Stop listening to Holocaust deniers
Blake Ziegler | Wednesday, April 29, 2020
January 27 marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, known as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. That day reminds us of the gruesome suffering endured by the Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis, memorializing its victims. It is also a warning to the world of the threat that any persecuted population faces, signaling a worldwide need to address movements of hatred against our fellow human. To honor the victims of the Holocaust, one must be wholeheartedly committed to the fight against bigotry.
However, despite widespread acceptance of the fact that the Holocaust did occur in the vicious nature it is reported in, Holocaust denial remains rampant. According to a survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), 28% of the world believes facts about the Holocaust have been exaggerated and 4% believe it never happened. Americans also display an astounding lack of knowledge on the subject, as 41% of Americans do not know about Auschwitz. Moreover, Holocaust denial has grounded itself in social media to promote misinformation about the genocidal attempt on the Jewish people. The open denial and distortion of the Holocaust demonstrates a need to tackle the issue of Holocaust denial.
Holocaust deniers frequently use free speech as justification to express their atrocious beliefs. The mantra that one can express himself allows the propagation of misinformation. The right to free expression was cited by Mark Zuckerberg as to why Facebook will continue to allow Holocaust denial-related posts. Now, this might seem as a suitable reason. Everyone does have a right to express an opinion and should not be censored for going against the norm. However, that simple principle of free speech becomes misconstrued when it enters the realm of hate speech.
Several nations across the world have vehemently condemned Holocaust denial, arguing it is outside the bounds of freedom of speech. The European Court of Human Rights ruled Holocaust denial is not protected by the rights enshrined by the European Human Rights Convention. German law criminalizes Holocaust denial as an assault on human rights. France, Austria, and Belgium have adopted similar laws as well. Throughout the Western world, Holocaust denial has been viewed as altogether outside the protection of free speech because of its blatant foundation in falsehood and promotion of anti-Semitic beliefs.
Yet, the United States is a special case on this issue. Since World War II, the United States has experienced no litigation or legislation specifically barring the expression of Holocaust denial beliefs. In the 1990s, a minority of student newspapers on college campuses ran Holocaust denial ads in the name of free speech. The defense of these beliefs in America is from a Jeffersonian view on freedom of speech. One interpretation of the Founders’ intent on the first amendment is that the government has no business in censoring speech. Rather, wrong beliefs are best disproven when they are in the public sphere, open to criticism and revelation of the truth. This mindset has been maintained throughout American history, especially the past few decades, as the Supreme Court attempts to limit free speech as little as possible. The closest restriction is the Brandenburg test, which bars any speech that is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action” and is “likely to incite or produce such action.” This is a very high threshold to prove, making it difficult to prosecute Holocaust denial in the United States.
However, this defense of Holocaust denial is misleading. The most prominent defender of no censorship on speech is John Stuart Mill, a renowned philosopher from the nineteenth century. In “On Liberty,” he argues that no speech should be censored, as it inhibits society from reaching the truth. For Mill, like Thomas Jefferson, the pursuit of truth is only attainable when all speech is allowed. However, Mill concedes that this openness has its own restrictions. While Mill’s time did not have the concept of hate speech, Mill comes out adamantly against offensive speech. He notes that opposing opinions should be expressed in language comprised of “the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offense.” In other words, the only viable speech is one presented with civility. This obviously excludes hate speech, as it requires removing the aspects of its character that make it hate speech. Thus, the free speech defense of Holocaust denial lacks a solid grounding in the literature.
One cannot promote Holocaust denial without including its anti-Semitic attitudes. Its purpose is to promote hate speech. Holocaust denial is grounded in the notion that the Holocaust was propagated to supposedly strengthen the Jews’ control of the world. Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the ADL, explains that this conspiracy theory suggests that Jews fabricated evidence of genocide to “gain world sympathy and facilitate the theft of Palestinian land for the creation of Israel.” Holocaust denial supposes that “Jews are able to force governments, Hollywood, the media and academia to promote a lie at the expense of non-Jews.” This is a common anti-Semitic trope that is frequently used to vilify the Jewish people and justify discrimination. Holocaust denial only serves to further this bigotry. It cannot be separated from hate speech.
Furthermore, Holocaust denial should be prosecutable as a civil matter since it leads to injury of Holocaust survivors and their families. Kenneth Lasson, professor of law at the University of Baltimore, explains that the same civil procedures that enable one to sue others for libel and defamation should apply to Holocaust deniers. Just as one can be punished for false advertising, Holocaust deniers must be held to a standard of truth. Promoting Holocaust denial undermines the suffering of Holocaust victims and their families by denying their experiences for the sake of personal gain and the propagation of bigotry. Holocaust deniers must be held accountable for their actions.
In my first column, I urged readers to utilize knowledge as a tool to work against anti-Semitism. I am making a similar plea here. Holocaust denial is not a matter of truth and falsehood. While deniers may claim to only be searching for the truth, their primary goal is furthering anti-Semitic narratives. The Holocaust denier’s mission is to utilize misinformation and people’s ignorance to promote anti-Semitism and bigotry against the Jews. While prosecuting deniers and passing laws against their speech is one step towards a solution, this problem can only be resolved by a commitment from individuals to educate themselves on the subject. I encourage readers to learn about the Holocaust and familiarize themselves with the suffering of the Jewish people. This is not only to understand the plight of the Jewish people, but also to recognize the broader need to tackle bigotry across the world.
Blake Ziegler is a freshman at Notre Dame from New Orleans, Louisiana, with double majors in political science and philosophy. He hopes his writing encourages others to take an interest in politics and government. For inquiries, he can be reached at [email protected] or @NewsWithZig on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.