; “And Deborah Made Ten.” In On Being a Jewish Feminist, by Susannah Heschel. New York: 1983; Zionist Career of Louis Lipsky 1900–1921. New York: 1981.