Disclaimer: the following article discusses holocaust denialism and anti-Semitism. Some readers may find this content disturbing
Recently, the United States has seen a rise in anti-Semitic attacks: Jewish schools have received bomb threats, graves have been spray-painted with swastikas, and synagogues have been shot at. In one week alone, there were 69 bombs threats to Jewish culture and education centers.
The rise in such attacks may be new, but their causes remain fairly constant. Anti-Semitism is certainly dependent on social, economic and political forces, but what is often neglected is that the perpetuations of certain anti-Semitic beliefs are central to the motivation of attacks against Jewish people. One of the most important precepts for anti-Semitism is the denial of the holocaust.
The role of holocaust denial in anti-Semitic violence has been contested. Some argue that denying the holocaust, while abhorrent, is not necessarily anti-Semitic. According to this reasoning, it is hypothetically possible to deny the existence of this genocide merely out of naive ignorance or due to an unreasonable level of skepticism. As an extension, some argue that since holocaust denialism does not necessitate hatred and violence against Jewish people, it must be protected under freedom of speech.
However, given the excessive amount of evidence for the holocaust and the extent to which this evidence is readily accessible, de facto holocaust denialism encourages violence. Holocaust deniers are not simply ignorant of the evidence for the holocaust. Deniers are well aware of the massive number of personal testimonies, historical publications and physical evidence that documents the holocaust. They also do not contest more nuanced questions, such as whether 5.7 or 5.9 million Jews were killed, or discuss who was philosophically responsible, such as whether Hitler’s leadership or those who followed orders were instruments in this genocide. Even while cognizant of the evidence of the holocaust, holocaust deniers maintain that the holocaust did not happen.
Given how extensive evidence for the holocaust is, and the extent to which institutions such as universities, museums, and religious bodies continue to support research exposing the crimes of the holocaust, the denier concludes that these individuals cannot be simply misguided, but rather that this “holocaust industry” must be part of a conspiracy. Since Jewish people are central in this “hoax”, “claiming” to be the victims and participating in events that commemorate this “fake” atrocity, they must be the ones behind this conspiracy. Given the extent to which Jewish people commemorate the holocaust, it is clear to the denier that this conspiracy is not confined to a few Jews, but must instead be a conspiracy that involves most of the Jewish population. The denier usually concludes that this conspiracy is being carried out in order to elicit sympathy for Jews in order to shield them from criticism for the nefarious acts they carry out.
Feeling that Jews have duped society and unjustly brought shame to Germany, holocaust deniers elicit an intense and often violent hatred against Jewish people. Take the case of George Burdi, formerly one of the most prominent producers of white power music. Burdi stated that his hatred of Jewish people started with the influence of his then girlfriend’s father who believed that the holocaust was propaganda. In 2007 holocaust denier Eric Hunt attacked Nobel laureate and Auschwitz survivor Elie Wisel with the intention of kidnapping him. In Hunt’s owns words, he wanted to “bring Wiesel to my hotel room where he would truthfully answer my questions regarding the fact his … Holocaust memoir … is almost entirely fictitious.” In 2009 avid holocaust denier James Von Brunn shot up the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Four years prior to the attack Brun stated that it was “time to FLUSH all ‘Holocaust’ Memorials”.
As a society, we recognize that some forms of speech are harmful and that state sanction is required for such speech. Shouting fire in a crowded theater causes panic and injuries and is consequently illegal. Holocaust denialism is no different in its harm, and should thus be illegal. But even absent the explicit violence of holocaust denialism, there are other reasons that it should be illegal. The holocaust is central to Jewish history and identity. In denying the holocaust, ones defames Jewish people. Even in countries such as the United States that have the most liberal freedom of speech laws, defamation and libel are both illegal. As a society, we recognize that fair criticism will help to hold individuals accountable and produce discourse that can further our knowledge, but also that the use of false claims to criticize others leads to unfair consequences for the accused. Defamation and libel laws have been used to protect the reputation of individuals, institutions and private businesses. There is no reason why such laws should not be extended to groups of people, especially for Jewish people. We also recognize that individuals should be free from verbal abuse. In most countries, there are numerous laws against speech that is meant to incite hatred or violence towards the person who is receiving the speech. For those who have survived or have family members that have survived the holocaust, holocaust denialism is traumatic and can elicit a strong reaction. Such speech should not be protected.
Are Laws The Solution?
Although holocaust denialism has negative consequences, some argue that criminalizing it is not the solution. First, many argue that making holocaust denialism illegal will only further perpetuate antagonism against Jewish people since holocaust deniers will feel persecuted. Given the fact that holocaust deniers subscribe to the idea that Jews are engaging in a global conspiracy, they will likely feel persecuted regardless of whether legislation against holocaust denialism exists or not.
Second, many worry that making holocaust denialism illegal may be a slippery slope to banning content that is repulsive or offensive but not harmful. These concerns have some validity. The history of obscenity laws in the United States shows a history of content being banned that many now consider great works, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H Lawrence and the stand-up comedy of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. Speech that is deemed offensive can often be constructive in exposing the absurdity of certain mores. Repulsiveness and offensiveness, however, are not the reason for banning holocaust denialism. Holocaust denialism is not merely offensive, but it is violent, libelous and abusive. As long as laws against holocaust denialism clearly define what holocaust denialism is and are enacted in order to counter violence, libel, and abuse, then such laws should not lead to the ban of content that do not cause such harms. Amongst the fourteen countries that ban holocaust denialism, the author could not find any cases where such laws led to a precedent where unharmful but repulsive content was banned. In fact, the author found that in many cases precedent did not lead to laws against other forms of genocide denial that should also be banned, such as denial of the Armenian Genocide or the Srebrenica Massacre. In other words, rather than laws going too far, they’ve instead been too constrained.
Third, many will argue that laws will be ineffective against holocaust denialism, and that instead, we should subscribe to the adage that “the solution to hate speech is more free speech”. It is certainly true that state sanction alone cannot stop all holocaust denialism, especially given the high level of online anonymity. In order to greatly reduce holocaust denialism, governments need to ensure holocaust continues to be taught in the education system. As well, since mental illnesses such as paranoia likely play a role in holocaust denialism, governments should increase funding for mental health services. However, simply because making holocaust denialism illegal is not a cure-all to anti-Semitism does not mean it should not be done. In addition, the idea that the “solution to hate speech is more free speech” relies on the assumption that individuals will be able to distinguish between lies and the truth. Holocaust deniers are, however, notoriously crafty in their fabrications. Holocaust deniers often claim to be scholars and historians, have pseudo think tanks such as the Institute For Historical Review and the Committee for Open Debate of the Holocaust, have devoted hundreds of books to ‘debunking’ the holocaust, and have even given talks on university campuses. This network of holocaust denialism gives the illusion of a genuine debate over the holocaust that some find convincing. While enforcing legislation against holocaust denialism will have great difficulty in stopping anonymous online content, it will greatly reduce the appeal of this violent belief by tackling the established network of leaders, think tanks, publications, and lectures of holocaust denialism.
Making holocaust denialism illegal will not stop anti-Semitic attacks in the United States. Greatly reducing anti-Semitism requires government investment in education and mental health services, as well as changing the recent discourse in U.S politics that has downplayed the severity of anti-Semitic attacks. Nevertheless, holocaust denial is critical to anti-Semitism. Holocaust denialism is often the first step towards hatred of Jewish people. In denying the holocaust one comes to the conclusion that Jews must be behind this “hoax”, producing a deep hatred and often anti-Semitic violence. As long as holocaust denialism remains legal, many will continue to be convinced by holocaust denying self-declared scholars, think tanks, books, and university lectures, and will commit themselves to carrying out violent acts against Jewish people. Although making holocaust denialism illegal will not eliminate anti-Semitic attacks, it is one of the many steps required in reducing it.