The Evils of Holocaust Denial
By ABDURRAHMAN WAHID and ISRAEL LAU
June 12, 2007; Page A17
BALI, Indonesia -- Today, religious leaders from many faiths and nations will
gather here for a landmark conference in a unique place -- an island of
tolerance, not terrorism. In a world in which religion is manipulated to justify
the most horrific acts, it is our moral obligation not only to refute the claims
of terrorists and their ideological enablers but also to defend the rights of
others to worship differently: in freedom, security and dignity.
While there are many things that can be said and done to advance this cause, one
issue in particular stands out as something we religious leaders must unite in
denouncing: Holocaust denial. This denial is not a new phenomenon. Yet it is
becoming an increasingly pervasive one. Long a hobbyhorse of the neo-Nazis and
other figures from the fringe, it is gaining currency among millions of people
who are either ignorant of history or are being misled by their media, their
governments or -- sad to say -- their own religious authorities.
In recent years, we have seen that notorious 19th century Russian forgery, "The
Protocols of the Elders of Zion," being widely disseminated in bookshops from
London to Cairo. We have seen Hitler's "Mein Kampf" become a bestseller in
Turkey. We have seen schools in Britain stop teaching the Holocaust for fear of
offending their students. We have seen notorious academic frauds invited by the
president of Iran to raise "questions" about the Holocaust -- as if this is just
another controversy in which all opinions are equally valid. We have seen the
Holocaust deniers use the fashions of moral relativism and historical
revisionism to deny not just truth but fact, all the while casting themselves as
martyrs against censorship.
Worst of all, we have seen Holocaust denial being turned to an insidious
political purpose: By lying about the events of the past, the deniers are paving
the way toward the crimes of the future. They are rendering that well-worn yet
necessary phrase "Never Again" meaningless by seeking to erase from the pages of
history the very event that all people of good faith seek never to repeat.
Let us be clear: The real purpose of Holocaust denial is to degrade and
dehumanize the Jewish people. By denying or trivializing the murder of six
million Jews by the Nazis and their allies, the deniers are seeking to advance
their notion that the victims of the 20th century's greatest crime are, in fact,
that century's greatest victimizers. By denying or trivializing the Holocaust,
the deniers are seeking to rob Jews of their history and their memory -- and
what is a people without history and memory?
Indeed, by denying or trivializing the Holocaust, the deniers are perpetrating
what is, in effect, a second genocide. Extinguished as they were from the ranks
of the living, Hitler's Jewish victims are now, in effect, to be extinguished
from the ranks of the dead. That is the essence of Holocaust denial.
Yet even as we recognize the threat that Holocaust denial poses to Jews
everywhere, we must also be cognizant of the peril it represents to people of
all faith traditions. Nations or governments that historically have given free
rein to Jew-hatred -- whether in Medieval Europe or Inquisition-era Spain or
1930s Germany -- have invariably done lasting damage to themselves as well.
Today, the countries in which Holocaust denial is most rampant also tend to be
the ones that are most economically backward and politically repressive. This
should not be surprising: Dishonest when it comes to the truth of the past,
these countries are hardly in a position to reckon honestly with the problems of
the present. Yes, the short-term purposes of unscrupulous rulers can always be
served by whipping up mass hysteria and duping their people with lurid
conspiracy theories. In the long term, however, truth is the essential
ingredient in all competent policy making. Those who tell big lies about the
Holocaust are bound to tell smaller lies about nearly everything else.
Holocaust denial is thus the most visible symptom of an underlying disease --
partly political, partly psychological, but mainly spiritual -- which is the
inability (or unwillingness) to recognize the humanity of others. In fighting
this disease, religious leaders have an essential role to play. Armed with the
knowledge that God created religion to serve as rahmatan lil 'alamin, or a
blessing for all creation, we must guard against efforts to demonize or belittle
followers of other faiths.
Last year, Muslims from Nigeria to Lebanon to Pakistan rioted against what they
saw as the demonizing of their prophet by Danish cartoonists. In a better world,
those same Muslims would be the first to recognize how insulting it is to Jews
to have the apocalypse that befell their fathers' generation belittled and
Sadly, we do not live in such a world. Yet if radical clerics can move their
assemblies to hatred and violence -- as was the case during the Danish cartoons
episode -- then surely moderate and peace-loving clerics can also move theirs to
rise above their prejudices and facilitate good relations between peoples of
different faiths. In the words of the Holy Quran, which echo the story of
creation from the book of Genesis: "Oh mankind! We created you from a single
pair, male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you might
come to know one another, and not to despise each other."
Today in Bali, we look forward to hearing different ideas from diverse voices on
how to advance this divine goal. Facing up frankly to the evil of Holocaust
denial will be evidence that the conferees are "living in truth" and determined
to act against hatred.
Mr. Wahid is the former president of Indonesia and co-founder of the LibForAll
Foundation. Mr. Lau, a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp, is the
former Chief Rabbi of Israel. Today's conference in Bali, "Tolerance Between
Religions: A Blessing for All Creation," is cosponsored by LibForAll Foundation,
the Wahid Institute and the Museum of Tolerance.