Publication Date

November 1, 1994

Perspectives Section

Letters to the Editor

As a member of the AHA, a Jewish historian, and a teacher of courses on the Holocaust, I am troubled by the Association’s recent response to criticism about its sale of member mailing lists to Holocaust deniers (“Mailing Mea Culpa,” Perspectives, September 1993, p. 14, and “AHA Failures on Holocaust Denial,” Perspectives, September 1994, p. 25). Contrary to the assertions in your editor’s note, I feel that such mailings are of “genuine historical interest,” that as a scholar nobody can decide for me what is of “genuine historical interest,” and that as a member of the AHA I cannot stand idly by while a complex intellectual and social issue is reduced to a debate where the key is seen as the “careful screening of requests.”

I have no sympathy for Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites, or Nazi apologists, nor do I believe that their arguments have a competing claim for historical truth. Nevertheless, your “fail-safe procedures” and “remedial measures” serve to deprive me of information so I must express my dismay that the AHA is party to placing limitations on my scholarly activity and perhaps my personal well-being.

The best way, especially for historians, to expose the ridiculousness of Holocaust deniers is to be able to see them at work. If the institute in question is “so-called,” “fringe,” “pretends to be …,” “seems to be …,” it should be the members of the AHA who could best evaluate its claims and respond to them in public. Frankly, I do not think that the AHA should be issuing any guidelines or preparing any publications to arm historians. Historians have been trained how to examine what may be nonsense. Holocaust deniers present a serious challenge to historical scholarship that can be best met by intellectual engagement, research, and writing rather than denial, emotional appeals, and policy statements.

I am puzzled about how it can be ascertained what would be “unwelcome” to me. Indeed, I have had to go through a great deal of effort to get copies of just these kinds of materials and am always grateful to colleagues who share them with me. If the AHA is selling its list, it should be available to anybody who wants to buy it. Any attempt to limit those who may purchase the list seems to contain more potential for disaster than the risk of members receiving an unwanted mailing. Such an attempt might limit access to the mailing list for unpopular causes or seem to establish access to the list as an imprimatur from the AHA.

Every day I dispose of many pieces of bulk mail, including offerings from publishers, Jewish organizations, chairs, deans, and even the president of my college. I feel that I am emotionally and intellectually capable of determining which of these pieces should be put in the recycling bins and which are worthy of being saved. I do not want anybody to take this freedom and pleasure from me. If some members fear they may be offended, they should have the opportunity to indicate that they do not want their names sold at all.

Not only do I trust the academic process, which is based on the strength of argumentation and evidence, but I am convinced that the Holocaust deniers will find an opportunity to get their views across. And if we are denied an opportunity to examine and challenge their ideas, they will bring them to venues without the checks and balances of academic discourse and where, if they are truly venal, there may be a greater potential for physical violence.

As a Jew I believe that I am safe as long as the “praise of Hitlerite Germany” is found in public offerings by historical reviews and institutes. This way I have an opportunity to know those who may want to do me harm. Attempts by the AHA to cover their tracks not only deprives me of an opportunity to guard my safety, but drives them to take more desperate and perhaps dangerous measures.

Howard Adelman
Associate Professor and Director
Program in Jewish Studies
Smith College

Elizabeth Jensen’s letter (Perspectives, September 1994) on Holocaust denial referred to a 1993 Roper Organization poll that found that 22 percent of Americans believed it possible the Holocaust never happened. The response to this poll was affected by confusing wording including a double negative: “Does it seem possible or does it seem impossible to you that the Nazi extermination of Jews never happened?” Consequently, in March 1994, Roper administered a poll asking the question again, but with an improved wording eliminating the double negative: “Does it seem possible to you that the Nazi extermination of Jews never happened, or do you feel certain that it happened?” This time, a much smaller proportion—one percent of the sample—responded that it was possible that the Holocaust never happened. (See “Holocaust Poll Analyzer Named,” New York Times, May 27, 1994, and “Questioning the Holocaust [Revisited],” Washington Post, July 10, 1994).

The second poll result should put into perspective Jensen’s alarm about the susceptibility of the general public to the lures of the Holocaust deniers. Jensen’s presumption that “amateurs”—members of the History Book Club—would be “more vulnerable” to the deniers than AHA members may be an unfortunate, elitist outcome of the exaggerated sense of public vulnerability the first poll encouraged.

Many AHA members must feel, as do I, a special responsibility to educate the public and our students about the Holocaust; to understand the historical grounding of anti-Semitism; and to devise strategies, in light of our knowledge of the past, to oppose anti-Semitism today. Our strategies ought to be grounded in a proper understanding of present circumstances, which the first poll may not promote.

Patrick Hagopian
College of William and Mary