Insights from Professor Deborah Lipstadt and current anti-Jewish mob violence.

Current events made particularly topical the lecture given on the 4th September 2014 (the 12th Isaiah Berlin Annual Lecture) – “Remembrance in the 21st Century: How will we remember when everyone who has something to remember is gone?” At the beginning of her excellent presentation Professor Deborah E Lipstadt sensibly observed that she did not intend to make any predictions about a future time about which there was too much uncertainty, but instead wished to make a presentation about the various way in which the terrible events of the Shoah have been remembered up to now.

Professor Lipstadt first considered the immediate post-war period and the decade leading up to the key event which was the Eichmann trial – which was the first time since the loss of Jewish independence under the Romans that a sovereign Jewish nation was in the position to mete out justice, in the name of the Jewish people, for the crimes committed against Jews by non-Jews. She analysed the different terms used at first to describe the genocidal “war against the Jews” perpetrated by the Nazis and their allies, supporters and collaborators, explaining how and when the word “Holocaust” came into common usage. She described how not only the political elites (in the context of an intensifying cold war in which the new West German Republic was now regarded as playing a key role in the alliance against the Soviet Union) but also many individuals active within the cultural and intellectual milieux of the “Anglosphere” tended to downplay significantly the specifically anti-Jewish aspects of the Nazi programme of persecution and mass murder.  The testimony, presumably based upon personal experience, of Geoffrey Barraclough, medievalist and British historian of Germany, to the effect that anyone harping upon the widespread guilt of adult Germans risked being labelled the “club bore”, was cited in this connection.

Before the Eichmann trial, which saw enormous numbers of reporters and journalists converging upon Israel, it happened all too infrequently in non-Jewish cultural and intellectual circles that there was any serious engagement with the historic processes leading to the supremacy of the Nazi party and to the catastrophic historic reality which was that all Jews living in territories conquered by Nazi Germany were targeted for persecution and for eventual destruction. All too often, on the occasions when the crimes of the Nazis came up for consideration, emphasis was placed upon “all the innocent victims” – sometimes in the name of “universalism” – with Jews being hardly more than one of the categories of these victims. Professor Lipstadt discussed the film and theatre adaptations of the best-selling diaries of Anne Frank, which could be seen as a good illustration of this phenomenon. A number of the complex and clear-sighted observations found within the diaries were distorted in order to promote simplistic positive messages like the one that “humanity is basically good”, while the lessons to be learnt about the worst type of human behaviour inspired by anti-Jewish prejudice – as evidenced on an individual level by the extreme suffering and subsequent murders of Anne Frank and virtually all her family – tended to be side-lined.

In contrast to the Nuremberg trials in which all the focus was upon the accumulation of documentary evidence – regarded as preferable to testimony by victims regarded as likely to be too “emotional” and “unreliable” – the Eichmann trial was the first major trial in which survivors were given the opportunity to testify about their experiences. Though a few survivors had seen their experiences recorded using the most rudimentary equipment as early as the end of the war (as examined, for example, in the studies of Professor Stefanie Schüler-Springorum), it took time before the numbers of survivors coming forward to bear witness became significant and for large scale programmes by the relevant institutions systematically to record their testimony got under way.

After ably summarising this new development in the organised, institutional commemoration of the Shoah, Professor Lipstadt tackled the question of “Never again” and post-war instances of mass murder. While insisting upon the importance of never allowing the unique character of the Shoah to be obscured, she supported her view about the worthwhile nature of projects which foster dialogue between Holocaust survivors and survivors of other instances of genocidal mass murder. She movingly spoke of a visit to Rwanda which included a sprightly nonagenarian woman who had survived the Shoah.

Professor Lipstadt has often called attempts to distort or minimise the Shoah by, for example, comparing Israeli supposed perpetrators of (non-existent) war crimes, while firmly opposing the abuse of historical memory for political purposes by Israelis (there being – alas! – a significant number of unprincipled politicians in Israel, as in many other liberal democracies). In response to various people in attendance who mentioned the upsurge in anti-Jewish hate propaganda during the weeks that the IDF was engaged in Operation Protective Edge, she reiterated her views on this subject towards the end of the lecture – without expressing any views about the current conflict.

If Professor Lipstadt is right to caution against using any analogies with the Nazi period in analysing the numerous cases of anti-Jewish mob violence seen in several countries which accompanied so-called “peaceful protests” against the latest large-scale intervention in Gaza, it is nonetheless justifiable to talk about pogrom-like violence when considering what has been going on many French cities – as well as, to a lesser degree, in certain other European cities. Scholars use the term “pogrom” to refer to a wide variety of events which occurred in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa and which involved a significant amount of premeditated or planned mob violence and varying degrees of official complicity – whether active or passive, or post factum. (To take a few twentieth century instances, for example, which led to greater or smaller loss of life, there was Fez, Morocco, in April 1912, Constantine, Algeria in August 1934, and Baghdad, Iraq, in June 1941.)

What happened on the 13th July 2014 in Paris when a mob, armed with all kinds of offensive weapons, attempted to break into the synagogue on Rue de la Roquette and to lynch the congregants and their guests gathered inside to pray for Israel and for peace can certainly be described as a near pogrom. Renowned author and journalist Michel Gurfinkiel has ably summarised the current situation in France in articles which appeared in Commentary and P J Media – as well as the very conscientious journalist and blogger Véronique Chemla

As feared by Mme. Chemla – perhaps for the worst kind of political reasons – there seem to have been no serious attempts to investigate and to bring to justice the potential pogromists of July. Virtually all convictions so far have been for relatively minor public order offenses and not generally involved prison sentences exceeding one year, if that. It would be extremely useful if people with the international reputation of Deborah Lipstadt were to intervene publicly to protest against this state of affairs.

About the Author
Paul Leslie is an occasional independent journalist and researcher, living in London. He has degrees from Exeter College, Oxford University and the Sorbonne (history of the Jews of Algeria and Tunisia, in two different colonial systems). Paul Leslie is am a fan of cinema – all genres – and is passionately interested in modern history.