Last week, a minor miracle occurred, at of all places the United Nations. For only the second time since the establishment of Israel, the General Assembly adopted a resolution sponsored by the Jewish state. In fact, the support for the resolution was so overwhelming that it was approved by consensus, meaning that it passed without a country by country vote, with the only objection registered in the 193 country body by (surprise, surprise) the Iranians.
The resolution itself deserves scrutiny. It expresses concern over “the growing prevalence of Holocaust denial or distortion through the use of information and communications technologies,” and urges all UN members to “reject, without any reservation, any denial or distortion of the Holocaust as a historical event, either in full or in part, or any activities to this end.” It also called upon all UN members “to develop educational programs that will inculcate future generations with the lessons of the Holocaust in order to help to prevent future acts of genocide.” Symbolically, the resolution was passed on the 80 th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference of January 20, 1942, at which 15 leading Nazi officials and SS operatives were informed of the decision to launch the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” and the details of its implementation.
One unique aspect of the resolution is the equivalent status given to denial and distortion. These are two disparate issues that stem to an extent from similar sources and motives but are fundamentally different, and require different responses. They also have different histories. Holocaust denial began in Western Europe and has existed almost since the mass murders began, whereas the initial manifestations of Holocaust distortion began in the Soviet Union after World War II, but have flourished recently to an alarming degree in the “new democracies” of post-Communist Eastern Europe.
There is also a significant difference between the current status of the threat posed by these two phenomena. As shocking and revolting as Holocaust denial is, the problem is essentially under control in the Western democratic world. That does not mean that denial has disappeared never to return, but rather that it has been shunted to the lunatic fringe of Western society, and that there currently aren’t any mainstream normative political or social organizations that promote it.
One of the key factors in the defeat of the deniers was the dismissal by a British court of David Irving’s libel suit against Debra Lipstadt. Irving’s claims were torn to pieces by British historians like Richard Evans, and the decisive victory in the case dealt the deniers a blow from which they have not yet recovered. That does not mean that no one in the Western world will ever deny the Shoah, but for now that threat has been roundly defeated.
Holocaust denial still exists, however, throughout the Moslem and Arab world, and in many cases is government-sponsored and financed, which means that it poses a serious problem. Iran is, of course, the worst offender, but the problem exists throughout the region, which needless to say, suffers from the almost absolute absence of Holocaust education. In the wake of the Abraham Accords, we see initial efforts to promote Holocaust education, and hopefully they will be increased and expanded, but with the exception of initiatives like the Aladdin Project in North Africa, the situation continues to be extremely problematic for political, social, and ideological reasons.
Holocaust distortion, on the other hand, is a relatively new phenomenon that has taken root in Eastern Europe very soon after the fall of the Soviet Union and the transition to democracy of former Communist dictatorships. Whereas denial is easy to identify and explain, distortion is dangerously confusing: Distorters categorically accept the fact that the Holocaust took place and unequivocally reject its denial, but they seek to radically alter the accepted Western/Jewish narrative of World War II and the Holocaust. They present an alternative version of the events, especially as it relates to the role played by Nazis’ local collaborators.
Such an approach is particularly problematic because only in Eastern Europe did collaboration with the Nazis include participation in systematic mass murder, and local perpetrators bear responsibility for a highly significant portion of the Nazis’ victims. The distorted version attributes practically all the crimes to the German and Austrian Nazis and promotes the canard of equivalency between Communist crimes and Nazi atrocities in order to highlight the suffering of their citizenry and deflect attention from their own crimes. The fact that this alternative narrative is sponsored, financed and promoted by the local governments makes it even more dangerous and difficult to combat.
It’s hardly surprising that the only resolution sponsored by Israel that was previously passed by the UN General Assembly was also related to the Holocaust, the initiative to establish International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Jewish victims of the most horrific genocide in the annals of mankind have a unique gravitas, even at the UN, but the question remains what effect will last week’s resolution have? After all, even the countries that support and promote denial and distortion voted to pass it. That is the real challenge, to focus on the deniers and the liars and attempt to convince them to teach the truth. Any progress in that direction will be a true achievement for last week’s resolution.