As a historian, Deborah Lipstadt achieved acclaim for her book on Holocaust denial. Previously she had written on how American newspapers reported the murder of European Jews. But after her defense against a libel suit brought by David Irving, a British Holocaust denier, she became a public figure, acquiring renown for her championing the cause of Holocaust survivors. Her dramatic trial was transformed into a film, “Denial,” starring Rachel Weisz. Recently, Lipstadt has expanded her concern with the Holocaust to the issue of antisemitism and its current resurgence. A professor at Emory University, she built Jewish studies programs there and in her first position at the University of Washington.
“Unzere Devora,” our Deborah, “you do not know what you did for us,” murmured a Holocaust survivor before Yom ha-Sho’ah (Holocaust Memorial Day) 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.
Family and Education
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 (1915-2013), 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, 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 the City College of New York (CCNY), Lipstadt majored in political science and history. Intent on aliyah, she spent 1966–1967, her junior year, in Israel. The June 1967 war interrupted her studies and she remained a second year as an undergraduate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Lipstadt graduated from CCNY in June 1969 and immediately entered Brandeis University’s Near Eastern and Judaic Studies program, where her teachers included such noted Jewish scholars 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.
Early Academic Career
In 1979 Lipstadt 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 she published Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust 1933–1945. 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 yahrzeit. “You see, they needed me for the minyan,” she wrote.
From 1985 to 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.
Denying the Holocaust and its Impact
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 the Tam 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, initiating the transformation of her academic career. 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.
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. Lipstadt’s attorneys submitted thousands of pages of testimony during the course of a five-year legal battle. The Israeli government considered the case so significant that it released Adolf Eichmann’s journals, 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 concluded his verdict: “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 2005 she published a book, History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving, describing her experiences. The book inspired a film, “Denial” (2016), which dramatized Lipstadt’s trial. Rachel Weisz played Deborah Lipstadt, a choice that pleased Lipstadt immensely. It is rare for a historian to find herself a character in a biographical drama film.
The film blended a riveting courtroom drama with moving encounters at Auschwitz with the massive evidence of the Holocaust. It limned a compelling portrait of Lipstadt as a fearless crusader for truth. In featuring Lipstadt’s willingness to put her life and career on the line for justice, it joined a handful of films with feisty female protagonists seeking fair play. Lipstadt admitted: “It didn’t change me or what I had to say.” But “it changed how people listen to me. It gave me a hearing I hadn’t had before.” The movie’s success revealed the extraordinary reach of Lipstadt’s stance on Holocaust denial and antisemitism. Her subsequent career would garner outsized attention.
Lipstadt continued to combine scholarly research and publication with the role of a public intellectual. She lectured widely, in the United States and abroad, on the Holocaust, its reception and history. She achieved renown and acclaim as an articulate historian.
In 2011, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Eichmann trial, Lipstadt published The Eichmann Trial on the trial, the vitriolic public debate that it spawned, and especially the significance of survivor testimony. She emphasized the importance of the role of author and historian Rokhl Auerbakh and her insistence in assembling survivors’ testimony collected at Yad Vashem. Because of her own work in the Warsaw Ghetto as part of Emanuel Ringleblum’s Oyneg Shabes archival group, Auerbach understood how meaningful such oral histories were, especially since they included women’s voices. Lipstadt wrote in her conclusion “that this trial would be founded on the human story of the Jewish victims’ suffering stands . . . as the trial’s most significant legacy.” Lipstadt recognized the critical importance of oral history, although the judges considered it immaterial. In dismissing its forensic value, she wrote, the judges had “misjudged the lasting impact of this testimony.”
In 2016 Lipstadt published a volume explicitly focused on teaching the Holocaust that made an impressive contribution to Jewish studies. Part of the Key Words in Jewish Studies series, Holocaust: An American Understanding charted the emergence of the word “Holocaust” to describe the extermination of European Jews. The book introduced a new generation to the process by which Holocaust acquired meaning in American culture.
Three years later Lipstadt confronted the looming issue of antisemitism, not merely in the form of Holocaust denial but also in multiple contemporary expressions. In Antisemitism: Here and Now, she writes: “What should alarm us is that human beings continue to believe in a conspiracy that demonizes Jews and sees them as responsible for evil. Antisemites continue to give life to this particular brand of age-old hatred.” As a historian, Lipstadt recognizes that the “historical consequences of this nefarious passion have been so disastrous that to ignore its contemporary manifestations would be irresponsible.” Sounding the alarm, Lipstadt challenges one and all to acknowledge, understand, and commit to fighting this scourge.
Antisemitism: Here and Now. New York: Schocken, 2019.
Holocaust: An American Understanding. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2016.
The Eichmann Trial. New York: Schocken, 2011.
History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.
Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. New York: Plume, 1993; Translated into German (1994) and Japanese (1995).
Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust 1933–1945. New York: Free Press of Macmillan, 1986.
“And Deborah Made Ten.” In On Being a Jewish Feminist, by Susannah Heschel. New York: Schocken, 1983.
Zionist Career of Louis Lipsky 1900–1921. New York: Arno Press, 1981.