Published by The Telegraph on 10/04/17
When Ken Livingstone started rabbiting on about how Hitler “supported Zionism”, his ludicrous distortion of 20th century history was swiftly rubbished by anyone and everyone who could be bothered to open a history book. But warped sensitivities to the Second World War aren’t simply confined to the Labour Party, and a number of organisations have directed their attention onto the equally spurious doctrine of Holocaust denial.
Just last month, Google hired a team of 10,000 contractors to trawl through the internet and flag up incorrect accounts of the Holocaust. Worried about people getting hold of fictitious literature, Amazon recently resolved not to sell three books spouting nonsense about the existence of the Holocaust.
As if Holocaust denial wasn’t being adequately slammed, a number of campaigners have started calling for university libraries to remove literature on Holocaust denial from open shelves and cart them off to the stacks. Dr Irene Lancaster, a former teaching fellow of Jewish history at Manchester University, has called for the university to remove Holocaust denial literature to areas where they can be only accessed by “accredited scholars”. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has also weighed in the proposals, suggesting that trigger warning-style labels be placed on the books.
The proposals have some precedent. Last month, Dr Lancaster successfully lobbied Churchill College, Cambridge to move books by infamous author David Irving, who unsuccessfully sued historian Deborah Libstadt for labelling him a Holocaust denier, to closed stacks. And if Lancaster were to be successful in restricting access to Irving’s work at Manchester University, it could spark a trend in UK universities. A brief glance at university catalogues reveals Irving’s infamous Hitler’s War is common in university libraries.
But while Lancaster’s abhorrence of Holocaust denial literature is certainly justified, the suggestion that libraries should in any way restrict access to distasteful books forgets the meaning of a real university education. Universities, by nature, are supposed to be institutions where the UK’s brightest and sharpest have an opportunity to grapple with controversial and unsettling ideas – such as, yes, Holocaust denial. Universities are not required to support the books contained in their libraries, but instead support the notion that its contents should be challenged.
Today fear about the anti-Semitic conditions faced by Jewish students is widespread. Five months ago, Baroness Deech warned that Jewish students encounter such a toxic atmosphere that many of the UK’s leading universities are “no-go areas” for Jews. And according to a recent NUS study, around a quarter of Jewish students are worried about the possibility of being attacked on campus for their religious beliefs – presumably by the NUS’s President Malia Bouattia, who has made her own Livingstone-esque comments about Zionism in the past.
Those calling for Holocaust denial literature to be restricted echo this in their diminished regard for the ability of Jewish students to fend off ridiculous claims about the Holocaust. Justifying her call for Irving’s work to be taken down from open shelves, Lancaster suggested that they were “not conducive to the well-being of Jewish staff and students on the Manchester campus”.
But the suggestion that Jewish students need shielding from distasteful views not only forgets that the Jewish people have shown sufficient resilience to cope with an ahistorical nutjob, it also undermines the very premises of higher education. Regardless of academic expertise, students – whether they’re studying for a PhD in Holocaust Studies or a BA in Interpretative Dance – should still be trusted to cope with provocative material.
More than any other subject, the misguided mindset informing Holocaust denial has encouraged many who claim to uphold the values of free speech and tolerance to wobble and regard it as an exception to free speech. As such, Holocaust denial is a crime in around 14 European countries.
What this forgets is that it is exactly because of its controversial nature that Holocaust denial should never be suppressed. Holocaust denial festers underground in the distorted minds of conspiracy theorists; making the Holocaust a taboo subject only encourages those with warped imaginations to seek justification in unorthodox speculations.
More importantly, however, it is in the publication of Holocaust denial that we really see the instrumental benefits of free speech. As Irving’s demise revealed, it is only by analysing and deconstructing the malevolent myths informing Holocaust denial that its proponents can be rubbished and ridiculed. Spuriously-crafted claims will not be defeated by gaining dust at the back of a warehouse, but instead in the hands of a discerning mind. Publication, not restriction, is the best way to defeat abhorrent doctrines.
With the emergence of a web-based “alt-Right” intent on using anti-Semitic slurs reminiscent of the 1930s, combined with the prominence of anti-Semitic attacks across Europe in recent years, it is clear that pernicious doctrines such as Holocaust denial need to be challenged. This battle won’t be won by engaging with straw men. Rather, as Lipstadt’s public ridiculing of Irving demonstrated, the dismantling of Holocaust denial requires confronting it head-on.